Several years back, a surprise came out of Thailand that made a name for itself in the supernatural horror subgenre: Shutter. While not innovative in comparison to other Asian ghost stories flooding the scene -- a stringy-haired, spooky female specter torments a photographer with a troubling past -- the simple premise of capturing ghosts in photos and the guilt of one's transgressions gave it the moody thrust the jump-scares needed to carry weight, creating something disquieting out of ordinary darkrooms and apartments. Sopon Sukdapisit, the third wheel writer accompanying the writer/director duo who made that film, now takes the helm behind Laddaland, a story of domestic squabbles, haunted subdivisions, and appearances being deceiving for those with good intentions and desires for their family. Unfortunately, this overlong and infuriatingly unrewarding genre pic ends up being one of the worst I've seen once it's finished, speaking little to the quality of contemporary Thai horror successes.
To satisfy any curiosity about the title, Laddaland is an idyllic subdivision in northern Thailand, where an aging marketer, Thee (Saharath Sangkapreecha), somehow finds an inexpensive home there for his family: his beautiful wife (Piyathida Woramusik) and two children. Since things have been rocky for them as of late -- including Thee's lower-income jobs and their daughter, Nan (Suthatta Udomsilp), living with her grandmother for several years -- this appears to be the ideal opportunity for all of them to become a cohesive family unit. And barring a few speedbumps, including Nan acting rebellious and noticing the neighbors acting a little volatile, things seem to be moving in the right direction. However, strange events start happening in the community, starting with the discovery of a mutilated corpse crammed inside a refridgerator in one of the homes. And as more events start to occur, more unsettling supernatural events also emerge in those vacant homes.
Co-writers Sopon Sukdapisit and Sopana Chaowwiwatkul try desperately to make the domestic happenings in Laddaland work as a backbone that informs the supernatural suspense to follow, from the family's financial issues to struggles with a rebellious teenager. Overly determined to make that component work, this lead-in to the spectral elements frustrates by being way too drawn-out and histrionic; stereotypical bickering with a teenage girl leads to after-school special type glances from the parents, heightened by the persistent and irrational nagging from Thee's mother-in-law about his place as a father and provider. This angle works well if handled properly -- Insidious being a prime example of domestic conflict built around children that elevates the lead-in atmosphere -- but here it's forced to a point of apathy, where boisterous acting matches the stiff, contrived portrait of domestic unrest.
Can you dismiss those elements and just dig into the paranormal, for kicks-'n-giggles? Somewhat. That disconnect becomes a problem once the scare-tactics emerge in Laddaland though, since they heavily rely on the feeble trust issues and mental unrest within the family. Director Sopon Sukdapisit creates creepy, dark spaces where anticipated long-haired ghosts emerge around those whom shouldn't be there, while prosthetic work creates a few grisly images of torn-apart ghosts that'll muster a few chills. And, as with Shutter, careful attention is paid to sound design; echoing footsteps and stirring spectral noises engulf the ambience. However, the thrust of the horror assumes that the audience shares some vested interest in the central family, about their physical and mental integrity and what's happening to the equally strung-out families around them, so the traumatized ghosts are going bump in the night with only cursory interest behind why this curse plagues the subdivision -- and its citizens.
Laddaland peters out in predictable jolts and non-scary haunts that any Asian horror veteran could foresee, plagued by juvenile elements like a digital camera dangling from a cat's neck that conveniently -- and all-too-predictably -- captures images of ghosts and those being hunted by them. That's fine, though; it's a low-boiling, dismissible aggravation with the film that remains tolerable enough to continue watching these creepy machinations. That is, until the ending. In a loud charge of spectral confusion and heightened emotions within a dimly-lit house, Sopon Sukdapisit hurls the climax into a vortex of overtly-dark emotional shock value that it doesn't earn in the slightest. Pulling the trigger on base emotional provocation built around Thee's family for the pure sake of grimness, one incident, an irresponsible articulation of what a truly artificial "got ya!" moment feels like, ruins whatever rudimentary satisfactions came before it. The ghosts of Laddaland appear fine with trying to take even the most innocent lives out of existence, but these storytellers aren't concerned with justifying the reason for doing so.
Video and Audio:
Laddaland arrives from Millenium Entertainment in a 1.78:1-framed, anamorphic widescreen transfer that retains the quaint photography's dusty, eerie presence. The vibrant, angular home where Thee's family lives hows off a fine eye for rich lighting, while darker sequences hold off on being overly-grainy or obscured by contrast imbalance. Details remain modest, with only a few elements (a gun, some wood grain, a few tiles in the floor) revealing impressive focus, while the switches between lower-saturation and normal-saturation palettes are responsibly handled. It's a fine-enough transfer.
Despite my feelings about the film, I can safely say that the Thai Dolby Digital 5-channel track kept me engaged on a pure sensory level. Verbal clarity is fine enough across most scenes, never distorting and always sounding natural in their environments, while the blasts of music and overall atmospheric elements kept the more energetic scenes centered on a specific mood. Where the track locked me in was the use of the rear channels; consistent knocking, banging, and other distressing rattles pour from several different directions at key points, and they're more than capable of causing a jump or a jolt where needed. A hilarious English Dub is also available (it's actually the default language track), along with optional English subtitles.
Not too much accompanies Laddaland in the extras department. Interviews with the Director and Cast (6:15, 16x9) and a Behind the Scenes (5:59, 16x9) look mostly emphasize press-kit style chats with those involved in the film, touching on the writing and the characters. The behind-the-scenes material is brief, but you get to see the director in action for a few frames in between the interviews. A lengthy Trailer (3:04, 16x9) rounds everything else off, capturing the mood and point of the film while giving away most of its decent scares.
Up until then end, I was prepared to give Laddaland a pass. The atmosphere Sopon Sukdapisit creates isn't terrible: dark houses within a haunted subdivision offer varied-enough locales for ghosts to stir. And the domestic drama, while unsatisfying, gave the spooks enough of a thrust to remain watchable, where the watcher tolerates forced drama just to get to the good stuff that's heightened by said drama. The ending, however, struck a nerve; attempting to shock its audience in one fell stroke, the film instead infuriates with a grim-dark blast of emotional manipulation that it neither properly orchestrates nor thematically justifies -- a hollow punctuation that rolls eyes and leaves one aghast that the filmmakers would try something that insipid. Rewatch Insidious and the original Thai version of Shutter long before giving this one a chance, which should be avoided like a house in the haunted subdivision where it's set. Skip It.