Big snake and a cabin possessed

Two new films arrive this week with hype _ a Thai spiritual tale and a nutty American teen horror

The name that looms larger than anybody else's here is Dan-aran Saengthong. Asorapit, or Venom, has been filmed _ and augmented, to a wonky outcome _ from the writer's 47-page novella, a black satire on faith and superstition that bears down on readers with the banner of magic realism. Dan-aran is Thailand's modernist master, inspired as much by Joyce and Marquez as by old Thai scribes, and his international reputation is solid; his most famous book, White Shadow, was translated into all major European languages. Venom first appeared in the English version serialised in the Bangkok Post (translated by Marcel Barang), and later in Thai, in which readers are seduced and terrified by the story of a boy and a vicious cobra set in a village where a shaman reigns like a godhead.

Asorapit (Venom) Starring Nonpichet Wongchanoksirikul, Preecha Ketkham, Chayutpol Bampen. Directed by Jarunee Thammayu. Showing at Lido only at 6pm until April 29. With Thai with English subtitles.

Made with sweat and uplifted by faith, the film lacks the pervasive mood _ the devilish alarm _ that runs through the book. It feels too dry, too indecisive. And too bad it doesn't bite, not even when the snake (not particular realistic anyhow) has unfurled its fangs.

Dan-aran's original story is lean and mean, yet rich in language and symbolism: a crippled boy lives with his peasant parents in a village where a shaman sets himself up as a spiritual leader and builds a shrine for woshipping villagers. The boy wants to be a shadow-puppetmaster, but then comes the fateful evening when a cobra attacks him and sets up the terrifying final part of the story: In a mix of surreal savagery and morality tale that has proved to be the most troublesome for any movie-maker daring to stage it, Dan-aran evokes a powerful imagery as the big snake wraps itself around the boy as the victim, in a last-gasp fight, grabs the viper's neck with his good hand. Together, the boy and the snake are locked in a fatal embrace as the villagers watch on.

Perhaps David Lynch could render this kind of scene without plunging into the ready-made pitfall of kitsch. The sight of a giant snake, hissing, is always risky in any serious movie, and Venom compromises Dan-aran's luxurious prose and spiritual gravity through its half-cooked visual. But even before this scene, the film, which includes many new details of the characters, seems to drift; it's uncertain which angle to tackle and how to visualise the interpretation of the story. This despite some early scenes that show promise and rhythm _ like the snake attack at the beginning _ and despite the film-maker's apparent devotion to solemnity of the text. It all goes back to the same thing: when it comes to a good book, stick with the book. Especially the one featuring a big snake.

The Cabin in the Woods Starring Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Richard Jenkins. Directed by Drew Goddard

Ok, you must have heard the hype. You must have had curiosity and doubt. Perhaps you're even hoping for the schadenfreud moment, when all the buzz yields just a boo.

The Cabin in the Woods is plugged as a new breed of horror film, a typical horny-kids-stuck-in-the-woods-as-serial-killer-lurks movie that has a surprise up its sleeve and a ready hand to pull the rug off your feet. It is all of those, but just when you thought _ after Scream and Scary Movies, perhaps, or after the M. Night Shyamalan shenanigans _ that American horror flicks are a big recycle bin, here comes something that's clever and unpretentious, over-the-top yet full of winking. The Cabin in the Woods is not a new breed of horror movie; instead it's a crazy species that heralds the apocalypse. It's made by someone who, in theory, wants to make sure that it would be all right from now if we didn't have to lay our weary eyes on horror films again.

There's a slutty college girl, of course, and a virgin, sort of. There's an athletic, quarterback-type hunk (Chris Hemsworth, before he was Thor) and a dopehead. And sure enough there are murderers prowling the woods, waiting to jump on the (almost) copulating teenagers. All the elements are in place, almost too perfectly. But while the good portion of the film sticks to that appearance, the rug-pulling _ and this is the film's smart design _ doesn't come at the end. The Cabin in the Woods begins in a vast concrete bunker in which a team of engineers, led by the sardonic Richard Jenkins, operate a low-tech, clunky machine that facilitates the spying of the group of teens who're going to spend a weekend in the cabin of the title.

In jocular banter, the engineers talk about Tokyo and Sweden, and how this American operation can't be a failure. They're cocksure that it won't _ it never was _ though we have not a clue what mission they're talking about.

This is a comedy that turns into horror, then into something like pop-existentialism pondering (with a wink, no doubt). The central question is determinism vs free will, and the object of mockery ranges from the god-like power of reality TV show to our Satanic obsession. The five teenagers in the story _ two couples, plus a joker _ will be killed off one by one, only that The Cabin in the Woods smartly teases us with its meta-quality (what's that invisible digital wall doing in the woods?) yet keeps its card close to its chest and slowly reveals its tricks one by one, right until the end. It's a continual game of outguessing: naturally, we'd think we know what the film is up to, only that, like god or Lucifer, the film holds the Judgement Day up its bloody sleeves.

Crazy, totally, and deliriously fun. I'd better not say more. The Cabin in the Woods is the work of director Drew Goddard and producer Joss Whedon. Both of them were involved with the TV teen-horror hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Goddard also directed episodes of Lost, while Whedon has directed the upcoming, much-awaited superhero medley The Avengers. With The Cabin in the Woods, they give what looks like a dead genre something more than a rigor mortis, something like a giddy jolt of the brainwaves.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist