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by Jay Seaver

"Power corrupts - get it?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: My previous (limited) experience with Thai horror films, I admit, led me to paint the country's output in the genre with a broad brush - straightforward, bloody affairs that conform to the standard horror-movie template and lean heavily on sudden flashes of light and loud noises on the soundtrack to do their job. That's the trouble with forming an opinion from a small sample size of what is, evidently, a large population (horror films are very popular in Thailand). Certainly, some must be a bit more ambitious, as "Necromancer" is.

The story, which cuts back and forth in time, involves two detectives who, in their attempts to apprehend necromancer criminals, attempt to make use of those corrupting magics themselves. As the film starts, "Itti" (Chatchai Plengpanich) has already turned to the dark side, and is being held in a special prison cell designed to contain magic users. Of course, he escapes, seeking vengeance on his former partners. "Santi" (Akara Amarttayakul) is skeptical, but soon becomes obsessed with capturing Itti, though even the people in Itti's sights are saying to let him go - the price of trying to catch him is too steep.

The system of magic used in Necromancer comes straight from Thai superstition, where words written on amulets are meant to give their wearer power and good fortune. The next logical step is to tattoo one's spells on one's skin - after all, it's impossible to be cut off from one's powers if they're a part of you, right? Unless, of course, that other fellow happens to know a spell to do just that. Indeed, part of what sets Necromancer apart from many horror films, especially western ones, is not just the specific logic of its fantastic elements, but that it does, in fact, have a sort of system it sticks to. There's a logic to how the film approaches necromancy that allows it to almost believably be set in our real world.

The thing is, the story that gets this care isn't really that interesting. Itti's backstory is a pretty straightforward tale of police corruption. There's a certain logic to that, working the old "power corrupts" chestnut a couple of different ways - it's easy for a police officer to succumb to the graft offered him, and since necromancy involves deriving power from death, it's easy to see how it can literally corrupt a man. It's logical, and on the resonant side, but it's also not terribly high stakes. Extraordinary abilities might perhaps imply extraordinary goals, but this story's just a standard cop movie with tattoos that make the wearer invulnerable thrown into the mix. The various bits of mumbo-jumbo disguises it, and the back-and-forth timeline makes the audience work a little harder than they might have otherwise, but there's something pretty conventional behind the gloss.

And if you go with the premise that what's really important in any story is characterization, that's maybe not a terrible thing. Amarttayakul has what initially looks like a standard part to play as Santi, the brash young cop who is initially unwilling to give the idea of real live necromancers a passing thought. He gives Santi a sort of abrasive charm, implying that he has the sort of successful track record to back his cockiness up. It's a level of self-assurance that can easily turn tragic or vicious as he descends further into darkness as the obsession with catching Itti, and acquiring the tools to do so, grows. Plengpanich, on the other hand, doesn't really evolve Itti on-screen; he's the cunning, conniving cave-dwelling terrorist type whether he's in his cell or hiding out after escaping. It's basically the cool-tempered villain who doesn't waste a lot of effort in histrionics and may have some sort of rationalization in mind, but disposes of his enemies with ruthless efficiency. It's almost comical to see him in flashbacks, where he's a nebbishy little cop.

(I wish I'd been taking notes during the end credits, as there are a few other performances that made a good impression but I can't find either character or actor names: Itti hires a brain-stoppingly beautiful woman to help him steal the powers from one of his old partners, and Santi's partner is a fine example of the worried-partner archetype. On the other hand, the former partners that Itti is pursuing run together something fierce)

Piyapan Choopetch writes (with Leo Kittikorn) and directs, and as much as I said this is a fairly standard cop movie with a supernatural gloss added to it, the gloss is very nice. The detail work on all the supernatural elements is very nice, whether it be letters written in blood on the bottom of a bed (and the camerawork used to show it) or elaborate full body tattoos. Gunfights with invulnerable gangsters look good, as you can see and feel the impact of the bullet even if it's not doing a lot of damage. Having the "man disappears into a parade" bit take place during some festival where pierce themselves with large metal objects is a neat twist on the cliché (and a stomach-turning one; I saw a bunch of splattery movies at the festival and this actual Thai cultural thing is what made me avert my eyes). The editing could use some work - nothing wrong with jumping around in time, but this isn't the smoothest example of doing so.

"Necromancer" is a little more demanding than the standard horror movie, which is, I figure, a good thing. I'd like it to be a little more high-stakes, because there's enough ideas here for more than just a pretty-good movie.

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originally posted: 08/01/06 03:37:42
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