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Plot: young girl dabbles in black magic and summons an evil spirit

P was no doubt helmed in response to Ringu (1998), and Danny and Oxide Pang’s underappreciated The Eye (2002). P picks up where the Pang brothers left off in 2002 and is historic for being the first Thai-language film to be helmed by a Westener. The Westener in question is British expatriate Paul Spurrier and P has the good fortune of having Suangporn Jaturaphut (who would never act again) as the leading lady. The horror in P is peripheral and subordinate to the human interest, but that doesn’t make P any less effective when it fires on all of its cylinders. As a modest little genre piece P assuredly maintains Thailand’s place in the horror pantheon. More often a gritty and bleak drama about sex tourism and the criminal underworld surrounding it P is atmospheric and frightening when and where it matters. Thailand might not be able to compete with Hong Kong, China and Japan in terms of sheer numbers but P might just be strong enough to help turn the tide. No new promise has risen to take the Pang brothers’ place in domestic fright cinema but Spurrier might just be the guy.

Paul Spurrier had his start in cinema like many a young filmmaker: by taking to the streets and shooting his own feature with a bunch of enthusiastic friends. The result of that was Underground (1998), a gritty crime drama about drugdealers in London. Spurrier had acted as a child in the British-Swiss war epic The Wild Geese (1978) and at some point at the dawn of the millennium relocated to Thailand. Naturally a filmmaker is going to dabble in horror early on his or her career and what better place to mine for local folklore and superstition than Asia? Since P was only Spurrier’s second feature the most cost-efficient would be to do a ghost movie. Hong Kong, Japan, and China have set many a precedent of ghost stories within in an everyday, metropolitan setting. Instead of Hong Kong or Beijing P is set in the neon-drenched sidewalks of Bangkok. Perhaps not as much of an indictment of sex tourism as we would like it is a lot stronger than much coming out of China. Not only because P actually manages to be frightening every once in a whlie, mostly because the sobering reality surrounding the supernatural tale at its center is as horrific, if not moreso, than its titular ghost.

Just like in China ghosts are part of everyday life in Thailand. Most of them come from a combination of Thai Buddhism and local folklore legends. Some of these came from the neighboring Cambodian, Lao, and Malay cultures. Others were adopted later through the Chinese community in Thailand. Interestingly, a large portion of ghosts from Thai folklore tend to be nocturnal, a few exceptions notwithstanding. Most ghosts in Thai culture are benevolent and many have built shrines in specific places exactly for that reason. Offerings (usually incense, small food items, drinks, or fruit) are made to appease the spirits and ghosts for good fortune and it’s considered an ill omen to neglect a ghost shrine. In Dan Sai, Loei Province a three-day event called Phi Ta Khon (ผีตาโขน or Bun Luang) is held annually, usually between March and July, to honor the spirits. The most recognizable to Western eyes is the Phi Song Nang (ผีสองนาง), a Thai version of the Chinese Nü gui or the ghost of a beautiful woman that lures, seduces and then kills hapless men. The titular P refers to Pee or Pii (ผี), the Thai word for ghost. The Pii here is the Phi pop (ผีปอบ), a cannibalistic witch spirit popular in Thai folklore that tends leaves the witch’s body when she’s in a dormant state to feed on the intestines of whoever she victimizes. To Western eyes the Phi pop comes across as a combination of the vengeful ghost (onryō) from Japan and the shape-shifting fox spirit (húli jīng) with its carnivorous proclivities popular in Chinese folklore and superstition.

In Lower Isan in the northeastern region of Thailand in Si Saket province lives a young orphan Khmer girl named Aaw (Suangporn Jaturaphut) with her ailing, superstitious grandmother (Pisamai Pakdeevijit). To protect herself grandmother has initiated Aaw in the ways of Khmer black magic. All she has to do is obey the three sacred rules. No longer able to treat grandmother’s deterioriating health with the medicine she’s able to procure in her peasant village in the valley of the Mun River on the border with Cambodia Aaw is forced to seek employment in Bangkok. In Bangkok Aaw is picked up by Pookie (Opal) and before long harsh reality sets in. She’ll be working as a go-go dancer in the Pbar where she’ll be servicing foreign clients. Before that Mamasang (Manthana Wannarod) changes her name to Dau and she will broken into her new employment by bar owner Martin (Paul Spurrier). A bitter rivalry develops between Dau and club favorite May (Narisara Sairatanee) with the latter’s accomplices Mee (Amy Siriya) and New (Supatra Roongsawang) trying to sabotage her at every turn. In her darkest hour Dau turns to her grandmother’s black magic to help turn her fortune. As she sinks deeper into destitution and prostitution Dau breaks the three sacred rules one by one. Will anybody be able to stop the evil that Dau has summoned?

It would be something of a misnomer to call P an exploitation movie as it never is very exploitative to begin with. Even though it concerns itself with sex tourism, prostitution, and go-go dancers everything in P stays within the realms of the respectable. The most risqué, if it can be called that, is the sapphic tryst between Aaw/Dau and Pookie – but P goes well out of its way not to make a thing out of it. The go-go dancing sequences are usually sexier than the implied prostitution scenes that precede a kill. Where P really shines is in the ways it finds to creatively kill Johns on a limited budget. First and foremost P is a human interest drama and the supernatural – and horror elements are tangential and secondary to that. When P does focus on the horror it follows the conventions of the ghost horror subgenre without ever rocking the boat. Where it really gets interesting is how it treats the exorcism scene. Instead of a typical exorcism the purging of Dau’s demon bears more of a resemblance to a drugs withdrawal scene. Far more troubling is that P isn’t really all that interested in offering social commentary on the political machinations behind the circumstances in which it forces its lead character. Spurrier acknowledges that sex tourism and coerced prostitution do exist, but seems to be in no apparent hurry to make or take a stance either way. P is a horror where the unflinchingly bleak picture of modern day Bangkok is often more frightening, especially when the neon signs come on, than the ghost at its center.

Greatly adding to the mystique of P is a tour de force performance of Suangporn Jaturaphut. That Aaw/Dau mirrors Jaturaphut’s own life experiences so closely greatly adds to the authenticity of P. Suangporn also grew up under-privileged and disenfranchised in the slums of Bangkok and only took to acting as a means to pay for her ill mother’s mounting medical expenses. Her mother saw to it that she went to school and got herself an education as to not fall into the ever-looming threat of prostitution. In the decade-plus since P Suangporn has enrolled in Assumption University and eventually received her B.A. in Chinese for Business. Little is known what became of Jaturaphut post-B.A. but it’s safe to assume that she simply disappeared in the anonomity of everyday civilian life. She appears to not have disavowed her involvement in P in the years since but it’s unlikely that we will ever see Suangporn on the big screen again. Director Paul Spurrier has since worked as a cinematographer on the television series Edge of the Empire (2010), helmed his third feature The Forest (2016) and the television series Eullenia (2018-present). In other words, Spurrier has naturally become part of the Thai cinematic landscape.

Thailand has long been the mecca of cheap action and in the last couple of years has been making a comeback in terms of horror. While not as visible as China, Hong Kong, and Japan since the 2000s the country is steady on the rise again. P was unlike, say, the preceding year’s The Sisters (2004) not nearly as blatantly imitative of Ringu (1998), Ju-on: The Grudge (2002), and South Korea’s A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003). While ghost movies like Shutter (2004) and the Art Of the Devil (2004-2008) franchise are staples in Thai, it’s movies like Meat Grinder (2009) that prove that Thailand has come a long way since Universal monster romps The Wolf Girl (1977) and Werewolf (1987). Like the best Asian horror P draws from rich local folklore and superstition and coupled with Spurrier’s almost documentary-like gaze it makes P an atmospheric little ditty. Anybody remotely familiar with Asian ghost horror will find nothing novel here, and just like Verónica (2017) and We Are Not Alone (2016) it was quietly released on Netflix. P was not going to revitalize the ghost subgenre, but it deserved better than that.

Plot: a young family finds that their new dwelling is haunted

Ghosts transcend cultures and timezones. Following the success of The Amityville Horror (1979) the international market was swept by American ghost movies. In the late nineties and at the dawn of the new millennium Hong Kong became the go-to place for quality ghost stories in the wake of movies like Ringu (1998), Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), Dark Water (2002) and The Eye (2002), all of which at some point or other were adapted for the American market. A decade from the Hong Kong movement the Spanish-speaking countries are experiencing a resurgence of horror cinema. Spain has a long history in terror – and horror cinema dating all the way back to the gothic horrors of the sixties, the many erotic vampire - and witchcraft movies from León Klimovsky and Jesús Franco. That is, of course, not counting the one-man industry that was Paul Naschy who rose to fame with his El Hombre Lobo werewolf movies and portrayed every classic Universal monster in the book. We Are Not Alone is the Peruvian equal of Verónica (2017). It is not nearly as scary, if it is scary at all, as it is atmospheric in the well-known Hong Kong tradition.

Apparently the horror cinema industry in Peru is just in a nascent stage at this point in time. The first domestic horror production was General Cemetery (2013) and it has since inspired other directors to follow the example. Daniel Rodríguez Risco is one of the country’s more celebrated directors having helmed various shorts and a number of feature length productions in a number of genres. Risco has won several awards in film festvivals across the globe and had a hand in writing, producing and directing some of the biggest Latin American blockbusters. As of 2016 We Are Not Alone is the only horror title in Risco’s filmography and he seems in no rush to return to the genre. We Are Not Alone is helmed with all the professionalism you’d expect of an experienced veteran of the big - and small screen. It wouldn’t at all be surprising if We Are Not Alone, toothless as it tends to be, ended up getting an American remake. Obviously there are far superior haunted house – and ghost movies. We Are Not Alone is unfortunately for the most part terribly bland.

As the manager of an important company Mateo (Marco Zunino) has been forced to move to the outskirts of Lima to meet the challenges of his job. Making the cross-country move along with him are his tween daughter Sofía (Zoe Arévalo) and second wife Mónica (Fiorella Díaz). The relationship between little Sofía and Mónica wasn’t the best to begin with and the relocation to Fundo Lazarte is the last thing two needed or were waiting for. The night that they have moved into the new place Sofía is immediately distrustful of her new surroundings and claims that monsters are hiding under her bed and that a priest should bless the house before they settle in properly. Mateo and Mónica shrug off Sofía’s strange request as childish superstition and a product of moving house against her will. It isn’t long before Mónica starts to experience the very forces that Sofía was talking about. Strange noises emit from the bowels of the residence, shadows move and inanimate objects start having a will of their own. After Mateo and Mónica discover a hidden chamber within their new home the hauntings become increasingly worse. The supernatural occurences inspire Mateo to dig into the history of Fundo Lazarte, a search that brings him to defrocked priest Padre Rafael (Lucho Cáceres). Rafael turns out to be familiar with the sordid history of the residence and fills Mateo in on the horrible crime that unfolded on the premises. According to Rafael a man named Ricardo (Paul Vega) one day murdered his wife Victoria (Jimena Lindo) and his son Gabriel (Matías Raygada). The case was never solved and the spirits of Victoria and Gabriel now haunt the dwelling. When the spirits claim a second victim in Mónica the faith of the good padre will stand the ultimate test. Will he able to withstand and cast out the evil spirits that dwell in Fundo Lazarte?

The screenplay from director Gonzalo Rodríguez Risco is written well enough but it doesn’t exactly put a spin, new or otherwise, on an old formula. In fact most plot developments are so trite and predictable that even at a very economic 75 minutes We Are Not Alone feels a bit long for its own good. It’s not so much that We Are Not Alone isn’t effective or fails to deliver on what it promises; it’s just that nothing of what it presents is particularly riveting or all that interesting. The writing is tight and perfunctory but it fails to do something, anything, with the ghost movie genre. What little scares there are, are so telegraphed and obvious that it’s far more rewarding to count the clichés and conventions that We Are Not Alone adheres to than whatever apparition or supposedly scary reveal that director Daniel Rodríguez Risco throws at the viewer. Verónica (2017) used a number of well-worn tropes and conventions too, but it at least was intelligent enough to use its tried-and-true ghost movie structure to tell an endearing, and at times compelling, coming-of-age story of an ordinary girl thrown in an extraordinary situation. Plus, it had Sandra Escacena which helped tremendously too. The only thing that We Are Not Alone has in spades is atmosphere, but it’s not nearly enough to make it stand out from the many competitors in the genre. As beautifully filmed as We Are Not Alone tends to be, it has little in the way of a pulse or distinct individual traits.

As any production from a Spanish language country We Are Not Alone lays on the Judeo-Christian rhetoric and symbolism fast and thick. There’s no cliché it doesn’t use as there are inanimate objects that move, scars on the wall that lead to a hidden room and as the haunting intensify Satanic symbols appear. The nominal hero of the piece is not the secular businessman Mateo, but defrocked priest Padre Rafael who has been experiencing a crisis of faith ever since losing his mystic / paranormal investigator father during an exorcism in Fundo Lazarte many years earlier. The featured ghost portrayed by Jimena Lindo is an apparition in the Sadako from Ringu (1998) mold. Over the course of the hauntings Mónica stops eating and sleeping ultimately giving way to a truncated homage to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) in the last fifteen minutes, including the levitating bed. We Are Not Alone liberally borrows from The Amityville Horror (1979), The Exorcist (1973), Poltergeist (1982), and Ringu (1998), to name the most prominent. It’s not that We Are Not Alone is bad because it certainly isn’t. What ultimately becomes its undoing is its slavish adherence to convention and cliché. In earlier decades South/Latin American horror was known for its exuberance and excess. We Are Not Alone has nothing of the sort. It retains the strong Judeo-Christian message that the continent is famous for, and is notoriously homogeneous otherwise.

The cast includes nobody in particular and seems to consist largely of Risco stock company – and respectable domestic television actors/actresses. Marco Zunino is the most recognizable name having played bit parts in beloved, high-profile American TV series Alias (2003) and Castle (2016). Next to Jimena Lindo as the ghost by far the strongest presence is young Zoe Arévalo. Fiorella Díaz holds her own well enough as the constantly imperiled Mónica. Much of a nonentity for the majority of the feature Díaz surprises with the possession and exorcism scenes in the third act but it’s not enough to warrant anything more than a passing recommendation. Nobody acts outright bad and Zunino, Lindo and Arévalo excepted We Are Not Alone has no outstanding performances to speak of. It’s rather emblemic for the production as a whole. Everything is solid and technically sound, but nothing in particular stands out. Peruvian horror has yet to find its footing and voice and while retaining the same cultural sensibilities of decades past We Are Not Alone probably isn’t the best the country has to offer in the genre.

Over the course of 75 minutes We Are Not Alone packs several decades’ worth of ghost – and haunted house movie conventions. The result might not exactly be spine-tingling or chilling, but it’s a professionally helmed and atmospheric little genre exercise when it fires on all cylinders. Far and few as these moments tend to be, when they do appear they more than justify the long wait. It will be interesting to see how Peruvian horror develops from here on and whether We Are Not Alone will retroactively become historically important for the same reasons. There’s no contesting that Gonzalo Rodríguez Risco is a master technician who knows what makes the genre tick. It would be interesting to see him tackle a contemporary giallo murder mystery or an erotic vampire - or witchcraft movie, although both niches seems to have died out. We Are Not Alone might not be as crazy and surreal as any of the classic Latin American genre offerings, but that doesn’t stop it from being very atmospheric and effective. Hopefully Peru will soon be carving out it’s own niche on the international horror cinema map.