An old woman runs rampant and terrifies a bunch of soldiers for seventy-five minutes in Gilbert Chan’s low-key horror.
“Ghouls do not exist in this world.”
One of the best aspects of watching foreign horror films is seeing how different cultures see and respond to ghosts and other undead. It’s great to be able to learn about aswangs in the Philippines, or that in Thailand you can see ghosts looking between your legs (as well as eight other tried and true techniques!). I don’t know how much of what the movies say is accurate but it’s fun when these traditions or beliefs come back in other films. Suddenly you’re in on it.
I learnt a lot watching 23:59, a film about the haunting of a group of soldiers participating in Malaysia’s National Service. I learnt that if someone dies at one minute to midnight, their soul won’t rest and they’ll return to this world. I also found out that telling ghost stories on the seventh month will attract spirits. Also, what a kuntilanak is. And that was just in the first few minutes. I look forward to watching more Malay horror films to see if these superstitions are more common.
All of this information is delivered to us by cadet Lim (Tommy Kuan), who starts the movie off sitting with his friends Tan (Tedd Chan), Jeremy (Henley Hii) and Dragon (Lawrence Koh) and telling ghost stories. It’s a classic if somewhat overdone way to dump some exposition in horror, and it sets us up for what we’re about to see next. Because while the stuff about Malay superstitions was fresh to me, the rest … not so much.
The only thing that surprised me during all of 23:59 was that it was actually pretty decent. Other than that, it’s a fairly cut and dry kind of piece. Like science fiction and fantasy, horror is a genre that needs to innovate in order to stay afloat. Once a gimmick like found footage starts getting overused it becomes tiresome to watch and – worst of all – stops being frightening. 23:59 unfortunately never really tries anything new, but it also thankfully never tries to just outright copy the gimmicks of other films, but lazily.
Instead, director Gilbert Chan opts to rely more on classic tropes and timeless horror staples. This is probably for the better; when even some of the more interesting story beats feel right out something like Dark Water it’s obvious he made the right call in sticking to what’s worked since we started telling scary stories. Chan knows how to let scenes build without necessarily having them crescendo into jump-scare stings. There’s an excellent creep factor that runs throughout, and it’s only undercut by the few times he does try to emulate other films – even down to one rather out-of-place Exorcist scene.
Of course the problem with not innovating is that the bad stuff tends to stand out a lot. Watching 23:59 for the first time feels like watching another horror film for the second. You kind of know what’s going to happen and so it’s easy to switch to a lower gear and take the film in more passively. As a result, a savvy viewer might end up taking apart the story or over-analysing the logistics of the scary stuff which not only kills the immersion but also highlights the movie’s faults: and from shoddy English-language acting from the captain to a beat-by-beat practicable story 23:59 isn’t exactly free of issues.
Still, if you can look past the faults you’ll find a pretty decent (or at the very least entertainingly spooky) horror film in the vein of R-Point. It has something that it tries to say about bullying and toxicity within Malaysia’s now obsolete National Service programme in the way it brings up the suicide of a young soldier, and the clash between the massively superstitious sergeant Kuah (Mark Lee) and that captain that can’t act. That the ghost haunting them has nothing to do with the suicide but instead has everything to do with a medium who once lived on the island seems like a missed opportunity, but it still more or less works. That is, as long as you don’t watch it in the seventh month.
Verdict: It’s nothing special, but a dedication to classic horror storytelling and the novelty of Malaysian folklore elevates Gilbert Chan’s otherwise by-the-numbers story.
Overall entertainment: 6.5/10
MVP: Kuah really loves him some talismans
What else did I learn: You don’t train on Thursdays, you don’t cross Muslim cemeteries during marches, and if you want to be safe at night simply tuck a coin under your bedframe.
Moral of the story: Accidents happen?
Director: Gilbert Chan
Writer: Gilbert Chan
Tedd Chan – Tan
Henley Hii – Jeremy
Lawrence Koh – Dragon
Tommy Kuan – Lim
Josh Lai – Chester
Mark Lee – Sergeant Kuah
Stella Chung – Shirley
Susan Leong – Yi Gu
Benjamin Lim – Captain Hong