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Fantastic Fest Review: Macabre

By  · Published on September 26th, 2009

You’ve seen it a hundred times before. A group of young, naïve twentysomethings with the whole world ahead of them pick up an ominous stranger who needs a ride home. This seemingly simple ride becomes a much larger endeavor than the group bargained for, and each and every one of them suffer for their random act of kindness. This has been the conceit of dozens of horror movies for decades now, and Macabre is hardly anything more than another entry in the long line of films that have followed this formula. Macabre feels like it was structured as a checklist of expected plot points for these types of horror films. Enter ominous girl. Enter guy that wants to help girl because he thinks she’s cute. Enter girl’s odd but extremely hospitable family. Enter the possibility that things may start to go sour for the protagonists. Enter lots and lots of blood. Rinse and repeat.

It sounds like I’m harping on Macabre for lack of originality, but the film’s predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Clichés exist mainly because they’ve been proven to work time and again, and while Macabre is an all-too-familiar genre exercise, this doesn’t necessarily make the film feels tired or contrived. On the contrary, there is something immensely satisfying about a movie giving you exactly what you expect beat-for-beat. We’ve been conditioned to know what happens next, and as soon as an expectation arises – Bam! – Macabre reliably delivers, and there’s something to be said about the sheer satisfaction of such an experience.

Macabre is the Indonesian take (a country that, apparently, has a rich history of horror – thanks, Lars) on this narrative trope made familiar to those stateside through Herschell Gordon Lewis films of the 60s, the gritty mid-late 70s works of Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, and the many imitations since (all the way up to the ever-polarizing Rob Zombie). Macabre delightfully proves that this conceit is used time and again because it’s universal enough to pervade across borders, oceans, and cultures. This particular variation on the trope follows a group of six friends on their way to Jakarta. The central couple, Astrid (Sigi Wimala) and Adjie (Ario Bayu), is expecting and all are on their way to bid them farewell…and then what I described in the first paragraph of my review takes place.

The Mo Brothers (not their real names) do a commendable job establishing the characters quickly without delaying the jump-start of the plot through useless dialogue, making them distinct through an admirable economy of effort. We are given reason to actually give a damn about these characters. They aren’t simply interchangeable bodies introduced as nothing more than flesh for later mutilation (like many filmmakers making this type of film have done), they’re as dimensional as one can reasonably expect for such a film. Astrid’s pregnancy initially makes Macabre stand out from the pack, providing interesting emotional depth and a refreshingly new added layer of suspense (not to mention a different type of suspense altogether), but even this factor eventually resorts to the renowned book of cliché.

There is little explanation given to the family’s reasons for acting the way they do (virtually nothing is revealed in their mandatory creepy old 8mm films), but the film is so conventional and familiar that further explanation would be far too ambitions than what the film is trying to accomplish, maybe even unnecessary, even when it teasingly alludes to the supernatural. The performances by the protagonists are convincing and are likely the main catalyst in effectively differentiating these characters. The actors playing the family, however, do not approach their parts so homogenously. Imelda Therrine is great as the daughter, Maya, who incites the plot, displaying perfect levels of creepiness and magnetic cuteness, even hinting at a deep insecurity motivating her actions. Shareefa Daanish as the matriarch Dara was obviously cast for hauntingly captivating eyes, which she uses to her fullest advantage (watch the whole film and see if she blinks once), but she definitely tests the water (if not occasionally submerges) in caricature now and again. However, Arifin Putra as the brother, Adam, proves that overacting can speak any language.

The Mo brothers thankfully don’t resort to excessive or interfering stylization (unlike a certain horror director named after an undead corpse), keeping the look of the film, like the plot within, clean and transparent but modestly effective. There’s an innovative shot here and there (some work, but some – like a certain POV weapon shot – are laughably gimmicky), and there’s a moment now and again of amateur filmmaking seeping through, but for the most part the filmmakers allow the narrative to speak for itself without trying anything too ambitious style-wise. I like the horror film that understands the subtle effectiveness of a slow dolly in.

The kills are satisfying, but towards the end the violence goes over the edge to a point of no return (for me it was a specific moment involving Adam), losing the reliability of the familiar but believable structure established beforehand. By the end a film filled with satisfying clichés gets overtaken by them and ultimately uses them as a crutch rather than a tried-and-true generic trope. It’s ironic that Macabre is one of the few films I’ve seen at Fantastic Fest that I knew absolutely nothing about going in, because by the first few minutes it was clear exactly where this surprise-free film was headed. Macabre is reliable genre fun, but I wish it had the balls to venture just a few steps beyond the formula.