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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: alien lifeform plans to conquer Earth by preying on mankind’s oldest fears

The box office success of The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) demanded a follow-up to cement Paul Naschy’s reputation as the new promise of Spanish horror. That follow-up came in the form of Assignment Terror (released domestically as Los Monstruos del Terror and in North America as the heavily-cut Dracula vs Frankenstein), a pulpy showdown of epic proportions in the tradition of House of Frankenstein (1944). As an Italian/German/Spanish co-production it passed the hands of several directors, and was the swansong performance of veteran Hollywood actor Michael Rennie. Assignment Terror is a lot of things, but for the most part it is campy. It is, in all likelihood, the least conventional of Naschy’s enduring Waldemar Daninsky saga. It has everything. Aliens, mad scientists, vampires, mummies, and Waldemar Daninsky in what amounts to a supporting role - Assignment Terror has it all, and none of it makes any sense.

Assignment Terror was the swansong effort of producer Jaime Prades and the beginning of the darkest period of the El Hombre Lobo saga. Prades produced the historical drama El Cid (1961) as well as the Biblical epics King Of Kings (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Assignment Terror was the first Waldemar Daninsky installment to follow the elusive (and believed to be largely fabricated) French co-production Nights Of the Werewolf (1968) of which allegedly no prints survive. Assignment Terror had a larger budget than The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968), but most of it was squandered as a host of directors came and went and costs spiraled out of control. The sequel The Fury Of the Wolfman (1970) didn’t fare much better either with director José María Zabalza being in a state of constant inebriation, forcing star and scriptwriter Paul Naschy to handle direction in his absence. Despite the difficulties Naschy managed to rope in an assortment of Spanish, German and American stars for the second El Hombre Lobo feature, one that initially was known under the working title El Hombre que Vino de Ummo, or The Man Who Came from Ummo.

To save their highly-advanced race from extinction two delegates from the planet Ummo are teleported to Earth to prepare said planet for imminent colonization. To facilitate their plans they take corporeal form with the bodies of a pair of recently diseased scientists serving as their host. Odo, the leader of the alien colonists, possesses the body of the aging Dr. Varnoff (Michael Rennie) whereas Maleva overtakes biochemist Melissa Kerstein (Karin Dor), primarily chosen for her dark eyes and luscious curves. The two reanimate Dr. Kirian Downa (Ángel del Pozo, as Angel del Pozo), a young war surgeon killed in the field, for his surgical prowess. The aliens figure that the easiest way to conquer Earth is to prey upon mankind’s oldest fears and superstitions. To that end Odo decides that a visit to the local temple of knowledge, the library, is in place. Upon leafing through the pages of the Anthology Of the Monsters by professor Ulrich D. Varancksalan, an old tome depicting age-old horrors, Odo’s mind is suddenly illuminated. They will resurrect a number of literary, historical and folkloristic monsters from pages torn, quite literally at that, straight out of the arcane tome.

The aliens do not come upon this idea immediately, but only after witnessing a gypsy sideshow fortune-teller attraction at the local carnival. In a scene directly lifted from Universal’s House of Frankenstein (1944) the duo come across the vampire as part of a carnival exhibit. Maleva is instructed to use her comely charms on the male half of the duo while Odo will manipulate the gypsy woman (Helga Gleisser, as Ella Gessler) into removing the stake from the skeleton of the famed vampire Count Janos de Mialhoff (Manuel de Blas). Bolstered by their initial victory Odo and Maleva resurrect Varancksalan’s Monster (Ferdinando Murolo), and interred Polish nobleman Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy, as Paul Naschi). With Daninsky’s considerable wolven strenght at their disposal the aliens travel to Egypt to disentomb Tao-Tet (Gene Reyes), an acolyte of Amun-Ra, in the Valley of the Kings. The recent deaths of two prominent scientists and the disappearance of a librarian (Diana Sorel) pique the interest of inspector Henry Tobermann (Craig Hill) who promptly opens an investigation into the strange going-ons. His search for clues brings him into the orbit of go-go-boot-wearing Ilsa (Patty Shepard, as Patty Sheppard), the daughter of Judge Sternberg (Peter Damon), who had his own encounter with werewolves as a young man in Germany a generation earlier as was depicted in The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968).

American actor Robert Taylor had expressed interest to Naschy in doing the picture, but it would be an aging and deadly ill Michael Rennie who landed the part. As before Paul Naschy (as Jacinto Molina Álvarez) wrote the screenplay and slated to direct was Hugo Fregonese, a Spanish national that had directed several western and adventure films in Hollywood in the 1950s and 60s. Fregonese lasted only a few weeks into production, and Argentinian expat Tulio Demichelli took over. Persistent hardships during production eventually took their toll on Demichelli and the naturalized Spaniard soon departed the production as well. Following Demichelli’s defection Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi stepped in allowing the troubled production to be completed. Allegedly German producer Eberhard Meichsner had a hand in directing too. With four people occupying the director seat at various points the jarring tonal shifts are all but expected. Director of photography Godofredo Pacheco lensed The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), an atmospheric low-budget take on French production Eyes Without A Face (1960) and in all likelihood the only Jesús Franco film worth seeing. Naschy’s love for pulp was well-documented and Rennie’s character name is probably a tribute to horror legend Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood’s science fiction yarn Bride of the Monster (1955). Special effects artisan Antonio Molina has a diverse resumé that includes high-profile offerings as Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999) and Live Flesh (1997), but also Jess Franco’s Devil Hunter (1980), the blaxploitationer Shaft in Africa (1973) as well as classic and not-so-classic Spanish horror ventures as Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973), Necrophagus (1971), and The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman (1971).

The biggest name on the bill is Michael Rennie, a respected Hollywood veteran known for his role as alien Klaatu in the Robert Wise genre classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and for his roles in the big budget peplum Princess of the Nile (1954) with Debra Paget, and the historical war epic The Battle of El Alamein (1969). Towards the end of the sixties Rennie was, like many of his contemporaries, forced to act in continental European low-budget schlock as Antonio Margheriti’s The Young, the Evil and the Savage (1968), León Klimovsky’s Commando Attack and Surabaya Conspiracy (1969). Karin Dor was a Bond girl in Lewis Gilbert’s You Only Live Twice (1967) and figured into Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969). Dor was a muse of director Harald Reinl and in that capacity she appeared in the Karl May adaptations Winnetou: the Red Gentleman (1964) and Winnetou: the Last Shot (1965), as well as several Edgar Wallace krimis.

Greenville, South Carolina’s Patty Shepard would get her own El Hombre Lobo feature with the León Klimovsky directed The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman (1971) and later would turn up in the gothic horror throwback The Witches Mountain (1975) from Raúl Artigot. Diana Sorel would turn up in José María Elorrieta’s The Curse of the Vampire (1972). Assignment Terror was one of the earlier roles of Manuel de Blas, husband of Shepard and an institution in Spanish cinema and television. Ángel del Pozo was an exploitation regular that appeared in the Alfonso Brescia spaghetti western The Colt Is My Law (1965), Eugenio Martin’s gothic horror ensemble piece Horror Express (1972), and Terence Young peplum breastacular The Amazons (1973), among many others.

The first El Hombre Lobo excelled in rustic gothic horror atmosphere. Assignment Terror on the other hand is pure, unbridled camp. The premise is completely ridiculous and its appallingly bittersweet to see an ailing actor of Rennie’s caliber forced to lower himself to cinematic tripe as this. Karin Dor, Diana Sorel, Helga Gleisser, and Fajda Nicol are all easy on the eyes as Naschy seldom disappoints in his choices of female talent. Daninsky is much more of a supporting role with the attention squarely on the Universal Horror monsters. The all-but-expected “emotion vs intellect” subplot emerges once the aliens begin to succumb to the fleshly desires of their corporeal form. Dr. Warnoff catches Maleva in flagrante delicto in between the sheets with Kerian, and promptly sends Varancksalan’s Monster to murder his accomplices. For maximum shock footage of a grisly real-life open-heart surgery was included for Naschy’s resurrection scene. It just as tasteless and unnecessary as it sounds. Naschy is only the sixth-billed in the cast despite being the hero of the piece, but he has the obligatory bosomy blonde that falls in love with his vertically-challenged character.

The Golem, who briefly appears in the Anthology Of the Monsters, doesn’t materialize for budgetary reasons. Not that it would have improved Assignment Terror in any way. The screenplay by Naschy (as Jacinto Molina Alvarez) is a convoluted mess that is frequently hard to follow and nigh on borders on the incoherent, despite the apparent simplicity of the premise. The selection of these specific Universal Monsters probably served as pretext for Naschy to portray them at a later point. After all Naschy would play Dracula in Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973), the Mummy in The Mummy’s Revenge (1975), and Frankenstein’s Monster in Howl Of the Devil (1987). More importantly it gave Patty Shepard a taster of the El Hombre Lobo universe before starring in her own feature with The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman (1971). In its defense, at least some of it had a point. The special effects by Antonio Molina are good for the time and the budget and Assignment Terror doesn’t shy away from the grue. Emblematic for Spanish horror at the time several scenes seemt to suggest the existence of a more nudity-heavy print for the international market. In the beginning of the decade several Italian horror productions already pushed the envelope in terms of eroticism. However it would never see domestic release with the repressive Franco regime still in power.

Assignment Terror is pulp of the purest variety. The El Hombre Lobo franchise worked best as loosely connected gothic horror genre pieces, and that would be what Naschy would return it to. All of the subsequent sequels would follow the formula, with each focusing on whatever was most marketable at that time. The Fury of the Wolfman (1970), The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman (1971), The Return of Walpurgis (1973) and The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975) all are vastly superior to Assignment Terror for wildly different reasons. While there’s little to connect all installments besides the presence of Daninsky there were certain standards Naschy strived for. Assignment Terror was the first El Hombre Lobo installment to miss the mark. Thankfully the franchise would return to prime with the swathe of sequels that soon followed. In between El Hombre Lobo sequels Naschy continued working on other projects - some which were at least as good, if not better - than his most enduring creation.