Thai horror isn’t exactly famed internationally for its great subtlety – just look to SARs Wars: The Bangkok Zombie Crisis, The Snake King’s Child or Demonic Beauty – which makes the harrowing first 40 minutes of The Victim, aka Phii Khon Pen, such a triumph.
There’s some ropy CG of course (namely in ‘scared to death’ ashen rictus’ that make those of Ringu look naturalistic), and some set-piece scares that go on for far too long, but it’s well constructed suspense, with largely old school in camera effects as aspiring actress Ting (Pitchanart Sakakorn) gets increasingly involved in re-enacting increasingly eerie and brutal murders (it helps that some of the sets are the locations of actual murders, helping the film’s mystique no end) as the victim for earnest young police lieutenant Teerasak Kedkaew (Kiradej Ketakinta) – a man with all kinds of family friendly shades of Scream‘s Deputy Dewey about him.
After each ‘performance’ for a circus of newspaper photographers, news crews and passers-by (something that the police, bizarrely enough, actually do in Thailand), she lights an incense stick and seeks the blessing of the poor soul she frets has been disturbed. Each time a different ghoul appears, unseen by her, until one particularly gristly killing, that of model-turned-actress Meen (Apasiri Nitibhon) kicks things into serious gear with knuckle-whitening tension and an unravelling mystery, all low camera angles, sickly lighting and lengthening shadows.
Everything is seemingly drawing to a conclusion after 40-odd minutes – the bad guy shot, the ghost laid to rest, Deputy Dewey arriving in the knick of time – but then – BAM – the twist kicks in, and we’re presented with all the escalation that you typically get in the second half of a horror film, but with – for all intents and purposes – a completely new cast of characters.
The CG returns with renewed force as well, bringing along with it a decaying corpse effect reminiscent of that ‘zombify yourself’ photoshop tutorial from the early days of Facebook, and the director elects to get the most out of his jump scares and death scenes by having some characters be offed over and over again in dream sequences that increasingly push you away from the centre of the plot.
Starting strongly, The Victim puts all its chips on an early twist that only serves to make you care less and less about the characters at the point of the film where you need to care about them the most – the point where it all feels like the ghost train at Alton Towers, so even the final, monster of a twist has no purchase on which to turn our world upside down.