Directed by Lee Thongkham
One of the best things about FrightFest is getting to see the cream of the crop from the international horror scene. Among other places, this year there are movies from Mexico, Kazakhstan and Argentina. Then there’s this one from Thailand – very maybe my first Thai horror unless one counts Three Extremes. Lee Thongkham’s latest is a tale of domesticity, damnation and dark secrets. Joy is a new maid for a filthy rich couple, Uma and Nirach – after their last one left in a hurry because she was spooked (a creepy incident involving a monkey toy). Her job is to look after Lady Nid – a little girl who has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, leaving her prone to memory distortions, confusion and delusions. Among her delusions are visions of a former maid, Ploy, who vanished five or six years ago. But then Joy starts seeing her too…
The Maid is really two different movies – both of which are well done. The first half watches like a classic ghost story, with Ploy terrorising Joy and Lady Nid. Thongkham is a master of staging, and though some of the scares are predictable – hands round the door, shapes in the background – they’re really well done here. At points shows impressive restraint, with characters reacting to things we the audience don’t see. However, he can do sustained dread when he wants to, and a couple of the longer sequences do one big scare after another. The timing is impressive, too, with jump scares still working even after we’ve had a string of them. About halfway through the film, I almost felt exhausted by it all. Almost as if Thongkham was pre-emoting this, the jolts of the first half give way to a very different second. I don’t want to say too much and urge you not to read the official synopsis since it gives the game away. But it becomes far more bloodthirsty, if undeniably thrilling. It’s an abrupt shift in tone and story that still works despite my issues with the character motivations.
With a small cast for the most part, and the film almost all taking place in a single location, the relationships matter a lot. The cast handles the material excellently, except one supporting member who stands out like blood on a white dress (you’ll know them when you see them). Savika Chaiyadej as Uma and Ploy Sornarin as Joy find the halfway point between the earlier sections’ frights and the heightened reality dark comedy of the second half. Each sells the scariness of the situation while playing to the carnival of the grotesque which it eventually becomes. It’s crucial that the Joy at the start of the film, overwhelmed by the beautiful home and happy to help, seems like the same person who is a lot more unhinged by the end. I’d say it’s a testament to Sornarin as an actor that she manages this transformation and contrast without breaking character. It helps the parts are generally well written, and I liked how the mysteries are built up from the beginning – even if a couple of the twists and turns are obvious. And even though Ploy’s motivation for haunting Joy and Lady Nid doesn’t hold water, what she comes to represent to the story – and what it says about social class – is very well done.
The presentation is also top-notch too. Whether it’s doing the scares, the blood and guts or a surrealist single-shot to explain the past, Thongkham’s work is impeccable. It’s immersive, stylish and also very violent. The soundtrack, ranging from strings to big band jazz, also helps sell whatever atmosphere he’s going for at that particular moment. And while I suspect the change in pace may put some off, I reckon it’s a beautiful way of telling an ugly story. A great mix of the chilling and the chaotic, The Maid is a solid slice of horror. And a reminder of how important festivals such as FrightFest are for promoting films we otherwise may know nothing about.