Fikri Jermadi checks his own biases as he checks in with M.S. Prem Nath’s latest film.
Watching ‘IRUL: Ghost Hotel’ by M.S. Prem Nath is a discombobulating experience on a number of different levels. Some of this is a result of the film itself, but others highlights biases worth reflecting on. After all, the horror genre is incredibly useful to examine a societies’ discontents in numerous ways.
We follow Punitah (Punitah Shanmugam), a documentary filmmaker on a mission. The objective is to find out more about what happened at Crag Hotel, an iconic landmark in Penang. A young man went missing on a date, and though his girlfriend Nithya (Lavaanya Shwetha Bhan) survived that traumatic experience, it nevertheless left its mark on her, rendering her unable to articulate what happened that night.
Coming along for the ride is Punitah’s filmmaking crew, primarily the cameraman Senthil (Senthil Kumaran Muniandy) and his assistant, Vicran (Vicran Elanggoven). Additionally, she also enlisted the help of a ghost-hunting team, a group of young YouTubers made up of Durrie Raj (Durrgah Rajah), Ranjeetha (Ranjeetha Sivam) and Ammu (Amuthesan Rajaratnam), who also goes by the name of David.
On the surface, that seems like a pretty big team to make a documentary with in an abandoned hotel, but in addition to being potential cannon fodder to feed the gore machine later on, they also provide a greater number of perspectives in the film itself. What makes the found footage genre compelling is the restrictions placed on the filmmakers and viewers; as each character is armed with at least a smartphone, this gives Prem Nath a greater variety of shots to work with.
This could be seen within the first few scenes of the film. Punitah, posing as a lawyer, finds an opportunity to interview Nithya, still recovering in a hospital from her ordeals. In addition to a secret camera she has on her person, there is also a security camera in the room, as well as a more professional set-up used to monitor Nithya’s behaviour. All this gave the film’s editors, Lordes Gason Paul and Prem Nath himself, greater flexibility to create more energy in the film.
It is a clever way to circumvent some of the disadvantages of the genre, of which I am a somewhat accidental fan. Though there are no prizes for guessing the catalyst that is ‘The Blair Witch Project’, this interest is further developed not only through other films like ‘Paranormal Activity’, but also the Spanish film series ‘REC’ and their subsequent sequels and remakes (including the ‘Quarantine’ films).
Great fun though these films are, the constraint of having one perspective (e.g. an out-of-the-way security camera or a bumbling cameraman) as your window into this world can also be uncomfortable. That’s not to say that ‘IRUL: Ghost Hotel’ is immune from this as well, it’s just that I can appreciate Prem Nath’s pushing of the boundaries here, which are used to great effect later in the film.
The irony of this analysis is how the film initially suffered from a lack of energy in its establishing. The relatively slow pace of storytelling in this segment was perhaps affected further by my expectation formed by the rapidity of the films listed above. More often than not, they were quicker in getting to the action; in ‘IRUL: Ghost Hotel’, night couldn’t fall quickly enough.
Once the dark is in, that is where the fun begins, as Prem Nath pulls out all the stops in making the film what it is. There are some misses here and there (certain plot points fell away from me), but the hits should be enough to score points with fans of the genre. I also see some shots and scenes pay homage to films of the past, and that is something I greatly appreciate.
Having said that, another irony is that it could be argued that ‘IRUL: Ghost Hotel’ is too well-made. A thing about the found footage genre is the dirty grit to them, manifesting fear by obscuring the truth just that bit longer. This film, on the other hand, is relatively well-lit, with a sound design (by Dustin Riduan Shah and Jeson Gnanapnegasam) to match. Though this is actually a compliment, it is nevertheless a mismatch between the film and my expectations.
One thing I did find to be pleasant is the representation of Malaysian Indians in this horror context. In the Malaysian context, Prem Nath is actually walking down a path as well-lit as his scenes; the likes of ‘Seru’ (co-directed by Pierre Andre and Woo Ming Jin) and ‘Bagunan’ by Sein Qudsi and Khir Rahman is proof in this pudding (Pierre liked the genre so much he would later double dip with ‘Highland Tower’).
I do not remember, however, a Malaysian Indian horror film with such aesthetics. The film itself does not call this to attention (with perhaps the exception of one colonial reference), but in taking stock as the credits rolled, I realise what a pleasure it was to have seen something different. I can imagine how such representation may be important, and this is where I need to work on getting greater exposure to the world.
Perhaps I begin with Prem Nath’s previous solo directorial efforts (‘Uyir the Soul’ and ‘Vere Vazhi Ille’ are also horror films). For now, I’ll end this review of ‘IRUL: Ghost Hotel’ as a film with its moments, though not without its missteps. The art direction helps to suspend disbelief (especially when the big bad makes itself known), especially with Prem Nath’s pushing of the boundaries with his tricks of the trade, and I can imagine this being a fun little film to watch on a Friday night.
You can watch the film on Astro First. Click here to find out more.
Featured image credit: Wallhere