How is it possible for a movie nowadays to wring so many unsettling jump scenes from one simple premise? With Alone, directors Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom prove that their remarkably scary freshman effort, Shutter, was no fluke. This time they push their character-based horror in a different direction, centering the story on a woman named Pim (Masha Wattanapanich). Pim was born as a conjoined twin, but her sister Ploy died after the two were successfully separated. Pim married her sweetheart Vee (Vittaya Wasukraipaisan) and moved to South Korea.
As the film begins, Pim is celebrating her birthday. One of her party guests pulls out a deck of fortune-telling cards and informs Pim of good news: something she has lost will soon return to her. Then Pim receives bad news: her mother in Thailand has suffered a stroke. Pim and Vee rush home to help out. Almost as soon as they arrive, Pim begins seeing frightening apparitions of her dead sister. Pim has always blamed herself for her sister's death because she was the one who insisted upon the separation of the twins. Pim had fallen for Vee and yearned to marry him, while Ploy wanted to remain connected to her sister forever.
Great premise, right? Instead of a long-haired girl or "I see dead people," you see one person, your long-gone sister, over and over again, evidently wanting to be reunited with you in more ways than one. We all know how family members can haunt us long after they're dead and buried, how old arguments and grudges and resentments keep surfacing, trying to claw their way into our present lives. Vee sees this happening to his beloved wife and he does what any reasonable man would do: he gets an old school pal, now a psychiatrist, to pay Pim a visit.
Pim initially rejects treatment, but when the apparitions continue, she agrees. The doctor is calm and kind. He doesn't doubt her story, but explains that the mind is very powerful and we can form very strong mental images that are so powerful they appear real to us. The sessions continue even as Pim sees her sister in every manner of reflective surface. Flashbacks begin to fill in the back story: Vee was hospitalized at the same time as the girls when they were all teenagers.
He was attracted to Pim rather than Ploy because Pim was the more outgoing of the two -- if the phrase "outgoing" can truly be applied to a woman joined physically to her twin sister -- while Ploy was the more reserved of the two. (Ploy also wears glasses, which makes her more attractive in my book, but possibly less so to others.) Innocent flirtations between Pim and Vee soon lead to more serious romantic feelings. Ploy is left to stew in a jealous, quiet rage just inches from her sister. After Vee leaves the hospital, Pim begins pressing for the separation of the twins.
Everything in the film makes eerie sense. Whether Pim is actually seeing the ghost of her sister or her mind is simply conjuring up the images is almost beside the point. What really matters is that she is shaken to her core. The psychiatrist suggests that Pim may recover from her debilitating frights if they return to South Korea. They are compelled to remain in Thailand, though, because Pim's mother is in no condition to be transferred out of the country. Pim refuses to leave her and possibly add to her own guilt, even though her nerves have been frayed by the increasingly frequent appearances of her sibling's ghost.
The ghost itself appears different each time it is seen. Sometimes it's just a corpse-like face, sometimes it's a decaying body hanging by a rope around the neck from a ceiling fan, sometimes it's a body lying next to Pim in bed. Even though it's the same thing over and over again, there's so much variety that I found myself unnerved waiting to see what would pop up next. The directors, who also wrote the script, slowly drag the story into that dark territory where dread and low-level anxiety merge into genuine fear. As the story progresses, more secrets are unearthed and then things become truly frightening for entirely different reasons.
"Conjoined twins" first came to fame with Chang and Eng Bunker, Chinese brothers born in Thailand, then called Siam, in the 19th century. They toured with P.T. Barnum's circus and were billed as the Siamese Twins. Mark and Michael Polish played lonely conjoined twins in Twin Falls Idaho, but the more relevant cinematic comparison is Brian DePalma's Sisters, in which conjoined twins that have been separated retain a deadly connection. Alone plays on the idea that twins share some kind of mental telepathy, which is a scary thought indeed if one of the twins is dead.
Alone won the Horror Feature Silver Medal Award at Fantastic Fest, as well as Special Jury Prizes for the directors and actress Masha Wattanapanitch. The jury included Cinematical's Scott Weinberg. (Cinematographer Niramon Ross, who also shot Shutter as well as the similarly-effective shadowy ghost story Dorm, also deserves some kind of award.) The thirty-something Wattanapanitch is a pop singer in Thailand, and this is evidently her first lead acting role, which is surprising simply because she's so good in the movie.
Independent distributor 24 Frames acquired North American rights to the film at Cannes and plans a theatrical release early in 2008. Alone is definitely a film that plays well in a theater, so keep your eyes out for it, starting with a visit to the official site.