As with most horror anthologies, Phobia (or 4bia to give the film its alternative, gimmicky title) is a mixed bag. A quartet of ghost stories from Thailand that vary in stylistic tricks and genre clichés, they are united by the impression they give of being extended 10-minute shorts hastily jammed together with no particular format. Some of the stories are linked by references to other characters but there’s no common theme or central thread, and the title itself is misleading: this isn’t an exploration of different phobias, just a straightforward play on people’s understandable and natural fear of ghosts.
The first segment, Happiness, is throwaway. A lonely woman is trapped in her apartment thanks to a broken leg and begins a text conversation with an admirer from beyond the grave. With little dialogue and the girl constantly flipping up her mobile to check for messages, it seems to have been written by the cut-throat producers from the Orange ads and proves why interacting with technology just doesn’t make for good cinema, no matter how much the phone companies want it to happen.
This is followed by Tit for Tat, a jittery, flashy attempt to create a mythological villain in the style of Japan’s Ring or Death Note. The rushed story sees a school kid take revenge on a gang of bullies by invoking some sort of devilish spirit from a book, the gimmick being that whoever looks at the page is instantly killed. This results in some splattery deaths that would be vastly improved if director Paween Purikitpanya stopped his pop video editing and filter changes to give the characters some room to breathe. Tension is sacrificed for gore, perhaps to cram in the thrills lacking from Happiness, and it quickly descends into muddy and unnecessary computer effects that only prove why all successful horror movies employ the ‘less is more’ approach.
The second half is a vast improvement with In the Middle being the anthology’s stand-out, not because it’s particularly scary but because it keeps a tight, coherent plot, revolving around a group of lads on a camping holiday who are haunted by a friend after he’s drowned. It’s the most post-modern of the collection with the guys talking about twists in movies and ghost stories while being trapped in one themselves. Like Scream it’s self-referential, director Parkpoom Wongpoom even gives away the ending to his own film Shutter, and the humour is engaging until it reveals a neat little shock of its own.
Last Fright is the most technically accomplished of the bunch, a slow-burning chiller that doesn’t rely on ropey effects, just old-fashioned storytelling. It follows an air stewardess looking after the sole passenger on a plane who she inadvertently kills due to a food allergy. She must then make the return journey with the body, which, of course, comes back to haunt her. Thunderstorms and sheer panic evoke William Shatner’s desperate passenger in the classic Twilight Zone episode ‘Nightmare at 20000 Feet’ but Last Fright‘s slow start sums up the issue with Phobia as a whole; that at half an hour, each story stretches its concept thinly - except for Tit for Tat, which feels like a feature film stripped of its characterisation - and put together it’s a lengthy exercise, but one that does showcase Wongpoom’s skill as an accomplished horror director.