Director: Gilbert Chan
Cast: Mark Lee, Wang Lei, Noah Yap, Richie Koh, Natalia Ng, Melody Low, Fabian Loo
RunTime: 1 hr 26 mins
Released By: Golden Village Pictures, mm2 Entertainment and Clover Films
Opening Day: 9 August 2018
Synopsis: Recruit Tommy - a socially awkward individual, is the subject of teasing and bullying by his army mates. He seeks comfort from the compliments left by his readers on his blog that features fictitious army horror stories he writes in his free time. One day, he received a text message from an attractive reader and things started to go awry…
Even though writer-director Gilbert Chan could very well have fashioned a sequel from the open ending of his previous feature ’23:59’, this second chapter of the horror series bears no relation to its predecessor; in fact, there is nothing which ties it to its title too, seeing as how there is no reference whatsoever to the supposed witching hour. On the contrary, ’23:59: The Haunting Hour’ comprises of a triptych of ghost stories loosely connected to one another via a blogger named Tommy (Fabian Loo), whose online publications of army ghost stories on ‘Haunting Hour’ have earned him a certain following. Tommy serves as narrator of the first two stories set in 1969 and 1983 respectively, and is himself the protagonist of the third story in present day, which arguably has little to do with the army at all.
‘Ah Boys to Men’ supporting actor Noah Yap anchors the first short, starring as a recruit Ah Seng who along with his two buddies are punished by their sergeant for bad-mouthing him while trench-digging in the forest. Choosing to go AWOL than be ‘tekan-ed’ by their sergeant, the trio chance upon an old wooden house where they find a frightened Malay lady. Said lady claims that a hideous creature dressed in Japanese army fatigues has been terrorising their village over the past few nights, and no sooner have they learnt of the legend are they confronted with the heaving creature with red eyes. Just like the recruits who find themselves lost in the jungle, the story goes nowhere, and after a brief sequence hiding from the beast, the story comes to an abrupt end with one of them sitting underneath a tree with his stomach cut open and his entrails exposed.
The subsequent tale follows a group of commando trainees and their ‘Encik’ sergeant who unknowingly bring a powerful snake spirit back to Singapore from the jungles of Brunei. Mark Lee plays the aforementioned Encik Teo, and is single-handedly responsible for the film’s most entertaining sequence in which he shows the trainees how to skin a snake as if unsheathing a condom. Sadly, he dies too soon, and the rest of the story opts for a running gag where the spirit possesses the camp’s plump, fussy and altogether unlikeable chief clerk Mdm Chew and deludes its male prey into thinking that she is a sexy vixen (Malaysian actress Natalia Ng) before killing them.
To subdue the spirit, the camp’s commander enlists the help of a Taoist medium (Wang Lei), who suggests that they use the handsome recruit Desmond (Ritchie Koh) as bait to lure her before exploding a grenade filled with sulphur in her mouth. It is downright sexist all right, and unless you’re in the mood for such base pleasures, you’ll probably find it offensive, even repulsive. There is also no closure to the tale, which ends with Tommy simply saying how the grenade had not killed the spirit but only made it stronger and angrier. It should also be said that both this and the preceding story pay little attention to detail about army routines/ protocol, which not only drains their credibility but also makes them even more contrived.
Ironically, the story which is most grounded has very little bearing on army life at all. Turns out that Tommy is a recruit struggling to get used to his own BMT experience, and is hated by his platoon mates for getting them into trouble; in his loneliness, he invents a fake ‘friendssbook’ profile of a female admirer of his stories who goes by the moniker ‘Photogirl94’ and pretends to have conversations with her. Not surprisingly, the said fictional girlfriend he names Mia acquires a life of her own, and starts texting him back. It is at this time too that strange things start happening around him, involving puddles of water and locks of female hair in the bunk toilet and in his own room at home.
Notwithstanding how daft he as a writer of horror stories must be not to notice that something is not quite right with Mia, Tommy goes ahead to reach out to her, revealing a tragic story of cyberbullying, peer pressure and teenage suicide. For those who are fans of influencer Melody Low, you may be glad to know that she makes a brief but pivotal appearance in this story. Like we said, its connection with the army is but tangential, although this is easily the very best among the three for not only having a proper story but also themes that manage to be relatable and relevant.
Having said that, there are hardly any scares to be had throughout this brief 86-minute movie, which feels a lot longer than it actually is. Besides the occasional jump-scare, there is little by way of tension, suspense or dread that Chan builds up in individual scenes. Nor for that matter does he even seem bothered to weave a compelling story around them, with the first two army stories barely developed and abruptly tossed away. Admittedly, most of the ghost stories we’ve heard in National Service are no more than campfire fodder, but that hardly excuses the lazy and tedious plotting on shameful display here.
For all its flaws, there was at least greater coherence to ’23:59’, and in almost every other respect, this is a decidedly inferior sequel. That is truly a pity, seeing as how horror stories are pretty much an institution of the NS experience and therefore how ’23:59’ could very well become a sister franchise to the ‘Ah Boys to Men’ films. But this is less a franchise starter than a franchise killer, which depletes what goodwill its mediocre predecessor had built up. There is some patriotic significance in timing the release of ’23:59: The Haunting Hour’ with National Day, but as much as we wanted to like and support this local movie, there is not much here for anyone, Singaporean or otherwise, to be proud of.
(Less scarily good than scarily bad, this decidedly inferior sequel to an already mediocre horror obliges you to book out of its sheer tedium)
Review by Gabriel Chong