Review of James Lee's Histeria

First things first. You have to understand a few things in the Malaysian context before delving further into this review.

"Histeria" is the Malay word for "hysteria," and in Malaysia, the word describes more than what is usually associated with it. You see, in Malaysia, hysteria is a phenomenon among young girls that is supernatural and mystical in nature. It's not just a mere psychological condition. But that is also just what some quarters perceive, especially shamans and practitioners of mystical arts. Over the years, there have been many reported cases of teenage schoolgirls becoming hysterical in class, sometimes not just one girl but a few at the same time. More often than not, they are blamed on evil spirits that are believed to have possessed the girls.

The other thing that you need to know are the various ghost stories associated with schools. I don't know about other countries, but in Malaysia, every school has its own ghost stories and haunted spots. It's something you just can't escape when you're young. Most often it's the toilets that get the haunted reputation, for some reason.

James Lee's Histeria takes advantage of all these urban legends and superstitions, and tries to cook up a horror tale that is relevant to anyone and everyone who grew up in Malaysia.

Now here's the third thing you need to know: Malaysian horror movies are usually rather crap. They're illogical, silly, boring, unoriginal, and most of all, not scary nor engaging.

While James may often bore us with his extremely slow-moving independent "arthouse" films, fortunately, Histeria doesn't have much dead air and moves along quite nicely, thanks to the director keeping things happening all the time, and nice art direction that manages to create a disturbing atmosphere. James keeps the hallways and corridors of the school in which the story takes place, draped in shadows, always with a single light source that nicely isolates its protagonists and surrounding them with the dark unknown. The visual set-ups evoke expectations that there are things just within the peripheral of our vision and entice our eyes to roam and search each frame.

Histeria concerns a group of schoolgirls at a boarding school who play a prank on their teachers and a local shaman one night. One of them pretends to be possessed and hysterical. Pissed off at being duped, the shaman then tells the girls that such things are not fun and games, and that only bad things will befall them.

The girls are then punished by the principal who has them stay in the old wing dormitory of the school and doing cleaning up chores, while the rest of the school goes on a long holiday break.To kill their boredom, the girls tell each other ghost stories, play a prank on the new girl among them, and plan secret rendezvouses with their boyfriends. One day, one of the girls sees the school gardener planting something in an isolated area of the school grounds. She digs it up and finds that it's a strange bag of bones. That's when the fun begins for the audience.

Copious amounts of blood are spilled as the girls are killed off one by one by an unseen being.

And here, you need to know yet another thing about Malaysian cinema: filmmakers usually do not risk pushing violence and risque elements too far lest their work gets butchered by the censors. Histeria does attempt to go as far as it can, with a severed head and spilled intestines, but the actual acts of violence are done non-graphically or with jerky camera moves and quick editing. I'm not sure if they have a more graphic version cut specially for foreign audiences, as filmmakers here often do. But half the excitement is gone when the promise of terrible violence remains just that - undelivered promise.

But James does a commendable job here creeping us out with his visual set-ups, and characters that for once, actually behave logically in a Malaysian horror movie. He elicits some good performances from the young actresses, especially Liyana Jasmay who plays Murni, the girl who is pushed around by the others and who finally goes over the edge when the terror becomes unbearable for all of them.

But if anything were to be blamed for being the biggest flaw of the movie, it would be the script that allows the last moments of the movie to become another typical monster flick with the victims running helter-skelter, screaming and dying.

There is a great potential in the story to be more than just that. Here are a group of confused teenagers still discovering who they really are (with touches of lesbianism, and a "controversial" kissing scene that stirred the conservative mainstream film scene), stalked by a demon with the ability of taking on the identity of its victims. But sadly that is not fleshed out, delved into, nor shaped into a relevant subtext.

Had the filmmakers had more breathing space to go hog wild with the violence and the scares, I seriously think Histeria could have been a cult favourite of the blood-and-gore variety. It's definitely not the stuff of great horror, but it could have really been a fun watch in a midnight-movie, popcorn-and-soda sort of way.

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