The Indonesian film industry went into a steep slump when the bottom fell out of the economy in the 1990's. With the new millennium, the industry has experienced a comeback, and horror films have played a large and well-publicized role in the resurgence. Unfortunately, most of the Indonesian horror films of the 2000's aren't nearly as distinctive (or just plain fun) as their predecessors.
The biggest problem with these films is that they lack the raw-nerve sincerity the older films had. Instead of targeting their movies directly at a local audience, many of today's producers tend to use the specifically Indonesian elements as background material for thoroughly conventional, international-style horror movies. It's not all their fault: their American, Chinese or Indian co-producers all want a quick return on their investment, and a cheap mass-market horror film seems like a pretty safe option. It's sort of the cinematic equivalent of "premium lager beer": it's bland, and weak, and lacking any distinctive qualities, so that nobody really loves it — but few people really hate it, either. And the local consumers have been conditioned to expect this sort of tepid, export-quality product.
Maxima Pictures is far from the worst production company churning out contemporary horror films (that distinction probably goes to MD Entertainment, which specializes in cheap, poorly-scripted video productions that steal their titles [and rarely anything else] from other popular films). If you were to see one Maxima production, you might come away with the impression that it was a solid, if uninspired, entry in the current glut of Asian horror films. The trouble really begins when you see more than one Maxima film: it's then that you start to notice the assembly-line quality, and the lack of conviction they share. Their stories will remind you of far too many other films. Their theme music, usually provided by the talented Andi Rianto, is usually very good; but the incidental cues and sound effects, while effective, often re-use the same material and the same orchestrations for the same sequences of events: for instance, significant plot points are usually underscored by a single bass note on the piano; and every appearance of a ghost — every appearance in every movie — is accompanied by a thunderous, echoey BOOM! The "horror" in Maxima's horror movies is often diluted by comic relief — or maybe I should say "comic" "relief" — which is uniformly crass and misogynistic. And as for Maxima's principal actress, pop star Dewi Perssik... well... she's certainly beautiful, and she's not that bad of an actress; but she's no Barbara Steele, and she's hardly enough of a screen presence to make up for all the other deficiencies in the movies.
Most of Maxima's horror films so far have concerned a particular kind of ghost called a pocong (pronounced "pochong"). The word pocong means the white shroud unembalmed corpses are wrapped in, by Islamic tradition. The pocong is tied with a cord above the corpse's head until burial, at which time the cord is loosened. If the cord is not untied, according to local superstition, the dead person's spirit can not leave this world. It will wander the earth, still wearing its shroud (thus earning its name).
One of Maxima's biggest successes, Tali Pocong Perawan (The Cord of a Virgin's Shroud, 2008, again with Dewi Perssik) dealt with a bit of traditional magical lore: if you removed the cord from the pocong of a virgin — with your teeth — the cord would become a powerful talisman that would make you irresistable to the object of your desire. Now, in my opinion, that grisly little legend deserves a good movie, or at least an attempt at a good movie. I had high hopes for Tali Pocong Perawan, and I was pretty disappointed by the results.
Tiren: Mati Kemaren (Tiren: Dead Yesterday) also concerns a pocong, and it's even more disappointing than Tali Pocong Perawan. Its story is one you've heard a million times before: a wronged woman comes back from the grave to torment the ones who drove her to her death. Young Ranti (Dewi Perssik) comes home unexpectedly and catches her boyfriend Leo in bed with a woman named Maya. She's so distraught that she runs away; but she trips at the top of the stairs and breaks her neck falling down. Leo is less upset by Ranti's death than by the consequences of being found with a.) a dead body in his house, and b.) another man's wife in his bed; so he panics and convinces Maya to help him dump Ranti's corpse somewhere else. Ranti then comes back in the guise of "Tiren" — mati kemaren, "died yesterday" — to take revenge on Leo and Maya.
It's a story line that's more typical of the sundel bolong — literally the "fallen woman with a hole in her body", a type of ghost that was very popular in the movies of the 1980's — than the pocong. But take away the specifics of the pocong resurrection, and you have the template for a ghost story from anywhere, any time. By now, the story is so familiar to us that it could best be told as a half-hour television episode... that is, twenty-one minutes, plus commercials. Tiren could probably be edited down to this length while keeping its few genuine shocks intact. But Tiren's basic story has been watered down so much that it takes the movie nearly an hour to tell it.
By now you may be thinking: that's not so bad. So it's a little drawn out; that's nothing we haven't seen before. Padding a half-hour's worth of material to an hour is commonplace. And you'd be right.
But here's the trouble: Tiren is eighty minutes long.
That leaves about twenty minutes unaccounted for. Oh, how I wish Maxima had left those twenty minutes unaccounted for. Instead, once the pocong story has been — pardon the expression — wrapped up, the movie gives us a whole fourth act, made up entirely of comic relief... excuse me: "comic" "relief".
I'll bet you think you can imagine how awful that is. Believe me: it's worse.
Some of the "comic" "relief" in Tiren is provided by a group of three motorbike-taxi drivers. When the movie opens, one of these drivers is lost in a cemetery, with a beautiful girl passenger riding behind him. The girl begs him to stop for a moment, so she can go urinate (yes: on a grave). This leads to all sorts of "comic" doubles entendres: the driver insists he'll "keep an eye on her", heh heh, and that she should beware of "snakes" (they're not very big, but they're fierce). The girl pretends to be amused by all this. In a moment that's led to a great deal of public criticism (and private relish) among conservative Indonesians, she then removes her panties and has a squat. The cabby can hardly believe his luck. But just as it seems she's about to submit to his grubby pawing, her eyes turn solid black, and she reveals to him what her name really means.
Throughout the rest of the movie, up until the final twenty minutes when the comedians take center stage, we'll be treated (if that's the right word) to further "comic" vignettes. They're all along the lines of the Fair Fare Affair of the opening. Much of the "comedy" is stuff that went stale in the 1940's: one man will see a ghost over the other's shoulder, point, gibber and run away; while the other has no idea why he was so frightened. He'll turn to ask the third man what he thinks, catch sight of the ghost himself, point, gibber and run away. And of course, there's the old "turning to run and hitting a lamp-post" gag.
And as if that wasn't bad enough, we also have some comic-relief grave diggers (whose comedy went stale in the 1640's). They're the ones who supposedly set the story in motion through their laziness, when they bury somebody else in the grave intended for Ranti rather than dig a new hole in a hurry. It's this disrespect that Ranti's father blames for the appearance of the dead girl's ghost. Furious, Ranti's father demands that his daughter be re-buried in the proper location — a demand that leads to more tasteless comedy, as the cowardly grave diggers and their cowardly boss argue over who's going to lift the stinking cadaver.
But the mishap of the switched graves gives Ranti's father an idea. Pretending to be sickened by the grave diggers' attitude — well, perhaps not pretending; but in any case, using their antics as an excuse — he sends everyone away from the grave site, so he can tend to his daughter alone. When they've gone, he lowers himself into the grave. "Don't go home yet, my child," he murmurs to Ranti's body; "Go after the person who killed you." And he tightens the cord on Ranti's pocong.
I'm not sure how this changes Ranti/Tiren from a flirty but apparently harmless ghost into an angel of vengeance. I would have imagined she'd have been doubly miffed to have been killed, abandoned, and then stuffed into the wrong grave. But it's not until her father commands her to look for revenge that she does so.
Naturally, the first person on her list is Leo. Leo is the one responsible for Ranti's death, even if he didn't actually murder her. It's difficult to feel sorry for Leo: after all, most of this mess could have been avoided if he'd simply ordered Maya out of the house, called the police and made an official report of Ranti's death. Any investigation would have shown the poor girl tripped and fell. As it happened, Leo not only made things look many times worse by dumping the body — he also left his shovel, with his fingerprints all over it, lying by the side of the half-buried corpse when Maya panicked. So it's really only the incompetence of the police in this horror-movie universe that keeps the truth from being known.
(I suppose we also have to accept the fact that nobody — not even Ranti's friends, and certainly not Ranti's father — knew that Ranti and Leo were seeing each other. For crying out loud: a young woman turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. Who's the first person you suspect? Probably the boyfriend... as long as anybody knows who the boyfriend is. But I do have to wonder — if nobody knew they were seeing each other, how seriously were they really attached?)
Ranti/Tiren's initial attempts to get her revenge are not terribly sophisticated. She floats around in the background in Leo's house, and leaves her photograph taped to his bathroom mirror. Crude though these attempts may be, Leo starts to get the hint, and he turns to Maya for advice.
Maya, however, is sick of the whole affair. Ranti's death has sobered her up and sent her back to her husband Reno; she wants nothing further to do with Leo. This leaves Leo with no one to help him. Just as Leo is wondering what to do next, Ranti/Tiren decides to try a different scare tactic: she appears to him in her true, rotting-corpse form, cutting him off at every turn. This approach is much more effective. In fact, it works a little too well, and Leo makes an unexpected exit a mere half-hour into the movie.
That leaves Maya. On the face of it, it seems a little unfair that Leo should get off so relatively lightly, while Maya (and even more than Maya, her husband Reno) should have to bear the brunt of the suffering. Maya claims she didn't even know Leo had another girlfriend (hey — apparently nobody did). Oh, well; that's supernatural revenge for you. And the particular method of revenge Ranti/Tiren has chosen starts not with Maya, but with Reno.
Reno is sitting alone in a bar, listening to slow jazz... when Ranti walks in (wearing hoop earrings the size of dinner plates) and — I swear I'm not making this up — lights his cigarette. I think this meeting is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek; at least I hope it is, since it's appallingly trite. Anyway: Reno responds to Ranti's overture by wandering over to the bar and joining her. From the bartender's perspective, there's nobody else there... Reno is making casual conversation with the empty air. But when Reno turns away to take a phone call (and we discover he's not only flirting with a woman who's not his wife; he's also supposed to be at work), he turns back to find himself truly alone.
As time goes by, Reno finds himself thinking more and more of the mysterious woman he met, and less and less about his wife (by the way: Ranti/Tiren introduces herself to Reno as "Ranti", so I'm not sure why she even bothers with her alias). Maya doesn't realize anything is amiss at first. But as Reno makes more and more of an effort to contact Ranti/Tiren, the dead girl emerges further and further into the world of the living. By the time Ranti gives in to Reno's demands that she sleep with him, she is still invisible to other living people... but the stench of her corpse is apparent to everybody but Reno. Thus, when he takes her to a hotel room, the wait staff wonders what the horrible smell could be that's wafting down the hallway... and why is that strange young man walking with his arm outstretched, making kissy-faces to himself?
Once Reno has slept with the Living Dead, the really bad things start happening. We know exactly what Reno has just had sex with, even if we weren't shown explicitly... this time. So it's only to be expected that Ranti/Tiren's ghastly odor clings to him, much to Maya's disgust. Later — after a shower — when he and Maya are making love by the pool, she briefly glimpses a pocong-wrapped corpse beneath her instead of her husband. But it gets worse: Reno soon begins to rot from the inside. He starts coughing up maggots, and his body develops livid patches. When he starts pulling live worms out of his neck, Maya decides she's had enough and drives away. Frightened and heartbroken, Reno goes back to his room, hoping that Maya will come back to him.
But that light step on the stair turns out not to be Maya after all. It's Ranti/Tiren. Guess what they'll be doing as Maya comes home unexpectedly? Guess what Maya will see when she opens the door to the bedroom? Guess where she'll run when she does?
The remainder of the movie brings us back to the comic relief... the odious, odious comic relief, compared to which Reno's corpse-schtupping activities are positively charming. Three of the supporting characters gather in an outdoor coffee stand, where they run into more ghostly events.
Certain things seem to be funny to Indonesians that are a little lost on us bule (Westerners). For instance, divorcées: in the US, divorce has become so common that we tend to forget the stigma that used to be attached to divorced women. They're the only sexually experienced women in a conservative culture who are available to other men without technically being "loose women". This seems to give them the reputation of being somewhat loose women themselves, and the subject of lots of bawdy jokes... Here's the kicker: the Indonesian word for "divorcée" is the same as the word for "widow". If I were to guess, I'd suppose it's because widowhood used to be the only way a local woman could be legitimately separated from her husband. To a non-Indonesian speaker like me, Indonesian "widow" jokes can be deeply disturbing... as they are in this film: the coffee-stand lady's subtitles say she's been "widowed" seven times, and wants the three comedians to be husbands eight, nine and ten. We wonder why the men seem so enthusiastic. Maxima even has a recent comedy called Ku Tunggu Jandamu, which means "I'm Waiting for your Ex"... but which also suggests "I'm Waiting for your Widow" — an unpleasant suggestion the international title ("Chasing Widow") does nothing to fix.
You know what else people in Malaysia and Indonesia seem to find funny? Diarrhea. The coffee-stand lady's intestinal cramps are apparently as much a source of hilarity as her "widow" status. This reminded me of another coffee-stand scene, one involving a dwarf with diarrhea, in the 1981 Malaysian horror movie Toyol. The main difference is that the dwarf's diarrhea in Toyol actually had something to do with the plot.
So while we're suffering through the crude, sexist comedy of the last part of the movie, we can take the opportunity to reflect on some of the unanswered questions of Tiren. The big one is this: how do these young people — these very young people — manage to afford such enormous, richly-appointed houses? For crying out loud, Reno is a twenty-something graphic designer who prefers hanging out in an expensive hotel bar to actually working. Yet he has a mansion. Leo's house was pretty damned palatial, too, though we never got to know him well enough to figure out where his money might have come from.
Which brings us to the next question: why should we care what happens to these spoiled rich kids? In keeping with the diarrhea motif: why should we give a shit? There isn't a single sympathetic character in the whole movie — least of all Ranti herself, who goes from dish-rag to vixen to sadist so quickly we never figure out who she really might have been.
Tiren: Mati Kemaren was directed by a man named Emil G. Hampp. Accoring to YAK at Slasherpool, the Curious Dr. Hampp was one of the dedicated hacks in Indonesian exploitation who kept commercial cinema alive through the 90's in the faltering economy (YAK also points out that "tiren" is local street slang for meat that's past its prime... read into that what you will).
Hampp specialized in sex films (or what would pass in Indonesia for sex films, which would probably pass with a mild PG rating in the US), but he hadn't made any horror movies prior to this. His inexperience with the genre shows. As of this date, Maxima has put out nine horror flicks, seven of which I know to be available on video; I've seen six of them, and in my opinion Tiren is the least effective of them all. If it weren't for those few, glorious moments of ick when Reno starts having an affair with a corpse, this movie would have nothing to recommend it.