Sunday, April 28, 2013

Out of the Darkness (Thailand, 1971)

Out of the Darkness’ status as Thailand’s first science fiction film places it more within its own special realm of obscurity than one of notoriety. For the reason one need only consider the low profile of Thailand -- a country whose taste for film fantasy strays more toward the mythological and supernatural -- as a producer of cinematic sci-fi. The fact that we have to drag in outliers like Yod Manut Computer and Giant and Jumbo A to pad the list speaks volumes.

But what makes Out of the Darkness interesting, as a representative of an under-loved genre within its home market, is the measures that its first time director, Prince Chatrichalem Yukol, took to compensate for that fact. Part of a long tradition of Thai royals who dedicated themselves to the practice of filmmaking, Yukol, who would go on to helm such event pictures as 2001’s The Legend of Suriyothai, claims to have conceived of the project as something of a lark. Nonetheless, his ambitions to play with genre didn’t prevent him from trying to sooth potentially squeamish audiences with a dose of the familiar. As a result, Out of the Darkness, while still clearly a science fiction film, is notable for being a desperately crowd pleasing example of same, amiably folding into its mix of space invasion tropes elements of such popular Thai cinema staples as youth drama, rural action, and musical comedy.

The film sees a very early appearance by Yukol’s favored leading man, Sorapong Chatree, who would go on to Thai superstardom in the late 70s and 80s -- much of it in films that would later, thanks to the vagaries of international film rights, put his acting in the service of nonsensical Godfrey Ho ninja movies. Here Chatree plays Sek, the assistant to an astronomer named Professor Thongchai. When the two men observe the fall to Earth of an oddly behaving meteor, they set off toward the coast to investigate. Along the way, they come upon a mine that is under siege by a gang of bandits who are attempting to rob it. After a protracted gun battle laden with explosions, Sek and Thongchai help drive the gang off, and are rewarded by the mine’s owner, Luang Kosit, with an invitation to his home.

Back at the home we meet Kosit’s spirited young daughter, Chonlada, who’s entertaining a group of her teenage friends from the city with a weekend of wholesome go-go dancing. Chonlada tells the astronomers that she witnessed the fall of the meteor, and offers, along with her friends, to take them by boat to the site, an island called Ra Gam that’s home to a tribe called the Sea Clan. Meanwhile, sparks of attraction between Sek and Chonlada create tensions with certain of the girl’s male cohorts that will later manifest themselves in inconvenient ways.

After a boat ride filled with song and youthful mirth, the gang arrives on Ra Gam only to find the Sea Clan’s village eerily deserted. Deserted, that is, except for the freshly flayed skeletons of the villagers that are stacked like logs inside every hut. The cause for this, it turns out, is a shambling, tentacled heap with a green streetlight for a face that turns its victims into laser-eyed zombies who in turn blast away at every human within radius. The end sum of this game is that all of the Sea Clan has been annihilated except for the Elder’s daughter, Sarai, whom the gang takes back to the mainland with them. Once ensconced back in Chonlada’s home, the group can only pray that the beast does not find its way to shore. But, of course, it’s not long before it makes land and starts slaughtering necking couples on the beach.

Out of the Darkness does not enjoy a high reputation. Chatrichalem Yukol himself has described it as “terrible”. Yet it deserves credit for being, despite the cultural hurdles it faced, a surprisingly enjoyable example of old school creature feature cheesiness. Yukol studied film in Los Angeles, alongside future luminaries like Francis Ford Coppola, and brought to the picture a drive-in sensibility that today makes it companionable to such American classics of 1960s sock hop sci-fi as The Horror of Party Beach and Sting of Death. (It also calls to mind the British Island of Terror, and features some very Hammer-esque -- and possibly needle dropped -- string swirls on its soundtrack.) But, while it is Western in its storytelling rhythms, it equally pays tribute to Thai cinema’s traditionally more leisurely approach to pacing. This means that what seems like it should be an 80 minute B movie gets telescoped into something more on the temporal scale of a Lord of the Rings feature. Certain scenes, such as a climactic cat and mouse game between the creature and the kids that takes place in a subterranean cave, extend to the point of seeming like they’re eating your future before your eyes.

But at the same time, that cave scene looks great, thanks to Yukol’s very Bava-esque use of lighting on some fun and expressionistically artificial looking sets. He also scores high with the scenes of the ravaged Sea Clan village, which, with their minimal music and windswept visuals, convey a delicious, arid chill. It is such things that mark Yukol, whatever his later achievements in hard hitting social dramas and big budget prestige pictures may be, as a true genre fan, an honorary monster kid. And when someone like that is put in charge of a picture like Out of the Darkness, it’s hard for me to hate it.


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