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First Look Review - PERNICIOUS

Three American teachers run into trouble while working in Thailand.


Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: James Cullen Bressack

Starring: Ciara Hanna, Emily O'Brien, Jackie Moore



"The problem with Pernicious is that, for the most part, you can enjoy it as goofy fun; however, this is also a film where a child gets her throat cut open in the opening minutes, and three characters are presumably raped in the first act."


Throughout the opening sequences of horror auteur James Cullen Bressack’s Pernicious, the camera swoops and glides about its bustling Thai locations, seemingly untethered to gravity as it tracks our three travelling heroines, Alex (Ciara Hanna), Julia (Emily O’Brien) and Rachel (Jackie Moore), through pretty village streets, ending up at a panoramic mansion set upon a flowery sun-kissed basin. As the girls excitedly explore the house and discuss their forthcoming jobs teaching Thai kids English, the camera continues to bob and weave, revealing the inky shadows that swell in the corners of their new digs, along with the cobwebs and suggestions of a dark history within the walls, culminating as the girls discover a creepy lifelike statue of a small child painted gold in the attic: a very lifelike statue.
You have to give it to Pernicious; in an age where will-this-do scrappy found footage seems to be the only ambition for horror cinematography, this film looks great. Along with the aforementioned bravura tracking shots, a pre-credits flashback is shockingly vivid, depicting the ritual murders of a couple of characters (one a child, who looks suspiciously like the statue in the attic…); here the claret flows in amber candlelight, shadows are sharp and expressive, and the effect is completely unsettling. It’s a shame, then, that the same attention to detail isn’t paid to plotting or characterisation. Following the authentic unpleasantness of the opening, the girls acclimate to their new surroundings. Henceforth, Pernicious fulfils a typical young Americans out of their depth in a foreign land scenario, used most notoriously by the likes of Hostel and the more recent Hooked Up (a deeply patronising trope that suggest some very untoward things about how American horror cinema sees foreign territory; that is, as a universally backwards locale suffused with terror and a seeming vendetta against anything with a U.S. accent).
The characterisation is nascent; the girls are completely interchangeable and slightly annoying, and one does wonder why they signed up to ‘teach little kids the alphabet’ in the first place, as from their imbecilic behaviour and general naivety, it is debateable whether they should be in charge of children at all. As you would expect, their presentation is pure exploitation. Towards the end of the first act, there is a shock twist wherein the girls, having brought three guys they met in a bar back to their pad, seemingly proceed to torture them in the most impressively extravagant manner that Pernicious’ budget will allow. These scenes are video nasty heaven, with the guys’ tongues being pulled out, eyeballs stabbed in, and fine scarlet blood spraying across the girls semi-naked ‘beach ready’ bods (they get to be objectified, but also have a dark agency, all at once!). However, it is then suggested that this sequence is actaully a dream: they wake to find the house ransacked, the guys nowhere to be seen, and the disagreeable realisation by the girls that they were given rohypnol, robbed and possibly gang raped. You’d think that this would be the cause of considerable anguish, but, no, the girls pay lip service to the idea of ‘feeling sick’ for a hot minute, but then spin into an unfathomable panic simply because that gold statue of a kid is missing.
The problem with Pernicious is that, for the most part, you can enjoy it as goofy fun; sure, there’s no chemistry between the girls, and the pacing is a little slow; but the exotic locations are used well, and the violence is inventive and enjoyable. However, this is also a film where a child gets her throat cut open in the opening minutes, and three characters are presumably raped in the first act: this strikes too dark a note, which clangs against the otherwise breezy freestyle of the flick. And plus, where do you go from those early horrific incidents? When the ghost does crop up - the statue come to life, crawling about like a gold covered Sadoko from Ringu - it doesn’t seem half as threatening as the prospect of being sexually assaulted and stranded in a foreign country. Systematic physical brutalisation or a little kid going boo? I’d rather the latter, thanks.
The clean and colourful cinematography, creative gore and sumptuous settings of Pernicious place it at a slight cut above other films of this ilk, but it had the potential to really kill. Despite its creative, plentiful gore, Pernicious is ultimately bloodless.



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