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Most haunted
A UK region 2 DVD review of GHOST GAME / LAA-THAA-PHII by Slarek
 

If part of the draw of any horror film lies in its initial premise then Ghost Game should be on to a winner. In the search for ever more extreme and confrontational situations in which to place their contestants for public amusement, the producers of the Thai reality TV show of the title have come up with a doozy, to imprison eleven willing participants in an isolated former Khmer Rouge prison in Cambodia, which is reputed to be haunted by the spirits of the thousands who were tortured and killed there during the 1970s. The prize for lasting the game? 500 Million Baht in cash (that's close to 8 million UK pounds at the current exchange rate), the largest prize ever offered on a Thai TV game show.

OK, bad taste alert. Those of you not attracted to horror as a genre may well balk at the concept of the real-life torture and murder of thousands of civilians as the basis for exploitation entertainment, and frankly you'd be right. As it happens, the film was banned in Cambodia and attacked there for its insensitivity to a dark time in their history, prompting an apology from the filmmakers and the addition of the disclaimer that now sits at the film's start. But horror is a disreputable genre by its very nature and the only function good taste has within its confines is as a barrier to be blown asunder. That said, I can't help but wonder if a similarly themed work set in a former Nazi concentration camp would have had such an easy time with the censors or the film industry in general.

Back to the plot. Actually, in the case of Ghost Game, the premise IS the plot, or a sizeable part of it. With the game under way, the crew retire to their control room and relay instructions to the ever-monitored contestants, involving them in activities such as tying each other to torture chairs and committing acts of desecration on the skulls of the dead, presumably to provoke the spirits of the murdered to come forth and scare the bejesus out of the already nervous youngsters. They needn't have bothered. No sooner have the contestants settled down in their assigned rooms for the night than the spiritual visitations begin. Some in the group suspect this is all a ruse, scare tactics by the programme-makers to prompt a response, and there's the suspicion that one of their number, previous competition winner Dao, is actually a mole installed precisely to freak out the others and prompt them to leave. They're partially right about this – there IS a mole, but it's not Dao, and the real culprit is too scared to be spooking anyone.

If you've done even cursory research on the film then you'll doubtless have picked up on the extremely low regard in which it is held, particularly by horror fans, and it's not hard to see where they're coming from. But is should be said that for all its faults – and I'm coming to those – Ghost Game does get a few things right. Top of the tree has to be the production design, with the former prison rendered as a maze of decaying corridors and dilapidated rooms straight out of the Resident Evil games, and the sort of place no straight-thinking person would chose to enter after dark, let alone spend the night in. Some of the early spiritual appearances are also pretty creepy, as much due to their timing as that haunted, hollow-faced look that always makes Asian ghosts such unwelcome company. Then there's the contestants, apparently none of whom are played by professional actors but by real-life former contestants of the popular American idol-style reality show Academy Fantasia. If that's the case then they do pretty damned well, given that they are required to act terrified and sell it as real (which they do). A UK remake along the same lines is not advised – somehow I can't imagine the self-centred monkeys from Big Brother and their tiresome ilk being half as convincing.

Which would be all well and good if there were more to it that that, but there isn't. Despite the promise, most of the horror is recycled from films that have already seen more than their share of plundering, but without the sense of purpose and skilled handling that made fellow Thai horror Shutter so effective. Pre-haunting character build-up is close to zero and it's thus rather difficult for care for the contestants beyond the superficial scares, a problem that also afflicted Marc Evans' over-praised 2002 British wandering into similar territory, My Little Eye, although at least when we do get to know the characters here a little they're not all complete arseholes.

More annoying is that any ambiguity – and thus any associated tension – over whether we're dealing with a genuinely haunted building or a TV orchestrated mindfuck is dispelled at a peculiarly early stage. The ghosts start appearing almost from the moment the contestants settle in, and their invisibility on the control room monitors immediately confirms their authenticity. There's precious little variance in their behaviour, either – they appear, they glare, they walk towards people, they grab hold of them, and they do it repeatedly for the first hour of the film. Their effectiveness as unsettling apparitions peaks during the contestants' first set of tasks, and it's not too long after that you catch yourself thinking "Oh, another ghost" rather than shivering in fear.

Once past the halfway mark the surprises and scares dwindle seriously in number. The more freaked-out contestants opt to leave, but the paths of some of those that remain are marked by movie convention – the girl who is encouraged to win by her departing sister is clearly going to do nothing of the sort, and there can be few who will not groan the moment it's revealed that one of the others is an asthmatic who depends on an inhaler. Now how do you think that one will end?

Death inevitably pays a number of visits to the camp, but the film completely blows the opportunity to redeem itself at the climax with the introduction of the ghost of former camp commander Comrade Jium, a figure but so hopelessly lacking in menace or any real sense of the supernatural that he comes across more as a pissed-off uncle than the essence of evil he is supposed to represent. It completes the second-half downward slide of a film that, in spite of its few but tangible merits, never climbed sufficiently high in the first place to survive such a descent.

But stay with the closing credits, which are accompanied by some authentically staged interviews with the contestants, supposedly conducted before they embarked on the game itself. It's the sort of character introduction it would have been nice to see at the start, although knowing what happens to them all does make their end-of-film placement rather effective.

sound and vision

Green. That's the first and almost only word that comes to mind when describing the picture on Ghost Game. You might call it a green tint but that doesn't go far enough, since green is almost the only colour left after the rest have been all but stripped in post-production. This didn't help my engagement with the characters, distancing the film a few clicks further from the real world and giving every scene the feel of an extended flashback. Within these colour constraints the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is solid enough, with the contrast and sharpness all it should be, though shadow detail is deliberately murky. Grain is very visible at times, but this fits with the chosen aesthetic, although this does occasionally trigger compression artefacts on areas of similar...erm...green.

Dolby 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround tracks are offered, both in the original Thai, and unsurprisingly it's the 5.1 track that better serves the film, with a more atmospheric spread of sound and stronger bass. The dialogue, curiously, sometimes varies in clarity from shot to shot, intermittently muffled one second and then crystal clear the next. Thankfully, this doesn't happen too often.

extra features

Cast and Crew Documentary (14:55)
A twitchily edited collection of behind-the-scenes footage and brief interviews with cast and crew members that nonetheless proves useful, if only because the cast reveal more about their characters than the film itself does. Its true identity as an EPK is revealed by the final collection of super-positive comments from cinemagoers and night-vision footage of viewers cowering behind their hands and coats.

Original Theatrical Trailer (2:09)
A loud shout for the film as a non-stop terror ride. If only.

summary

Oh well. I came to this film with everything stacked in its favour. I love horror movies, I love Far Eastern horror movies, I even like some of the more derivative Far Eastern horror movies, but Ghost Game just doesn't cut it. The premise has so much potential and occasionally the filmmakers come close to making it work, but they drop a few crucial balls from the off, the key one being the absence of character introduction or effective build-up – oh, the tension that could have been created by just taking a bit of time to reveal the true nature of the horror lying in wait. No problems with Showbox's DVD, though, at least on picture and sound, so if you think this one's for you then the disc shouldn't disappoint.

Ghost Game
Laa-thaa-phii

Thailand 2006
105 mins
director
Joachim Trier
starring
Pachornpol Jantieng
Kittilak Chulakrian
Wacharin Jinamulee
Chanetphaka Korsuwan
Thanyanan Mahapirun
Taweesak Pamornpol

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
Thai
subtitles
English
extras
Trailer
Cast and crew documentary
distributor
Showbox
release date
25 February 2008
review posted
24 February 2008

See all of Slarek's reviews