“308” (Screamfest Movie Review)
International horror films often act as window into themes or elements other cultures find scary, much of which may not jive with our stateside terrors. In Indonesian film 308 however, the threat is a concept that does frequent our screens—the haunted hotel room.
Burdened with caring for her younger sister, Naya is desperate for a job. Through some old friends, she’s offered a management position at a plush beach resort, but upon arrival finds the hotel closed and much of the staff sent home. It seems there is a malaria/dengue fever outbreak, and the resort grounds are being fogged to prevent it from reaching the hotel. Key staff members are asked to stay during the fumigation process, Naya included and throughout she’s frequently reminded of the hotel’s one rule: no one is allowed to go in room #308. Sequestered in the empty hotel, Naya begins to uncover the dark secret about the forbidden room and her sketchy co-workers.
Director Jose Poernomo is no stranger to horror, boasting a strong list of international genre hits, with this most recent having become the highest grossing horror film in Indonesia in 2013. Poernomo’s prior experience and love of the genre certainly shine through in his creation of atmosphere and mood. The hotel is not exactly the standard “creepy” sort. This is an ultra-modern resort featuring cavernous rooms of glass and marble, cathedral ceilings, and sleek furniture. Don’t think low-level lighting and shadowy corridors. Much of the horror of this film happens in broad daylight. That said, it still manages to be very atmospheric, centering on the terror of the cold, hard architecture and impersonal surroundings. The vast, lavish setting lends 308 the feeling of a massive film with lofty production value. The immense expanse of scenery and space causes the viewer to forget how self-contained 308 actually, with a cast of only seven.
Additionally, 308’s score and sound mix become integral, largely due to the fact that a small ensemble and a huge hotel result in many scenes focused on isolated actors with little to no dialogue. This is where some of the cultural aspects shine. Using various gongs, chimes, and other percussive instruments, the music shifts effortlessly from diegectic to non-diegectic, acting as perfect complement. It’s both trippy and very effective.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that this is not a simple “haunted hotel” story, but also inspired by an Indonesian urban legend about Nyi Roro Kidul, a water goddess and the Queen of the Southern Sea of Java. Research of the deity indicates that she’s popular in Indonesian folklore with varying stories and legends surrounding her. 308 specifically focuses on her invocation in our realm along with her “rules”—not allowing people to wear her sacred color of green—and the resulting punishments. Upon further research, I discovered the real-life hotel used in the film (Sumadra Beach Hotel) actually does have room #308 set-up as a shrine to this water goddess. So the film is entirely based on a real-life legend and a society’s adherence to it, making for a very thorough and well-executed glance into another culture’s ghost stories.
Which means it can be a tad confusing if one’s unfamiliar with the deity and her modus operandi. The film naturally assumes that a certain amount is previously understood about Nyi Roro Kidul, a knowledge base I definitely did not possess. No need to worry, though. All elements of the legend will eventually be explained, much of it in the last fifteen minutes of the film. Just stay with it—and its momentary ill-advised digital jaunt into the sea—and enjoy the wonderful scares.
308 is currently playing Screamfest in Los Angeles, playing a second time on Saturday, October 12 at 5:30 p.m. With no current stateside distribution plans, I would highly recommend checking out the atmospheric terror while you can.