Wednesday, August 18

Some quick thoughts on The Laughing Dead (1989)

A priest (Tim Sullivan) of quivering faith heads up a group trip to Oaxaca, Mexico to visit an Aztec archeological dig during Día de los Muertos. Tagging along for the ride is his old forbidden flame, who was once a nun, with their son born out of wedlock. Needless to say, their relationship is queasy, but fate seems to have brought the pair together on the bus with both experiencing nightmarish premonitions.

Shortly after arrival, a frantic peasant pleads for the priest to exorcise her possessed daughter to which he reluctantly agrees (Cliff Notes: The Exorcist). During the meeting, the girl rips out her beating heart and switches out the shocked man of the cloth's blood pumper with her own. This exorcism angle was all a ploy for the diabolical Dr. Um-tzec (played by writer/director Somtow Sucharitkul). A mad practitioner of mysticism actively charting out an ancient prophecy with the possessed priest acting as a means of capturing the ultimate sacrifice, his own illegitimate son, so that Um-tzec may transform into the Aztec god of death.

Putting out the word yesterday that my copy of Somtow Sucharitkul's The Laughing Dead arrived via Facebook received a general consensus of the flick being quite silly yet watchable and nearly universally hated. After watching this obscurity last night and poking around for opinions I can confirm all three of these counts. Yet the negative waves seem misplaced, as appreciating S.P. Somtow's debut cinematic misfire almost requires a broader horror palette than your usual axe maniacs and shambling dead.

As The Laughing Dead progressed and its zany underbelly began to reveal itself, I couldn't help but think of the wild, unencumbered horror cinema of Southeast Asia. Chiefly Indonesian classics like The Queen of Black Magic (1979) and Mystics in Bali (1981). Somtow evokes shades of that multi-colored, foggy mirth that makes those far east terrors so endearing while you wait to see the next limb ripped off, glandular meltdown, or head sprout wings. It would be great to know whether Somtow, who's ridiculously accomplished, intentionally designed his film with these influences in mind or the end product merely flowed naturally from his perception and Thai heritage.

This quality doesn't necessarily give The Laughing Dead a pass. It's the kind of film that has a ton of needless exposition in the first reel or so. One can see and hear actors spouting words, but it all comes off as immediately forgettable drivel. Once the church group drives into town, you'll understand the score, and thankfully the surprisingly gory bits pick up in earnest straight on until the credits. Somtow is the author of several horror novels and once-president of The Horror Writer's Association, so it's strange how badly his dialogue and characterizations translate in screenplay form. The borderline non-acting doesn't help matters and Somtow as Dr. Um-tzec comes out best with twitchy "mad doctor" mannerisms and tongue firmly in cheek. So despite its thoroughly panned reputation, I liked The Laughing Dead enough to give a recommendation to adventurous watchers accustomed to the psychotronic wonders of the East. If it were made in a different time and country, it's not hard to imagine crusty bootlegs circulating for years until an eventual digital disc rediscovery. Although Somtow's existing film is sorta in the same situation already--at least in North America with no official release of any kind.  

The VHS above was billed as a Thai release from "Vee Video" given all the Thai writing. Instead, the actual tape (with a label in the same weird font as the front cover's English title) ended up being a dup of the Japanese Pack-In Video VHS with Japanese subtitles. Even though this certainly isn't an authorized release, it's the kind of mysterious surprise that makes tape collecting so fun. I mean, why would anyone go through that much trouble to create a professional glossy slipcover box for what's ultimately a simple bootleg of such a little known horror offering?


Somtow said...

Thanks for the entertaining review! But Ive managed to locate several real DVDs of my film in recent years, include one with German dialogue and a French one with no English, and the title changed to "Sacrifices". Somehow, the acting becomes infinitely better in the French edition. If I ever make another horror film, I'll have it dubbed in French right off the bat.

Jayson Kennedy said...

Thanks for the kind words, Mr. Somtow! I was pleasantly surprised by Laughing Dead. It's "bad" qualities are all part of its charm. I really liked the warm yellow and blue hues used to light many of the sequences. Like I said, it really conjures up a nice vibe and delirium similar to eastern horror films without actually being one. Certainly deserves a better reputation! A shame about the lack of domestic DVD...

I'll be actively searching for DVDs and VHS releases of it myself from now on as well. :)

Ninja Dixon said...

I have the old UK dvd which seem uncut and has ok quality.

It has to much building up the story, but the last half saves a lot of that. Very colorful and very spectacular and imaginative special effects! you dare tread upon the staircase?

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