Welcome to HorrorFest 2009.
Did you see "Audition"?
Don't think about it. Either you did, or you didn't. Either you remember it vividly at the slightest provocation, or you didn't see it. It's one of those movies, and a big part of why it was one of those movies is the performance by one of those actors, a woman named Eihi Shiina.
I find her genuinely loathsome. Detestable. Unnerving. She is a special effect of the same sort as Tony Jaa. It's like she was created in a workshop to specifically freak me out. I thought I'd shaken my overpowering fear of her in the decade since "Audition" was made, but it all came rushing back when I watched "Macabre" at a midnight screening here at Fantastic Fest in Austin, where I was reminded just how powerful the art of minimalism can be.
In terms of narrative, "Macabre" offers nothing new. Written and directed by Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, this is a relentless horror movie about a group of friends leaving for a trip to Jakarta. They encounter a dazed young woman wandering in the rain and offer to drive her home. That offer leads to the systematic torture and murder of most of their group. A final survivor fights back. The end. As I said to a friend at the end of the screening, "Oh, okay, it's 'The Jakarta Chainsaw Massacre.' Got it." That's not a dismissive comparison, either, since I consider the original Tobe Hooper film to be one of the strongest, smartest independent horror films of all time. There is a hopelessness to that film that makes it truly effective. "Macabre" manages to tap that same sense of bleak despair, and there are sequences in this film that are genuinely scary.
[more after the jump]
A big part of the reason? Shareefa Daanish. She appears here as Dara, the bizarre matriarch of the extended family behind the murders in the film. It is an absolutely flawless performance for this type of film, and it cements her in my mind as one of the icons of international fright cinema. That's her, staring at you from behind those lizard eyes of hers in the photo to the left of this text. And for the first time since Eihi Shiina in "Audition," I am afraid of an Asian woman not because of what they do on camera, but because of what they don't do. Daanish is all about the quiet, the still, and the deeeeeeply freaky. She's not particularly intimidating on a physical level, but because I look into those huge almond-lidded pools of madness of hers and I don't recognize anything human or rational, I find her terrifying.
If you're one of those people who thinks that any instance of human cruelty in a horror film automatically qualifies it as "torture porn," a phrase I detest, then skip this one. Please. I don't think you can compare this to the "Saw" films, though. This is a film that takes the tiime to create solid, decent human character before yanking the rug out from under them, and it's really upsetting how far the film goes in destroying these people. The choice to never really fill in all the gaps about why certain things happen makes it even more terrifying, and I credit the writer/directors with bringing a ton of skill to how they slowly turn the screws. It's not easy to make material like this feel fresh, and "Macabre" may be formula, but it's formula done dead right.
The film does not currently have a U.S. distributor. Hopefully, that will change.
HorrorFest 2009 runs every day of October 2009.
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