Directed by James Cullen Bressack
We all know that feeling after a night out. Your head’s sore, you’ve blacked out and (on top of the corpses in the basement smelling) your unnerving gold statue of a child has gone. You ask your friends what happened and they’re similarly confused. Yeah, I know, this could be almost anybody. But in this case it’s the three leading women from the latest horror by prolific young director James Cullen Bressack: Pernicious. Getting their bearings back, what follows is an Asian ghost-story by way of Hostel.
Though the title may conjure images of spectres in leafy American suburbs, the setting’s a lush rural Thailand. Here, as promptly told to us by some transparent pipeline dialogue, the sensible brunette Julia (O’Brien) plus thrill-seeker blonde sisters Alex (Hanna) and Rachel (Moore), are spending the summer teaching English as a foreign language. Unfortunately for them, upon finding their oversized accommodation, it’s quite clear they’re in a horror film – the neighbours are kooky and the house’s centrepiece is the creepy effigy mentioned above. Though such trivialities can wait as, true to stereotypes, the lighter haired siblings want to drink, dance and screw. Luckily the first bar that they come to has three horny Englishmen more than willing to oblige. The six of them go back to the girl’s house and make out before, in a genuinely discomforting moment, one of the limeys reveals he doesn’t actually drink. Things start to get hazy and the screen goes black.
However, in an interesting subversion of the classic stranger in a strange land narrative it’s the boys that wake up worse for wear and the girls who do the torturing. And torture them they do – this is one of the most graphic sequences I’ve seen in months (and given the amount of horrors I watch that’s saying something). Eyeballs are gauged out, legs are torn apart and blood leaves them as fast as our perpetrators’ memories of the nasty ordeal. It’s violent, expertly put together and really very effective. Unfortunately half an hour in and the movie’s set a benchmark the rest of it can’t live up to: the horror equivalent of premature ejaculation. The following morning our leading ladies marvel over how they must have had the same gory dream of killing the now absent men before they try and piece together what’s going on and finding the possibly valuable statue. This entails digging up the past, chasing a Thai girl to a shaman like figure in an enchanted hut whilst being haunted by the figurine in question. Etc. etc. etc.
It’s not that nothing happens after the first third – in terms of set-pieces per minute it’s got an admirable pace. It’s just that nothing scary happens. It’s all craft and little art, with workman-like tropes feeling heavily borrowed from other movies (particularly The Grudge and its many sequels). The immediately promising mythology also turn out to be little more than an underdeveloped scaffolding with which to hold up the cheap horror bricks. Sadly it isn’t only the blocks that are weak either, but the people laying them too. There’s very little emotional gravity granted to any of the should-be weighty scene. For instance, the main trio assuming their blackout came from being drugged is shrugged off as easily as the backing story is later (when it’s eventually given). The countless appearances of apparitions are met with similar indifference and it’s only towards the end (when the cast realise something the audience did 40 minutes ago) that anybody seems to give much of a shit about anything that’s happened. What little drama this triggers isn’t worth the wait, and one character’s unexpected lapse into hysterics makes the drawn out affair seem unintentionally funny. Whether this comes more from the writing or acting is unclear, but the apathy’s contagious and you’ll likely yawn your way through what should be a high impact climax.
Underwhelmed and watching the credits roll I see Bressack’s name in white and remind myself he’s considerably younger than me. And even if his CV is more one of quantity than quality, he already has an impressive 30 director credits to his IMDB. Yes this may sound patronising, but I point it out because he has a potentially long career ahead of him in which to refine his approach. And if, down the line, he can capture the promise of the first third then he may mature into one to watch. For now though, he’s made the kind of movie I wouldn’t recommend parting with money to see. If, however, its late night and you find it on the Horror channel it’ll probably make for a watchable, if unremarkable, 90 minutes. Just don’t expect to remember much of it in the morning.