Revenge of the Pontianak

There were two classics of foreign horror that caused me to take a deep dive into horror about 15 years ago when I first discovered that people were uploading entire free movies to both YouTube (10 minutes at a time) and the now defunct Google Video. That deep dive resulted in my horror blog that began in 2009, and continues, although on a new URL and with less focus on horror, to this day. One of those movies was Sundel Bolong, a creepy horror film without subtitles starring the Queen of Indonesian Horror, Suzzanna. Sundel Bolong was my gateway into the world of Southeast Asia’s very specific ghosts that float around Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and the realm of the movie I’m going to attempt to write about today, Malaysia and Singapore.

These traditional ghosts such as Krasue, Leak, Aswang, Sundel Bolong, some varieties of the Pocong, and Pontianak, and I’m sure there are many others, usually seem to be the ghosts of women, and they inspire pants-on-head crazy terror in the village when they go on a rampage. Flying heads, really long tongues, eating babies, turning into animals, eating all the rice, eating all the mice, laughter, dancing, and possession are all part of the idiom. The men get mobilized by a sorcerer or priest type (horror archetype Eccentric Old Guy Who Knows What’s Going On) to go out and battle this ghost, with various results. It’s easy as the kind of horror fan who enjoys suspension of disbelief aka getting into the movie to root for the anti-ghost side until you realize, at least in the cases of Sundel Bolong and Pontianak, the ghost is a woman who’s been done very wrong, and she’s the real victim.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Others have done it better, and I’m not qualified for various reasons. But! I went on a rare trip onto Netflix to watch something other than Seinfeld last night because I’m fascinated by these categorized ghost flicks and they sometimes have newish ones, and Lord did I hit the jackpot with Revenge of the Pontianak.

Revenge of the Pontianak starts with a brief definition of the ghost, and then a voiceover by a woman pledging her eternal love. There’s a beautiful shot of a river, and then a standard red font horror movie title card. We then hear screams as we fly through the jungle to a wedding in the 1960s. Right away we know the groom has done something wrong because it’s the 1960s and he already has a son, and there’s no explanation of what happened to the mother. And also because we were told at the beginning that a Pontianak is the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth. But the wedding is lovely, making great use of the stilt houses and the time period’s music.

Break: I just got a phone call from my mom, who asked what I was writing about, and I gave her a primer on Southeast Asia’s folklore ghosts. She said she was sorry she asked, and put to me her standard question of how do you watch those movies. She was hoping I was writing about my life. I told her I was writing about a very important part of my life, how I became a blogger because of Sundel Bolong. She made an excuse to get off the phone.

Okay, so the groom has some shady secret, confirmed when an old friend of his shows up to the wedding and the groom is dismayed until he realizes his own brother invited said friend. What did these guys do? We know they did something. This is confirmed when the friend/surprise guest is accosted by a mysterious woman on his way home, and is found the next morning, by the bride, hanging very high in a tree above the newlyweds’ house. This causes the villagers to panic, of course, and there are two older men who know, if not the details, at least the nature of what is going on. The more imposing of the two tells the groom to clean his house. We’re next shown the bride scrubbing the friend’s blood off the deck of the house. This is very important foreshadowing, the fact that the new bride is the one doing the cleaning.

We the audience don’t get the flashback as to what this guy has done until over halfway through the movie, by which time there’s been a couple of possessions and another death. I liked that the story was dragged out, even though you obviously can guess what has happened if you’ve ever seen a movie. You want to see this guy confess, and some part of you wants to see him pay. And he does! This film becomes a story of spirit empowerment, with the ghost taking control of her own afterlife and choosing not who will destroy her, but who will set her free. I will admit I cried at the end.

I could sense that Revenge of the Pontianak was a remake or an homage, and reading an interview with one of the two directors I found I was right. Pontianak movies were apparently popular in the 50s and 60s, but the folklore is probably much older. I also told my husband while we were watching that this feels like a story someone would tell around a campfire, and I was right about that too, as the director said they used to tell this story when he was in the army. What is the story? Likely a cautionary tale about pregnancy, which vilifies the woman. I think the real moral here, in the parlance of our times, is don’t be a fuckboy.

But there’s another moral, that revenge does not allow you to live your best death. I will admit that, as I said, it’s easy to give yourself over to a horror movie and cheer for the living people even though they certainly have it coming to them for what they did to the now-ghost. And movies will manipulate you back and forth on that feeling. There’s a moment in every Ring movie, for example, where the characters explicitly feel sorry for Samara/Sadako, and more than one movie focused entirely on her being alive and mistreated. But then she keeps on scaring people literally to death and being the monster in not only the same movie where we just felt sorry for her, but also in later movies. What’s great about Revenge of the Pontianak is that when we get to that twist, where we hurt for Mina (the ghost, let’s give her her name, it’s Mina), we stay in that emotion for the rest of the film.

Revenge of the Pontianak is a beautiful looking movie that highlights both the lush jungle setting as well as the open airy and not naturally creepy dream home on stilts the main characters live in. The sets are limited to a few areas, but they’re gorgeous. There’s not a reliance on CGI, as the ghost is a lovely woman in makeup (including fright fingernails) with maybe one or two digital transformations but otherwise a 1960s style movie ghost. I will always heartily approve of ghosts that are just people in makeup with a few camera tricks and a little wire work. Some critics have complained about style over substance, but I like the style, and the substance is that it’s by nature a pretty straightforward story made more complex by the intentional turn into sympathy for the ghost. Which we should have been feeling all along when watching these ghost movies, but sometimes it just takes a horror fan as director to transform the needed undertone into an articulated plot point.

If you have Netflix, you might also want to check out Suzzanna: Buried Alive, which is an homage to Sundel Bolong. Some of these directors are just killing it with remakes, including the 2017 remake of Pengabdi Setan called Satan’s Slaves, and the 2019 Queen of Black Magic, based on 1981’s Ratu Ilmu Hitam starring Suzzanna. Of course I recommend the originals too.

P.S. If you’re interested, the other movie that got me into blogging was Dario Argento’s Deep Red.