Though horror movies have increasingly gravitated toward jump scares and computer-generated FX, often the genre’s most unsettling exercises eschew such tricks for quiet, unadorned menace. That’s certainly the case with “Roh,” which was Malaysia’s submission for the best international feature Oscar last year. Belatedly getting released to U.S. virtual cinemas, VOD and digital formats on Oct. 29, Emir Ezwan’s directorial debut is a spare, eerie tale rooted in folk superstitions that are rendered credibly vivid by its thick yet subtle atmospherics.
After a wordless opening sequence in which we see her incongruously presiding over some fiery nocturnal burial rite, a filth-covered, knife-clutching little girl (Putri Nurqaseh) wanders from the jungle to a small hut. There, husband-abandoned Mak (Farah Ahmad) lives with teenage daughter Along (Mhia Farhana) and younger son Angah (Harith Haziq). They take in the stray, assuming she got lost on an outing and needs returning to a village across the river. But once this wraithlike wee visitor finally speaks, she says, “When the moon is full, all of you will die,” then makes a very dramatic, terminal exit.
Shaken, wanting to invite no further trouble, the small family buries the body nearby. Soon their isolation is disturbed again by an older herb-gathering woman called Tok (Junainah M. Lojong) who claims to live on a hill some distance away. She warns of ill omens, offering assistance should further trouble occur. Later, there’s yet another visitor: A half-blind man (Namron) searching for his missing child.
But one of these strangers is not what they seem. And trouble does indeed keep coming, as Mak’s unlucky little clan falls prey to mysterious illnesses, nightmares and other woes. Whatever evil power is at work here, it will not stop until it has extinguished any life it comes across.
Beginning with an on-screen Quran passage about Satan, “Roh” (which means “soul”) uses the forest much as the original “Blair Witch Project” did, albeit mercifully minus the found-footage aesthetics. Even in daylight, the environ here seems untrustworthy, a trap for unwary, vulnerable humans. This is a film about witchery of a sort, though Ezwan has no interest in the kind of over-the-top content usually associated with Southeast Asian films about malevolent spirits. Instead, his script and direction aim for a simplicity that is elegant as well as sinister. The ordinariness of the well-played central characters, who are neither especially sympathetic nor quick to grasp their peril, underlines the arbitrary cruelty of the forces they’re up against.
There’s an unshowy poetry to DP Ahmad Saiffudin Musa’s imagery, echoed by other thoughtful design contributions and an editorial pace simultaneously lulling and tense. Reinchez Ng’s original score provides discreet doses of ominous ambience — but also knows when dead silence will prove even more effective.