A slapdash and silly Netflix Original horror movie from Thailand, Pawan Purijitpanya’s “Ghost Lab” is hardly poised to become an unexpected cult hit just because it’s available to watch in so many homes across the world. And yet, for people who’ve grown numb to the predictable rhythms of jumpy Hollywood schlock, there’s something faintly endearing about a vision of the afterlife as unpredictable as grief itself. Mourning someone isn’t sad all the time — the process can swing from romantic to delusional to funny so fast, even the most disparate feelings smudge together — and “Ghost Lab” reflects that through such wild tonal shifts that even someone like Bong Joon Ho seems like he’s coloring inside the lines by comparison. Purijitpanya isn’t operating on quite the same level (or even in the same dimension), but credit where credit is due: Even dedicated horror junkies who might somehow be able guess where this story is going will still be surprised and bemused by how it gets there.
“Ghost Lab” kicks off as a clumsy horror comedy set in what seems like Bangkok’s emptiest hospital (this movie has more genres than extras), where a pair of young residents have been drawn to the medical profession for their own morbid reasons. Wee (actor/model/pop star Thanapob “Tor” Leeratanakachorn) is the more serious-minded of the two; he became a doctor to care for his long-suffering mom, on her deathbed in the hospital’s long-term care unit for the better part of the past decade. His puckish best friend Gla (Paris Intarakomalyasut) is a prankster who lives for the LOLs, but he’s also hiding a dark streak that traces back to a paranormal encounter from his childhood.
These boys are both dumb-smart in a way that seems endemic to stories about power-mad teens and twenty-somethings — their convincingly brilliant minds generate nothing but harebrained ideas — and the melted cheese-rock guitar underscoring their first conversations makes it hard to imagine what kind of horror protagonists they’ll become. The next thing you know, these doofuses come face-to-face with the charred ghost of a recent burn victim near the hospital vending machine, and while the apparition lunges at the camera like it’s auditioning for the next James Wan movie, the hilariously melodramatic music that Purijitpanya chooses for the scene is enough to suggest that something bigger is afoot. Wee and Gla aren’t freaked out so much as they’re electrified: These men of science have always wanted to believe there’s life after death, and now they’re motivated to collect hard evidence.
We’re off to the races from there, as our bumbling (yet fiercely dedicated) heroes turn some unused hospital space into the titular ghost lab, and launch into all sorts of giddy, faux-academic conversations about the nature of their experiment. Wee argues that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN didn’t detect any ghosts, so it’s stupid for two glorified med students to think they can find particles of proof. Gla counters that people thought mammals couldn’t lay eggs until they discovered the platypus… BOOM.
“Ghost Lab” shares its characters backhanded determination to move beyond the shlock logic of ghost-hunting TV shows, and the first 30 minutes of Purijitpanya’s film watch Wee and Gla poke around the darkest corners of the hospital as they try and discard all of the tactics used on A&E. Many of these bits are played for laughs (“That movie ‘Shutter’ is bullshit,” one of the characters says after discovering that ghosts don’t appear on camera), but it’s jarring to see how fast “Ghost Lab” transitions from slapstick comedy to — say — a CCTV shot of a wheelchair rolling down an empty hallway. We’re dropped into the middle of sequences that would be stretched over five minutes of cheap tension in the American telling of this story, and while Purijitpanya’s crudeness results in a whiplash that makes the movie feel like it’s pinballing between genres rather than mixing them together, the approach is mighty effective at keeping you on your toes and locked into the moment at hand.
And it’s a good thing, too, because the “Ghost Lab” approach to storytelling results in a pretty grim prognosis. Most of the fun to be had with this movie — far too much of it, in fact — comes from the surprising heel turns the plot has in store, but let’s just say that Wee and Gla eventually grow impatient with their experiment and decide to take a peek into the afterlife themselves. The horror-comedy of the first act crashes headlong into the operatic melodrama of the second, with fidgety scares replaced by frothy soap opera as the boys start having tear-streaked conversations about what’s on the other side, and who among them should look.
Tor and Intarakomalyasut play their archetypes well enough to disguise how the playful man of faith and the clear-eyed rationalist gradually change places, but ham-fisted dialogue and in-your-face direction make it easy to grow restless as this 117-minute bit of disposable entertainment takes the long road from the speculative medicine of “Flatliners” to the paranormal melodrama of “Ghost” (while erratically touching on every possible reference between in point). The more outlandish “Ghost Lab” becomes, the more it seems like the kind of thing that Wee and Gla might’ve made fun of before they fell down the rabbit hole, and the movie’s icky efforts to maintain its knowing edge over the competition — including some invisible man-style threats of rape — suggest that Purijitpanya is at the mercy of his material in much the same way as Wee and Gla lose control of their experiment.
Still, the volatile friction between the movie’s wildly conflicting energies works as a curious backstop for this cautionary tale about not giving into grief and despair. No matter how grim things get (in life or in “Ghost Lab”), you never really know for sure what’s going to happen next.
“Ghost Lab” is now streaming on Netflix.
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