Malaysian horror films rise from the dead

Posted on 21 March 2012 – 01:19pm
Last updated on 21 March 2012 – 01:43pm

KUALA LUMPUR (March 21, 2012): Haunted highways, an oil-smeared ghoul prowling villages for virgins, vampiress spirits thirsting for blood: Malaysia has an obsession with the supernatural rooted in age-old legends.

Now that obsession is being increasingly projected upon the nation’s cinema screens, as horror movies have quickly emerged as a force in a booming domestic film industry.

But it wasn’t always so. Horror films were effectively banned in the Muslim-majority country for three decades for celebrating the other-worldly in violation of Islamic teachings.

But since strongman premier Mahathir Mohamad retired in 2003 — and popular culture was allowed to relax a bit — they have risen from the dead.

Three of Malaysia’s six top-grossing films are fright flicks made in the past two years, and the genre made up more than a third of domestic movies in 2011.

This growth, along with popular action films and comedies, has helped fuel a burgeoning industry.

The number of local films in cinemas grew from just eight in 2000 to 49 in 2011 and ticket sales have quintupled in the last six years.

Last year local movies collected more than RM100 million (US$32 million) in box office sales.

Horror films have struck a chord because they reflect the country’s village culture and the traditional superstitions that trouble Malay hearts, says director Ahmad Idham Ahmad Nazri.

“Horror movies are the type that will be close to our culture,” said the director of 2011 box-office hit “Ghost Pillion Rider,” about a motorcycle speedster haunted by the spirit of a girl who died aboard his bike.

Malaysia’s highest grossing horror movie ever — and its third biggest overall — “Ghost Pillion Rider” collected RM8.53 million, around RM3 million less than record-setting action film “KL Gangster” from the same year.

“In any country, for you to understand the culture, where they come from, you watch horror movies,” Ahmad Idham added.

While differing religious views differentiate Asian horror from that in the West, the region has contributed its own takes on familiar tropes, from Japan’s psychological frights to Hong Kong’s horror-comedies.

After a 30-year lull in Malaysia — censors stopped approving scary movies as Islamic sentiments rose in the 1970s — “Fragrant Night Vampire” hit screens in 2004.

The film, about a “pontianak”, or vampiress spirit — a recurring Malay legend and movie subject — was a huge hit and even won accolades abroad.

“Malaysian filmmakers suddenly realised there is a lot of money to be made in horror films… so they jumped on the bandwagon,” said Andrew Hock Soon Ng, a film expert with the Malaysia campus of Australia’s Monash University.

“However modern we are, we are still very much regulated by our traditional belief systems,” Ng said.

Malays were animist before Islam’s 15th-century arrival, but belief in the existence of spirits separable from physical forms and black magic still lurks under the Muslim veneer.

A recurring Malaysian character is the “orang minyak,” or “oily man,” an elusive bogeyman smeared in black oil who hunts for virgins to rape.

It was immortalised in 1958’s “Curse of the Oily Man” by the late P.Ramlee, Malaysia’s most celebrated filmmaker, and real-life “sightings” remain common.

In January, local media reported residents of a suburb of the capital Kuala Lumpur patrolling streets after two “orang minyak” were spotted.

Meanwhile, reports of school classes being disrupted by suspected cases of “possessed” students are regular.

In one publicised incident in 2008, when 35 students were gripped by hysteria in a school in eastern Pahang state, school authorities reportedly held special religious recitals and prayers and engaged a spiritual healer to “cleanse” the school.

Ahmad Idham said two of his own crew became hysterical while filming one of his several fright films, and a stuntman died in an accident on one of his sets — crew blamed supernatural forces.

He now takes “precautions” when shooting, such as praying to Allah and seeking guidance from his uncle, an Islamic spiritual healer.

Mahathir, still an influential conservative voice, last year called such films a bad influence that stoked panic. The National Fatwa Council, which issues Islamic edicts, called them “counter-productive to building a developed society.”

There has been no fatwa or any hint of a new ban, but like all Malaysian movies, horror films are policed by the Film Censorship Board. It orders objectionable scenes cut and positive messages inserted, such as Islam winning out in the end over the supernatural.

In “Ghost Pillion Rider,” for example, the reckless motorcycle-racing protagonist repents, becoming more religious and responsible.

Such pressure stunts a promising homegrown genre that faces competition from imported Hollywood and other foreign blockbusters, and shackles directors who need to “think beyond” the conventional to expand their art, said Ahmad Idham.

“It’s quite difficult… to explore new things. As a filmmaker you have to think beyond. But when you start to think beyond, people cannot catch up,” he said. –AFP


See also

Is Dr Mahathir right? Do ghost/hantu films hurt society?


New Straits Times

Horror movies: Don’t ban ’em, show the unseen

  A scene from the film Santau. Horror movies can educate the public on how to deal with the supernatural.

A scene from the film Santau. Horror movies can educate the public on how to deal with the supernatural.

INDEED, there are many ghost stories aired on television today, of which many, including former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, have said were “counter productive” towards building a scientific society.

Normally, once we sit in front of our television sets and have in mind that this coming movie or drama is about ghosts, we expect to see scenes that contradict the norms.

Rarely do we have the intention to learn anything from such ghost stories unless we are involved in some sort of study or are in such predicaments ourselves.

Then, perhaps we might be looking for useful tips on how to solve our problems. But for the great majority of us, these movies are just entertainment.

Now the issue is should we or should we not flood young minds with such movies? Should we have guidelines so that producers do not inundate viewers with “ghosts”? Or should we educate our young about these unseen beings?

After all, we have been educating our youth on science and technology for decades. We are in the cyber world now. We cannot live without the Internet today.
Does this not mean that science is the only way to solve life’s many problems? We co-exist with all these unseen creatures or beings.

And this is the message we should try to pass to our youth, that we are not alone, we are each born with creatures destined to be our qarin — the unseen friend that helps us deal with our eternal enemy, the iblis and syaitan.

So crucial is this knowledge that each of us is reminded to recite the supplication for the protection of Allah against these syaitan in whatever we do especially before we recite the holy Quran.
Perhaps these are the facts that filmmakers should have in mind when producing horror movies — that the ghosts mentioned are by the names that the Malays, especially those of past generations, have been giving to the jinns of the iblis and syaitan.

If these jinns were tall they were called Hantu Galah, if they wreaked great mischief and suffering, they were called Hantu Raya.

But the message should be that we should never be afraid of them because they are far less superior than us. This is what our movies should contain, and how we can overcome our fear once we know their secrets.

We should not totally ban ghost stories, as bomoh, jinn and syaitan are part of our lives. Some have gone through painful experiences as a result of them. Our youth must believe in this, not just in their iPods or laptops. We cannot deny them these facts.

We cannot say that knowing about the spiritual realm is counter productive. Ghosts are as real as we are. They live in another dimension but co-exist with us.

It is a complex subject matter, difficult to comprehend and believe because people today only believe in what they can see with their bare eyes and touch with the hands.

Therefore, we should present them in movies but based on the actual facts. And to achieve this, movie producers must do their homework.


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