In 2006, a Malay fisherman found something in his net that scared him out of his wits. It was a glass jar, the sort that might once have contained instant coffee. Inside the jar was a small black figure — a doll perhaps; it was shaped like a baby and had red eyes. Also inside the jar were some bits of onion, some sand, and a yellow thread. This would probably be disturbing enough if there hadn't been any local stories attached to such a thing. But in fact, this piece of flotsam strongly resembled a supernatural creature from Malay folklore. The fisherman, much to his horror, was convinced he had stumbled upon a toyol.
A toyol is a dead fetus or stillbirth that's been re-animated by black magic. It's usually kept in a jar, or a box, and given offerings of food — often a few drops of blood from the creature's summoner. In return for the food and protection, the toyol will lurk around the village at night, running errands for its master... errands the summoner would rather not be seen doing himself. Typical "errands" would include petty thefts or vandalism, which the toyol could get away with because of its tiny size.
Since the toyol is really only a child, it would rarely be used for more serious mischief. Still, possessing a toyol is considered very dark magic indeed. Furthermore, though there are many legends about the ways to obtain a toyol, there are none about getting rid of one. So you can understand why the fisherman was upset by what he'd found.
The fisherman gave the bottle to his local bomoh, or shaman (although the existence of such mystics is also officially disapproved of); and the bomoh turned it over to a museum. The museum theorized it was some sort of fetish figure that had been used in a healing ritual, and had been cast into the water as part of that ritual. Not knowing what else to do with it, they put it on display for a while — and drew record crowds from visitors anxious for a glimpse of the Real Supernatural. Eventually, the thing in the jar was returned to the sea... but not before hundreds of people had come to see it.
In light of this unhealthily healthy interest in the supernatural, it's probably not surprising that horror movies based on local legends are making a comeback in Malaysia — in spite of the protests of the censors. Malaysia is an intensely conservative country in most respects, and for a long time its horror films have been constrained by law as to what they may and may not show. Nevertheless, as popular interest builds, some of the restrictions have begun to loosen. As the contemporary Malaysian horror films grow in popularity all around the world, the National Film Development Corporation of Malaysia has taken a renewed interest in the often-maligned horror films of the past and their role in the continuing history of Malaysian cinema.
And it's probably even less surprising that one of these classic movies, a film that still has a little power to disturb its viewers today, is 1981's Toyol.
Toyol is the story of a young construction worker named Bachuk. Bachuk is a schlub — I doubt this is the word the Malays would use, but it suits him. He's more interested in spending money than earning it. He lives with his wife and young sister-in-law, and has a hard time providing for them because of his laziness and his gambling habit.
One day after work, Bachuk rides his bicycle out to a lonely little outdoor coffee stand. As the sun sets, two of his friends join him, and together they listen as a man at another table lectures the patrons on the subject of ghosts.
"Nowdays," says the man, "the village is safe. But in the old days, the woods were full of spirits." (His listeners nod in agreement.) "There was the jelangkung, the puppet-ghost... and the hantu bungkus..." (shrouded ghost, or pocong) "... pontianak the vampire... it was dahsyat: ghastly!"
Bachuk listens in silence, with an unreadable expression on his face. But Bachuk's friends start heckling the man and his ghost stories. It's all very amusing — at least, until they have to ride home through the dark forest. All three men have crowded onto Bachuk's bicycle, and that's uncomfortable enough; but as they get further and further into the woods, with no lights and no houses anywhere to be seen, their bravado drains away from them. A falling branch knocks all three men off the bicycle and onto a lumpy patch of ground. When the men climb painfully to their feet, they discover that the lumpy bits are nesan, grave markers: they've fallen into a cemetery! Now completely terrified, Bachuk's friends run off into the night, leaving Bachuk alone among the tombs.
But he's not alone for long.
As his friends disappear down the road, one of the grave markers begins to wobble, as though someone or something was pushing it up from below. As Bachuk watches in horror, a shrouded corpse begins to materialize on top of the grave. The body sits up — and with a shriek, it hurls itself through the air at Bachuk...
(All right. To be fair, it's a puppet on a string, and it doesn't so much hurl itself as swing toward the camera. But you get the idea.)
This is the cue for the opening credits to start, while we watch Bachuk scramble back to his bicycle and pedal hell-for-leather out of there. He thinks he sees the pocong-wrapped ghost following him all the way. He arrives home terrified, exhausted and soaked in sweat... but he refuses to tell his wife what's scared him.
That night, Bachuk finds it very difficult to sleep. He sighs and stares at the ceiling for so long he doesn't notice when sleep finally overwhelms him — and the sinister laughter begins. Bachuk, dreaming, suddenly finds himself back in the lonely cemetery... and the shrouded figure is waiting for him. "Come to me, Bachuk!" it says, its voice heavy with reverb. "Here I am; come to me!" But every time Bachuk approaches, the figure disappears and reappears somewhere else. "Here I am, behind you," it teases; "Come to me, Bachuk!"
(This is all done very simply, by starting and stopping the camera while the ghost changes position. It also goes on for a surprisingly long time. But as simply as it's realized, it does a very good job of recreating the weird, disorienting feeling of a real nightmare. It's also amazing how well they seem to have matched the swirling mists of the cemetery each time they restart the camera...)
"I know you need him!" says the shrouded ghost. "Lepaskanlah dia (Let him out)! Let him out, and he will help you! Lepaskan adikmu — let your little brother out!"
Bachuk awakens, but finds to his horror that the voice is still talking to him. "Who are you?" he whispers, and is doubly horrified when the voice tells him — "Aku datukmu!" — he is Bachuk's grandfather (the voice goes on to explain in more detail who the "little brother" is, but the reverb and the electronic music [combined with my very poor understanding of Malay] made it impossible for me to hear what the ghost was saying). More weird visions appear to Bachuk, and he finally wakes up — really wakes up — screaming in terror.
After a night like this, it's no surprise to us that Bachuk shows up late for work the next morning. It's no surprise to anyone else, either: Bachuk is never on time for work. This time, he's so late that he attracts the attention of his surly boss, who warns him that his poor performance has put his job in jeopardy. The timing couldn't be worse: Bachuk's broke. He's never needed money as desperately as he does now, and with his history of borrowing and never repaying, nobody is willing to lend him any more.
(Of course, that's exactly what the ghostly visitor is counting on.)
Bachuk's next encounter with the voices from beyond comes when he's still awake. This time, in addition to the familiar man's voice, there's a second ghost calling to him: the voice of a small child. The voices lead him out behind his house, to an old dilapidated shed. "Bachuk! Let me out!" cries the voice of the child, sobbing.
Bachuk lights a 200-watt candle and searches for the source of the eerie voice. He finds an old, dusty suitcase lying in the corner, looking as though it hasn't been touched in years. And inside the suitcase, he finds...
Wow. It really doesn't matter that this thing is clearly a plastic doll under all that crust. Dolls can be creepy on their own; and even though the figure betrays its toy store origin when Bachuk stands it up on the suitcase lid, it's still a disturbing little thing. It wobbles a little as it talks to Bachuk in the voice of his "grandfather", and it seems to be staring at him with small, old and weary eyes.
"Thank you for releasing me," the voice gloats, and the demon spirit behind the fetus-corpse becomes visible for a moment. Now Bachuk has his very own toyol. "But there are... conditions," the voice continues. "I can obey your wishes, and give you power. But... I must eat."
Gulp. "Eat what?" asks Bachuk.
The camera cuts away for a moment. When it returns, a shaken Bachuk says, "All right. I'm ready."
When the toyol calls for Bachuk again the next evening, the child-voice isn't sobbing any more: it's giggling, inviting Bachuk to come play with it. "Very good, Bachuk!" says the man's voice, when Bachuk appears, looking dazed. "Now you must bring us the things we spoke of yesterday." Bachuk has by this time forgotten about his work and its attendant troubles, so the next day he goes into town and spends some of his last remaining pennies on a bundle of candles. When night falls again, he lights the candles in front of the withered fetus, while the green, bulbous-headed toyol spirit looks on.
"It's all here," says Bachuk; "Everything is ready. I have a task for you tonight..."
Well, then: Bachuk has some money to pay his debts, the boss's family has suffered a minor humiliation. As deals with the Devil go, this one seems fairly mild. I wish I could tell you the rest of the movie deals with Bachuk's gradual descent into greater and greater depravity, but that's not what happens. Bachuk never gets beyond petty theft, and though he does use the stolen money to drink, gamble, and chase girls, in his dealings with the supernatural he's every bit as unambitious as he is in normal life.
And this (together with our first glimpse of the dessicated baby) is what makes Toyol seem so disturbing: in Bachuk, we have a grittily realistic depiction of a loser who sells his soul at a steep discount. The Simpsons may have played this sort of thing for laughs when they had Homer sell his soul for a donut, but there's very little humor to be found in Bachuk's situation — nor in the realization that there are lots of people who sell their souls figuratively for equally little. To hell with Faust: the devil here is no more than a crack dealer, and his victim winds up with a punishment that's ridiculously out of proportion to his crime.
But Bachuk, wretch that he is, is not a monster: he does begin to regain his conscience when the toyol finally gives him some idea what he really wants in return for his services. As I understood it, the toyol wants a mother to nurse it (with blood, one assumes)... and its controlling spirit wants a slave. And their intended target is Bachuk's young sister-in-law. That's the point at which Bachuk begins to wonder if the bargain was worth it, even going so far as to send his wife and sister-in-law away for a little while for their own safety. This angers the spirits, and sets in motion the chain of events that end up blasting poor Bachuk off the face of the earth.
So far I've tried to give a brief run-down of Toyol's strengths: creepy atmosphere, a memorable goblin, and a strong, sympathetic performance by the lead actor in a role we shouldn't sympathize with at all. That makes up about a third of the movie's content. The other two-thirds, I'm afraid, is pretty damned stupid.
For example? Immediately — immediately — after the first incident, Bachuk's ex-boss realizes that something supernatural is going on. He goes to the local bomoh, who performs a ceremony to discover what sort of black magic they're dealing with. The bomoh immediately — immediately — comes to the conclusion that it's a toyol. Now, this ceremony is sufficiently rare and noteworthy that all the major characters we've been introduced to come to see it... all, that is, except Bachuk and his family. Hmmm... Afterwards, when practically everybody in the village is robbed, it's only Bachuk — perennially broke, out-of-a-job, good-for-nothing Bachuk — who suddenly fixes his ramshackle house, buys himself new clothes, and generally seems to have money to burn. Yet nobody makes the connection between Bachuk and the robberies. Stupid.
But the attempts by the villagers to put two and two together, unsuccessful though they are, only make up another third of the movie. It's a relentlessly silly third, it's true; and we're even given cliché shots of people sitting by their empty bureau drawers, burying their heads in their hands... or, worse: shots of Bachuk laughing maniacally and throwing handsful of money into the air. But the remaining third is almost enough to sink the picture all on its own. You'll have guessed what I'm talking about: the Comic Relief.
Malaysia is a very conservative country: the Malay outlook on such things as horror or sex in the movies is much different than the outlook of, say, Americans or Western Europeans. What may seem mild to me may very well be intolerable to many Malaysians. Even some of Malaysia's most recent horror films are often heavily leavened with comic relief, in part to distract the audience from the actual "horror" part of the film and to keep them from being overwhelmed by it. What's bizarre to us Westerners about this is that what the Malays (and the Indonesians, too, for that matter) consider comic relief is sometimes as appalling to us as unrelieved horror might be to them.
In the case of Toyol, consider this scene: one of Bachuk's friends, who happens to be a Little Person, is overcome with intestinal cramps while having a snack at that roadside café where the film began. Unable to hold it in any longer, the man runs off into the forest to do his business. Unfortunately, at just that moment, a band of villagers passes through the woods on the track of the toyol. Hearing an unearthly moaning, and seeing a diminutive shape stirring in the bushes, the villagers conclude that they have found the monster: surprising the dwarf in the middle of his attack of diarrhea, they chase him through the woods and up a tree. Eventually, Bachuk's two friends from the opening come by and rescue the poor guy, helping him climb down onto their shoulders... but wait (sniff, sniff): what's that awful smell? And why are their shoulders suddenly moist? Ewwwwww! So while sex and horror must be approached with caution in Malay cinema, jokes about dwarves with diarrhea are just fine.
Then there's the supposedly-comic character of the local shopowner. I have a horrible feeling he's supposed to be a caricature of an ethnic Chinese Malaysian, but the stereotype is so broad my mind refuses to accept it:
Toyol's director, Malik Selamat, is better known as an actor; in fact, he played the male lead in Pontianak Gua Musang in 1964, as well as starring in the Cathay Keris production of Raja Bersiong (The King with Fangs) (1963). If you're looking for a Hollywood comparison, I suppose Selamat's work with Toyol is a bit like Larry Hagman directing Beware! The Blob — though the result may not be a classic of world cinema, it's certainly unique.
Toyol's star, Sidek Hussin, is a renowned character actor of both stage and film, who specializes in playing villains. Hussin has appeared in several recent Malaysian horror films, including the remake of Orang Minyak (The Oily Maniac) from 2007, and Skrip 7707 which opened in July 2009. If you see him today, though, you might not recognize him. Watch Hussin in Toyol, and you may notice a small swelling on the right side of his neck:
This is Sidek Hussin today:
Toyol will probably never be given a legitimate release in the West, for one reason in particular: its soundtrack. The music for Toyol is all needle-drop stuff from other people's albums — most recognizeably Tomita's electronic rendition of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. It's true, Tomita's music has never seemed more appropriate than in this context; but still, I don't think he or any of the other copyright-holders would look too favorably on Toyol getting its grubby little hands on their royalties. No DVD company is going to want to end up like poor Bachuk.