"What got into you was not a ghost as such;
It was just dust."
-- Elvis Costello, "Dust 2..."
OK: I lied. I promised at the end of my review of Superstition that I'd quit reviewing these crappy haunted house movies and start reviewing some good films instead. After making this promise, I didn't update my Haunted House section for half a year. It's really not that difficult to find a good haunted house movie; my problem is writing about it once I've found it. Thus the really good movies will have to wait until I have time to give them the reviews they deserve. For now, we're going to move up the scale from "god-awful" to "passable", with a 2002 film from Thailand called The Hotel!!
There are a handful of movies that use exclamation points in their titles: Them!, for instance; or It!, Zotz!, Zapped! and Mars Attacks! Sometimes a movie needs the exclamation point to differentiate it at-a-glance from a movie with a similar title, viz.: What? and What!, It's Alive and It's Alive!. There are movies whose titles cry out for exclamation points they don't really have -- Devil Girl from Mars, for instance -- and others whose titles would be ruined by one -- Watership Down! sounds like a sequel to Titanic.
But there are few movies that have the nerve to use two exclamation points in their titles. I had the feeling as I sat down to watch the movie that the extra kick in the title hinted at a lack of suspense in the film itself. I wasn't far wrong. The Hotel!! has several long sequences that are amazingly good, and which create a convincing atmosphere of dread. However, as a whole, the film lacks coherence, getting lost in a number of useless details and frequently pulling its punches.
You might also expect from the title (hyperbole aside) that the movie might have some sort of connection to The Shining. Since the movie begins with a black and white prologue, my immediate point of reference was The Beyond. Actually, the film bears little relationship to either classic "haunted hotel" movie, being much closer in spirit to (of all things) Dracula. As in Dracula, a band of ordinary people confronts an undead demon which wants to kill them, take over their bodies, and turn them into soulless killers. Imagine a version of Dracula in which the heroes move into Carfax Abbey at the first sign of trouble and stay there for the rest of the book, and you'll get an idea of one of The Hotel!!'s main weaknesses: the characters experience horrible, reality-shattering incidents but don't react to them consistently.
I said that the movie's prologue was in black and white, but I wasn't being entirely accurate. It's really in a sort of washed-out green and white. The whole film, even the color portion that represents the bulk of the picture, has that same over-exposed, washed-out look. I can't tell if this effect is intentional or not. Certainly the print from which the Thai DVD was mastered is in less-than-perfect shape; so the effect may be the result of wear (or maybe just the hot, wet Thai climate) on the original stock. Whatever the cause, the result is not unpleasant. The pale colors give the film a subdued, otherworldly feel which is very appropriate for the story.
The prologue introduces us to an old man, sitting alone in a large seaside house. In fron of him is a pile of books concerning life after death. The old man looks ill: his face is shiny and pale. Later, we'll see this look is caused by the "old man" makeup the (evidently much younger) actor is obliged to wear. It looks good in monochrome, but in full-color it's not convincing at all. Again, I'm not sure if the effect the makeup creates is the effect that was intended: he looks cadaverous, even in the scenes that are supposed to be flashbacks to the man while he was alive. This could be because the director wanted to give us the shock of seeing a zombie/ghost stand in for the living man during the reminiscences, or it sould be because the makeup is lousy. You decide.
The old man [sic] is joined by his lawyer, who hesitantly hands over a copy of his most recent will. The old man takes it, and the lawyer leaves stiffly, as though he were expecting something unpleasant. As the lawyer walks downstairs (past a portrait of the old man and an as-yet unidentified woman) and goes out to his car, the old man takes out a pistol and shoots himself through the forehead. The lawyer, downstairs, hears the shot and grimaces... but does nothing. Instead, he simply gets into his car and drives away.
Upstairs, we're given a close-up look at the old man's body: there's life enough in it for him to roll his eyes in despair. Then a gout of blood comes pouring from the hole in his head. The green monochrome yields to a torrent of red, as a fantastic amount of blood spills out from under the slumped figure. The blood suddenly forms itself into the Thai letters of the title.
So far, so good. It's certainly a compelling opening. And the film is able to sustain this mood for the first half-hour or so, as we jump ahead 25 years. The hotel is now in the hands of an absentee owner named Pun. Pun's two children, his son Parinya and daughter Pattama, have just returned from studying in England, and Pun is taking the opportunity to bring the whole family, including his brother, to the hotel -- excuse me, the hotel!! -- to start it up again as a serious business.
Pun's wife, Sarapee, had died at the hotel -- excuse me again: the hotel!! -- not long after giving birth to Pattama, which is apparently one of the reasons Pun has been away from the business for so long. But when the two young people go to pay their respects to their mother's shrine upstairs, they comment to each other how it seems her spirit has always been near them. Pattama, in fact, bears an astonishing resemblance to photographs of her late mother.
Pun hires an architect from the city to come make plans to renovate the old building, but the architect doesn't show up. Late in the day, Pattama finds a young man -- a mere boy, really -- wandering through the building, jumping up and down on the floorboards and peering under the furniture. She tells him to get lost, since the Hotel!! isn't open for business. Besides, she says, they're expecting an important visitor... though the S.O.B. hasn't bothered to keep his appointment.
Naturally, it turns out that this kid is actually the architect, Visut. And, equally obviously, having got off to such a bad start, these two will certainly be falling into each others' arms by the end of the film.
The young architect begins work on the restoration, bringing in a team of workers to help rebuild the crumbling structure. Things are going remarkably well, and Visut is taking the family on a tour of the worksite... when the accidental collapse of a scaffold breaks down a section of wall, and reveals a hidden compartment behind it. Within the compartment is a small statue of the Buddha. Pun instructs the workers to remove the statue and take it upstairs to the family shrine. As they do so, Visut's foreman remarks that a statue of that size and antiquity is probably worth a lot of money. Two workers, hearing this, exchange significant looks.
And sure enough, that night, two shadowy figures sneak out of the Hotel!! with a bundle in their arms.
Now you'd think that this would be a significant event, like taking the stake out of Dracula's heart, or disturbing the ancient Indian burial ground (though surely you'd think that after all these years and all these horror movies, people would know better than to shift strange or sacred objects they find hidden in their houses). And certainly things do start to go badly wrong after the status disappears. But we're never told who put the statue in the house, and we never find out what happened either to it or to the thieves. In fact, as we learn more about the house and its secrets, it becomes less and less clear to us where the protecting Buddha statue could have come from. No one even mentions the loss of the valuable statue, and the antique Buddha never even comes up as a topic of conversation. And even though we get several ominous glimpses of the empty niche where the Buddha statue once rested, the actual location of the Hidden Evil turns out to be somewhere completely different...
Late that night, in a torrential rainstorm, a young woman in a fancy car drives up to the HOTEL!!. Even though she's told the place is closed, she begs for a chance to stay there. All at once, an angry man comes charging into the hotel after her. It's her husband, and he demands that she come back to him at once. If she doesn't, he says, he'll kill her. The woman refuses, saying there's no way she'll put up with his beatings and abuse any longer. When the man tries to attack the woman, Pun and the family stand in his way. Furious, the man pulls out a thick wad of cash and waves it in their faces: he's rich, he says, and can get away with anything he wants. He then insults the hotel and its owners. Pun and the others throw the man out, and allow the frightened woman to stay upstairs in Room 1. Her husband exits in bad humor, swearing over his shoulder that he'll kill her.
Later, the woman in Room 1 takes a shower: carefully (if improbably) arranged soap bubbles keep her nudity tasteful, while allowing us to see the ugly bruises on her back. Stepping out of the shower, the woman sits by her mirror, combing her hair while gazing at a photo of herself and a much-younger man. Suddenly, the lights begin to flicker... then they go out. The woman flicks her lighter and peers around the room... there is a cut away to the outside of the room, and a brief scream, and...
Abruptly, the scene shifts to the next morning. The police have arrived to take away the woman's body, which is dangling from the room fan on a bedsheet noose.
There's a strong feeling that there's something missing here, as though some more footage was shot for the attack scene, but was left out later. It's not as though they're unwilling to show us the grisly details, as the closeups of the woman's hanging corpse prove (though the actress moves her protruding tongue and spoils the illusion). Again, it's not clear whether this questionable decision was made on purpose, or whether this is just how things ended up.
The rural police aren't really used to situations like this, but the Chief of Police does notice that there are footprints near the scene of the crime that suggest a man with an injured leg had been there recently. No one in the Hotel!! answers that description. Pun and the others have just finished telling the Chief about the threats the woman's husband had made the night before, when another call comes through for the police. Another body has been found near the HOTEL!!. This proves to be the husband himself: his head has been bashed all the way through the steering wheel of his car. The only clue is a bloody hand-print, left almost like a signature on the windshield.
While the police are out checking on the new murder, Pun is horrified to discover a bloody handkerchief in his dresser drawer. Inside the handkerchief is the wad of baht the husband had been waving around the night before. Here the movie really starts to come into its own, as Pun must face some difficult questions. The most obvious question -- how did this money get here? -- doesn't seem nearly as pressing as the next most obvious question: what should he do with the money? He should probably give it to the police; but since he has no explanation for how the money came into his hands, this would really only serve to throw suspicion on him... which is evidently what someone was hoping to do in the first place. Besides -- he needs the money to help pay for the expensive restoration. So he replaces the money in the drawer and goes downstairs...
... where he finds the police waiting. Normal procedure states that they need to search every room in the house, just to make sure nothing is amiss. The Chief is particularly interested in finding out what happened to the money Pun said the murdered man had on him, since the wad of bills is nowhere to be found. The panic-stricken Pun is forced to go along with the police as they begin to search the premises.
By the time they've got to Pun's room, a long time has passed, and the Chief is frankly bored with the search. He takes a superficial glance through Pun's belongings, and it looks for a moment as though he's going to ignore the dresser drawer completely. But then, he changes his mind. As Pun struggles to contain himself, the Chief opens the drawer... and looks in... and then slowly closes it again, and goes to the next one. No; nothing there, concludes the Chief. Well, then, there's nothing left but to get the fingerprints of everyone present. Pun's relief is so great he doesn't even stop to think what might have happened to the money...
... until later, when he runs back to his room and starts rummaging frantically through the drawers. His brother Pleung interrupts him and asks what he's looking for. Pun attempts to brush him off, but then his brother holds up the incriminating bills. How could Pun have done such a thing? he demands to know. Pun reacts (a little unexpectedly) by pulling a gun on his brother. The two men fight, and the gun goes off. Following the sound of the shot, Parinya and Pattama come running and break up the fight. Pun is aplogetic about this uncharacteristic behavior... but he surreptitiously pushes the bundle of bills under his pillow before the kids see it.
It's a little disappointing to have the mystery of the disappearing money explained so quickly, but Pun's strange behavior offers some interesting possibilities. There is genuine tension in watching Pun's dilemma with the money: if it was put there by some supernatural agency, then it's a ghost with a canny understanding of human failings.
Thus it's a little bit of an anticlimax when the bloody handprint from the windshield turns out to be Pun's.
The police come for Pun -- reluctantly, since the Chief admits there may be another explanation for how his handprint got there (he doesn't go into detail, but it's possible Pun found the body and simply decided to steal the money). But Pun had been expecting something like this, and he manages to escape by boat. Though the police call the Thai Coast Guard, no one is able to find the boat...
Back at the construction site, there is unrest among the workers. One of them in particular, a guy named Plew, has got a little bit tipsy and started calling for a walkout. After all, the owner of the HOTEL!! is a murderer! Visut attempts to calm him down, but Plew continues with his tirade. The architect fires him. The drunken Plew then attempts to attack Visut, but the young man turns out to be a mean fighter who quickly gains the upper hand. The worker is given his bus fare and tossed out.
On his way out, the disgraced Plew stops by a billboard to have a piss. As he's zipping up, he hears a sound from behind him... a sinister figure has just broken the liquor bottle the worker had unthinkingly tossed away. When Plew turns around, the shadowy figure steps forward and jams the broken bottle into his gut. And twists. As the dying man slumps to the ground, we get a good look at his killer: it's Uncle Pleung.
Shortly thereafter, we see a man with limping steps approaching the police station. The desk sergeant looks up and gives a startled laugh when he sees what's come in: is his visitor planning to go on stage, or something? he asks. We never see the figure he's talking to, but we hear the unearthly voice that drains the humor from the desk sergeant's face. "I've come to make a report," grates the voice. Though we don't get a clear look at the visitor, his face is apparently so horrible that when he glares into a mirror, it cracks.
In the morning, the police show up at the HOTEL!!, looking for Pleung. Pleung seems to be expecting them: there is a bloody towel lying on the floor of his room, and the poor man is sitting on the edge of his bed with a confused expression on his face. Just as it seems he's going to go quietly, Pleung is distracted by a strange breeze that passes through the room. All at once, Pleung turns into a wild man, drawing a gun and taking the Chief of Police hostage. Pleung forces his way out of the building, using the Chief as a human shield. When he gets to the front porch, the Chief manages to struggle away, and even though the Chief shouts to his men not to shoot, the police open fire anyway. Pleung is hit several times in the torso, but the bullets don't even slow him down. He commandeers a police Jeep and speeds away. When he reaches a police roadblock, he accelerates and hits it full-on, causing his own vehicle and several police cars to explode.
A strange, limping, semi-solid figure can be seen walking through the flames, back toward the hotel...
And now we're starting to lose our focus. This haunting is getting less and less subtle with each detail. After the deaths of the guest and her husband, we might have thought back to the Korean black comedy The Quiet Family, about a quaint, family-run inn where the guests keep dropping dead. The appearing and disappearing money may have suggested a cruel, psychological haunting. But once the firearms start appearing, and especially when we leap ahead to the Unstoppable Zombie Uncle, we can tell that the movie has abandoned the high road.
Parinya attempts to convince the skeptical Poice Chief that something supernatural is happening at the HOTEL!!. After all, what else could explain why two normal men went crazy and started killing people? The Chief doesn't want to believe in such things as ghosts, but he asks Parinya if he might come and stay the night at the HOTEL!!, just to be sure.
When the Chief does come to stay, he makes a big show about not being afraid. He laughs at the idea of ghosts in the house... but is cowed when the echo of his laughter goes on longer -- and sounds much deeper -- than it ought. When Jerm, the woman who'd been running the HOTEL!! in Pun's absence all these years, brings him some beer, the Chief is disconcerted by the hostile glare the woman turns on him. The Chief laughs it off, though, and makes a sarcastic toast to the ghost of the house. Just as everyone's about to drink, a black cat appears out of nowhere and knocks everything off the table. The cat hisses what my fuzzy feline translators insist are terrible epithets before jumping out a window, and disappearing as quickly and mysteriously as it came.
Parinya and Visut are deeply disturbed by the cat's visit, since nobody there has a cat, and since it's just appeared an disappeared from a high window several stories off the ground. Also, there were no trees nearby for it to climb to get in or out. The Chief, though shaken, is unwilling to admit there was anything in the least supernatural about the puss.
All this shows that neither they nor the writer or director know anything at all about cats. Cats do impossible things easily; it's in their nature. This also lets me interrupt the synopsis for my favorite story about Zeus, the World's Greatest Cat:
Zeus was my wife's cat and best friend; he passed away gently in early 2003, at the age of 15. When he was about five or six, he'd been hit by a car. In spite of his grievous, near-fatal injuries, the cat dragged himself all the way back home, where he collapsed in a bloody heap on Lisa's bed. When Lisa found him, she immediately took him to the emergency vet, where they did their best to put him back together again. Unfortunately, during his recovery he contracted pneumonia, and the vets strongly suggested that the poor cat be put to sleep. Lisa disagreed. Normally, she feels that if an animal is in terrible pain or is unlikely to recover from an illness or injury, then euthanizing the animal is the kindest thing to do, no matter how difficult the decision may be. But with Zeus, she felt that if her cat was so loving and loyal that he would return to her under such terrible circumstances, she would be as faithful to him as he had been to her. So she nursed him at home, no matter the expense, tending him night and day even though she was working multiple jobs for crappy wages. And Zeus not only recovered, he lived another nine healthy, active -- robust -- years.
All right, I know this is a bit of a digression... but from now on, the movie itself is going to take a number of strange and digressive turns. In the middle of the night, the Chief is attacked by a knife-weilding Jerm. The Chief awakens just in time to roll out from under Jerm's blade; but the face he sees on the woman is the face of an old man! The noise of the struggle summons the rest of the household, who try to restrain Jerm, but the woman is incredibly strong. At one point, she even seems to be attempting to fly away. Eventually, Jerm falls insensible, and no one seems to be able to awaken her.
While everyone's been busy fighting the possessed Jerm, Pattama has disappeared.
The next evening, the Chief returns with a visitor: a witch doctor. All along, it's seemed as though the broadly-played Chief of Police was going to be the movie's comic relief -- and that was tolerable -- but now we have the real thing: the Odious Comic Relief (OCR), in the person of the witch doctor. The complete change in tone that the OCR heralds is signaled by Parinya and Visut, who turn to each other, bug out their eyes and say in unison: "A witch doctor??" All that's missing is the rim shot and the laugh-track.
It's quickly apparent that this "witch doctor" is a charlatan. If his bogus pronouncements weren't evidence enough, his grating, nasal laugh dooms him. As the "witch doctor" begins his ritual, all the lights in the house go out. The "witch doctor" "comically" tries to blame this on the weather. The Chief takes out his flashlight, and the beam reveals Jerm, standing with her back to the group. The chief demands she turn and face them, and quicker than you can say "The power of Buddha compels you!", Jerm has twisted her head around 180° to glare at them. This leads to more "comedy" on the part of the Chief and the "witch doctor", until the latter abandons all attempts at maintaining his dignity and runs for the door. Which is, of course, locked. The possessed Jerm then goes on a rampage, eventually leaving the OCR "witch doctor" a bloody heap on the floor.
Once Jerm is subdued again, Visut's workers are able to break down the doors and come to their assistance. Now that the OCR is dead, we get what is probably the most genuinely funny moment of the movie: the workers burst into the room and see the "witch doctor" with his head bashed in. "Oh, look," they say in a matter-of-fact sort of way; "another dead body." Then they catch sight of Jerm, who has turned into a maggot-ridden corpse -- apparently she's been dead for several days, and moving under the power of the ghost. Even this gets taken completely in stride: "Hmmm, looks like we have two dead bodies this time. Fancy that!"
At this point, Buddha be praised, the movie's attempts at comedy are over. Visut finds Pattama unconscious on the beach, and brings her back to the HOTEL!!. Nothing seems to be able to revive her. Parinya calls in a real exorcist to advise them. By this time, the Police Chief has largely disappeared as a significant character, though it's seemed all along that he would have more to do as the movie drew to a close. Now, it seems as this True Exorcist will emerge as the movie's Van Helsing character, especially when he manages to draw the ghost out of the sleeping girl's body. But this is not the case. The exorcist gives Pattama a necklace that will ward off possession as long as she wears it... and then disappears from the story.
And then things get really episodic.
Pattama finds some books on life after death, and a painting of an old man standing next to their late mother. Nobody knows who the old man is, though his clothing suggests he was a man of high rank. The another old man named Tuin shows up, claiming to be a friend of Pun's. It Just So Happens that Tuin is able to fill them in on the story of the painting... the old man was named Luang, and he had been well-known and respected for his good works. After his wife had died, and following his leg injury in the War -- Plot Point! -- Luang had retired to the house which is now the HOTEL!!, to live out the rest of his days in peace. But then he had met Sarapee and fallen in love with her. Sarapee had been intimidated by Luang's wealth and position and been miserable, but Luang had misunderstood the cause of her sadness and insisted she marry him. All along, though, Sarapee had been in love with Luang's servant -- Pun -- and the two had run away together on Luang and Sarapee's wedding night. The old man had been crushed by the betrayal; but years later, as an apparent show of forgiveness, he had changed his will to give Pun and Sarapee his house... and then killed himself.
And of course, the house -- the HOTEL!! -- had been a Jack-in-the-box.
So. Next our heros go to find the lawyer who handled the will, but surprise! He dropped dead that morning! Then they go on a frantic search for Luang's body, but surprise! It's never where they expect it to be. Then Tuin gets killed, and there's a horrendous car accident, and Parinya's innocent girlfriend suddenly shows up, and Visut finds a secret passage, and Pattama loses her necklace, and... and... DOES ANYBODY REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS MOVIE? DOES ANYONE KNOW HOW TO END IT? Because it's becoming clear that the director is losing his grip. The vignettes grow less and less germane, until we end up with a terribly limp and anticlimactic finale. The final confrontation between the heroes and the corporeal form of Luang again brings Dracula to mind... only this time it's Dan Curtis' version that's most strongly suggested, though without the charismatic presence of Jack Palance as the villain. It's the heroine's uncanny resemblance to the monster's lost love that allows good to triumph over evil, though at least the selfless Buddhist spin on the nature of that triumph saves the end from being too trite.
But then, having at least wrapped up the story (if not having brought it to a truly satisfactory conclusion), the film makers have to drag things out still further: the secret passage where Luang's stashed his coffin starts to collapse, and the sea water begins flooding in! And our heroes go down the wrong corridor and can't find their way out! Will they escape the rising waters of death? Is there any way out for them? Can someone, anyone, even from beyond the grave, reach out and save them?
Well? What do YOU think??
I learned one Thai word from this movie, and I'm going to use it now: Ptui! It means the same thing in English as it does in Thai.
It's sad to see the movie spin so far out of control, because overall it's really not a bad movie. The beginning has a great deal of promise, which makes the eventual loss of focus all the more tragic. The actors are all good, and the technical quality of the film is overall high -- though the DVD picture suffers from the problems (features?) mentioned above, and the DVD sound is also distorted in spots. Really, the only thing wrong with it is that the end, though it's not all that bad, just isn't worthy of the film's beginning. The descent is gradual, and it begins with the decision to stop examining the effect of the haunting on a troubled character like Pun, as to go with simple, unambiguous ghost-possession to explain the characters' behavior. From that point on, it ceases to be the film we were promised in that gripping first half-hour.
I'd begun to review this movie in the hopes that more people here in the U.S. would be able to see it. The Thai DVD is recorded in the PAL format, which is different from the NTSC format of American TV and video... but it was advertised as being Region Zero, which means that American viewers should be able to watch it on their computer DVD players. However, the Region marking is wrong: the disc is really coded for Region 3, which makes it incompatible with most U.S. home and computer players.
If I can provide no other service, then, at least let me offer what I think is the real explanation for the two exclamation points at the end of the title. I think they refer to the reaction of any sensible audience. As the events around the family get more and more bizarre, the survivors insist on staying put in an obviously haunted house... even inviting new victims in without so much as a warning. "For crying out loud, you idiots," we're likely to shout at the screen; "get out of the ghoul's living room -- and go stay at a ****ing HOTEL!!".