Sumpah Pocong di Sekolah

My main criticisms of Maxima Pictures, one of the movie companies that has become synonymous with the Indonesian horror mini-boom of the last few years, have been that its productions are too generic, too dependent on other films for their inspiration, and too willing to sacrifice the horrific aspects of their screenplays for some juvenile comic relief. In their defense, I should mention that there is one typical Maxima production that manages to succeed because of these problems. It's Sumpah Pocong di Sekolah, and it works because it's set in the perfect environment for the Maxima approach: a boarding school for adolescent boys.

In the context of this film, Sumpah Pocong di Sekolah means "Shroud Oath in School", the "shroud oath" being an oath so strong that it is performed while bound up in a funeral shroud, or pocong. The sumpah pocong is considered a very dark and serious deed: you're inviting Allah to kill you if you are not telling the truth. But sumpah pocong has another possible meaning: the word sumpah can also mean "curse", and a pocong (pronounced "pochong") is not only the white burial garment the unembalmed corpses are buried in, but is also the name of a vengeful spirit that rises, still wearing its shroud, and wanders the earth looking for its eternal rest. So I think the title may also be read as "Curse of the Ghost in the School" — even though the ghost in this particular story never had the luxury of an actual pocong.

Evan, Dimas and Ramon are upperclassmen at the Pramudya Mulia Boys' School (est. 1973), where they're pretty much at the top of the social order. When we first meet them, they are leading three particularly gullible freshmen into a brilliantly over-the-top hazing ritual. The details are so baroque that it would be cruel of me to describe them here. Suffice it to say that the ordeal involves the three older boys dressing as ghosts to scare the hell out of the younger ones. They're aided in their plan by the school building itself: electrical problems lead to frequent power outages across the whole school. The older boys are so used to the blackouts that they can count down to the return of the lights; but the younger ones are unnerved by them, and kept off their guard.

(If one of the ghost costumes glimpsed during the hazing episode looks a little too elaborate to have been done by high school kids on the spur of the moment, that's OK: we're later led to wonder whether the thing glimpsed in that particular classroom was really a kid in disguise.)

The fake haunting goes a little too well, and comes to the attention of the dorm master, Mr. Rizal. Rizal confiscates what Ramon had claimed was a book of secrets; but the "book" turns out to be nothing more than a sketchbook, which Ramon has been filling with sketches of a certain girl. The sketches aren't really good enough to be recognizable; but in any case, Ramon will later claim they're not drawings of anyone in particular. They're just images that popped into his head.

It's while the three boys are finishing their punishments that the school's new language teacher walks by. It's a young woman, and she's stunningly beautiful... so all three boys suddenly do their best Warner Brothers cartoon character imitiations, as they are overcome by their hormones. All Miss Sonya wants is directions to the headmaster's office, but Evan and Mas are far too tongue-tied to be coherent. So Ramon, the most smitten of them all, is the one who ends up escorting her.

The nest day's class with Miss Sonya leads Ramon into a silly montage, in which he imagines the new teacher in a skimpy negligee... inviting Ramon to the blackboard with a suggestive waggle of her stick of chalk. It's all goofy PG-13-rated stuff by US standards, but I'm sure the emphasis on Dwi Putrantiwi's exposed skin and cleavage, plus the age of the actor doing the drooling, led to some complaints to the censors when the film came out in Indonesia.

Ramon's obvious infactuation gives his friends an idea. Ramon's birthday is coming up, and the others decide to surprise him by hiring a stripper to dress up as Miss Sonya and dance for him... in their classroom after hours. Ramon is thrilled with his "present", and the other two video the striptease on their cellphones. I'll bet this caused even more problems with the censors.

Unfortunately, the boys' cellphones are Bluetooth-enabled and improperly secured, so before long everybody — even the three hapless freshmen whom Ramon and the others had hazed so mercilessly — has a copy on their cellphones. Doubly unfortunately, the three hapless freshmen are really bad at keeping secrets from Mr. Rizal, who is apopleptic when he sees what's been done in his school. Though the video isn't clear enough to reveal who the students are, it doesn't take much prompting for the freshmen to name names, and soon Ramon, Evan and Mas are looking at probable expulsion.

Drastic times call for drastic measures. Since the video is ambiguous, and the freshmen can be shown to have had reason to be mad at the three co-conspirators, Ramon takes a chance and offers to swear the pocong oath — the oath in the shroud of the dead — that the three of them are innocent.

It's one thing to "swear to god and hope to die" when you're on the verge of disaster and grasping at solutions. It's another thing to actually be swaddled in a pocong like an actual corpse, with the traditional funary offerings at your head, and to call on Allah to witness that you're telling the truth... especially when you know you're lying. So the three boys are having serious second thoughts, evem as the defiant words begin to pour from Ramon's lips. Just as Ramon is about to say the words that will damn the the boys for all eternity, the school's headmaster bursts in and interrupts the ceremony. He's appalled that such a macabre ritual would be played out in his school, and he orders the proceedings halted at once. The boys are saved from expulsion, but their parents are notified; Ramon's father comes to the school and advises him he will not be coming home for the three-day holiday that weekend. He'll have to stay behind in the school, alone, and work off his misdeed. He warns his rebellious son that he will not get off as easily next time. It may be only the fact that Ramon's father was once a counsellor in this very school that has prevented the punishment from being much more severe.

But it seems as though the pocong oath, incomplete though it may have been, has shaken something loose within the halls of the Pramudya Mulia school. And the first sign we get that things have taken a turn for the ghastly comes when Ramon's father starts to drive away from his visit: we catch a glimpse of a grey-skinned girl sitting in the back seat of his car. In what I'm assuming to be the movie's wry, tongue-in-cheek joke at its own lack of originality, the man later sits down to watch Ringu on TV, and is horrified when the grey girl crawls out of his television set like Sadako and slithers up over his body. Of course it all turns out to be a dream; and to make matters worse, the budget won't allow for us to actually see this Sadako-lite actually crawl out of the set. We have to rely on our memory of the Japanese film to figure out how the girl gets into the room...

The script does make a half-hearted attempt to get us to think that Ramon's unfinished pocong oath is somehow responsible for the horrible things that start happening: the blood that pours from the wall of the language classroom... or the horrible grey-skinned girl that keeps appearing first to Ramon, then gradually to the other kids. In a way, the oath is the catalyst. But the real story is more complicated. The fact that Ramon's father is the first to experience the real haunting, and the hastily-revealed fact that he had been a school counselor years ago — just before the school became boys-only, in fact — should be more than enough to tell us where this movie is really headed. Someone else once attempted to make the sumpah pocong in the school building, but after a much more serious offense.

The shocks in Sumpah Pocong di Sekolah are exceedingly predictable. On the plus side, though, some of them are very well managed. No matter how many times we see somebody go to look under a bed, only to find the monster waiting back on top, if the moment is timed and shot just right, it can still make our skin crawl. The all-too-frequent power outages are a nice touch, too, giving us plenty of opportunities to expect the worst.

Best of all, though: once the supernatural events start coming to the fore, the movie gets serious — fast. When the grey figure follows Ramon through the empty school, and ends up catching him in a very uncomfortable position, Ramon goes into a panic that seems wholly appropriate. The coolly self-confident Ferris Bueller-type of the opening disappears, and in his place we find a frightened child. He no longer knows what to believe in, so he starts to withdraw into himself. Miss Sonya, whom we may have mistaken for mere eye-candy as the film began, becomes genuinely concerned for her student's well-being, and begins to do some detective work to find out if what Ramon is saying could possibly be true. Who is the girl that Ramon used to sketch so compulsively? And why does it seem as though the other students are starting to see her, too?

The more Miss Sonya investigates, the less the school's headmaster is pleased. But is he unhappy because the teacher is indulging a boy he thinks is a liar? Is he trying to preserve the reputation of his school against rumors of a haunting? Or... is he trying to cover up something particularly nasty that's been buried in the school's past?

Well? What do you think?

The back-story that begins to emerge will come as a surprise to practically nobody who's familiar with movies like this. For one thing, we're not allowed to be truly surprised: every ghostly appearance is accompanied by that all-too-familiar BOOM on the soundtrack, that ridiculous gesture that mars practically every modern Indonesian horror film.

What might be surprising to seasoned viewers is the extent to which we begin to care about these feckless kids. Ramon in particular, being the apparent focus of the haunting, is allowed to react very naturally to the horrible things he's forced to see: for instance, when he finds himself alone in the infirmary, and he catches sight of... her... floating slowly down the hallway toward him... and he knows that it's only a matter of moments before she reaches him, and that there's absolutely nothing he can do... then all the cocky bravado drains out of him, and he breaks down completely. We believe in him as a character at that point, because it's so easy to see that this how any normal person might behave as his comfortable world-view is destroyed before his eyes.

Of course, not everything is handled with such understanding and sympathy. Every once in a while, the typical, tasteless Maxima sense of humor comes surging back. Thus we have a particularly nauseating joke — a "gag" in every sense of the word — involving a bottle of urine; and a throwaway shot of the ghost reaching out of a freshly-used toilet. There's also a particularly needless pan across the boys' shower room late one night, which gives us a brief glimpse of... well... what teenaged boys often do in the shower when they think nobody's filming them watching them.

No caption necessary.

But there are two bits of extra credit that push Sumpah Pocong di Sekolah over the line and give it a passing grade. The first is the very, very last scene of the movie. The climax is pretty much what we would expect it to be... but the closing shot of the movie is ever-so-slightly unexpected. Movies like these usually mete out a very perfunctory justice to their characters; this movie, on the other hand, shows us that things didn't end quite as neatly as we thought they did. It's a curious mixture of poignance and cruelty, and we have to decide for ourselves what the balance of the two might be.

The second is the curve on which we need to grade, when we consider the state of Indonesian horror in the early 2000's. Yes, the movie is a tad derivative, marred by unsubtle sound effects, and has a tendency to veer off into tepid comedy. But it's a Val Lewton masterpiece of understatement compared to some of its contemporaries. You have only to compare Sumpah Pocong di Sekolah to a similar film, 2004's Ada Hantu di Sekolah (There is a Ghost in the School), directed by the prolific Nayato Fio Nuala under one of his pseudonyms, Koya Pagayo. The two movies have a very similar (nearly identical) ghost story at their core; but in Pagayo's film, even a sidelong glance is likely to be underscored by an ear-shattering blast on the soundtrack. Be careful when the comic-relief fat girl drops her chocolate bar: the falling chocolate is accompanied by a loud downward arpeggio that will knock you out of your seat if you're not prepared for it. As for the ghost? Instead of a simple BOOM!, we get what sounds like an entire zoo-ful of dyspeptic carnivores — in a thunderstorm — every time she appears. In this case, more is definitely less: Pagayo's film lacks the sustained build of Sumpah Pocong, and the appearances of the ghost aren't nearly as effective or frightening.

But even beyond the technical aspects of the film, Ada Hantu di Sekolah doesn't seem to understand its own characters the way Sumpah Pocong does. Neither film has all that much to tell us about the human condition, but Sumpah Pocong is much more than a collection of jump scares and stock characters. The simple climax and resolution of Ada Hantu... seem hollow compared the end of Sumpah Pocong, especially since they seem to be concluding the same story in radically different ways. You might begin to wonder if the latter film was made specifically to drag the earlier film back into the real world.

Look: I criticize Maxima because I think their collective heart is in the right place. I'm absolutely not trying to have a laugh at their expense. I started my reviews of their pictures with the lousy Tiren: Mati Kemaren mainly to give a basis of comparison, to show by their other movies' example what the company could produce if only, if only it took its product more seriously. Maybe some day they'll put their significant technical expertise, and their undeniable good intentions, to work in the service of a first-rate script.

But when that finally happens, I suppose, the local Moral Authorities will step in and ban the movie... the way they did with Rudi Soedjarwo's Pocong (a SinemArt production). Maxima's backers are unlikely to be happy about that possibility. But SinemArt and Soedjarwo, together and separately, have had plenty of problems with the censors; still, they keep on making some of the strongest Indonesian commercial films, while continuing to push the boundaries of the acceptable. Maxima is already getting in trouble for their silly softcore sex scenes, scenes that often add very little to the movies they're embedded in — the way I see it, if you're going to incur the wrath of the authorities, you might as well do it by staying true to the genre you claim to be committed to.

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