What better locations to shoot a horror film than actual scary places? After having a successful run in this genre with Khurafat: Perjanjian Syaitan in 2011, director Syamsul Yusof revisits horror by writing, directing and acting in Munafik.
The film was shot in a cemetery, a mortuary and a documented haunted house. Naturally, filming had to take place in the middle of the night!
“I know about this rundown house in Puchong that is haunted, and I wanted to shoot there for the film’s final scene,” explained Syamsul about one of his eerie locations.
And like any good horror story, the production team ran into unexplainable trouble there. “There was one shot that we just couldn’t get a clear focus on, that we had to call the Ustaz and get him to read (Quranic) verses before we could finally get it. Only God knows if it was a technical issue or a supernatural event.”
According to Syamsul, he wanted to make a film that’s on par with other Asian horror films, which is why he chose these spooky places to be featured in the film.
The 31-year-old added: “It was scary to film at the mortuary and cemetery. We never voiced that fear and carried on with filming as usual.”
Munafik tells the story of Ustaz Adam (Syamsul) who gave up on his gift to heal people with Islamic means after the death of his beloved wife in a car accident.
The incident has also made him a recluse, preferring to stay at home rather than go out and do anything beneficial. His mourning is made worse by his young son’s inability to accept the mother’s death.
Adam’s friends and family members try to help, but to no avail. That is, until a possession case arrives at his doorstep and he has no choice but to put aside his own grief and help.
While trying to aid the victim – a woman named Maria (Nabila Huda) who, on the surface, seems to suffer from depression and psychosis – Adam is put through some challenges that test him emotionally and physically.
The film, Syamsul’s ninth feature, was made in just 46 days for RM1.7mil. His main problem, however, was coming up with a believable and forceful story – that took far longer.
“I had written three different drafts before deciding to combine all three into one better story,” said Syamsul, who is the older brother of actor/director Syafiq Yusof (Villa Nabila).
Ultimately, he wanted to write about a subject that people can relate to even if Munafik is not based on a true story. “The basis of Munafik had to be something that might have happened to someone in the audience or someone they know.”
Munafik, which means a non-believer who pretends to be a believer of Islam, features many religious elements.
“I know this is a heavy subject,” offered Syamsul on the use of Quranic verses in the film. “I did a lot of research, (and) spoke to religious people to get clarification on the matter.”
Syamsul’s father Datuk Yusof Haslam, who is also the film’s producer, added: “We went to Jakim (Malaysian Islamic Development Department) to make sure all the pronunciations were right. Even during the censorship process, it was vetted by someone who spoke Arabic.”
One thing that Syamsul wanted to clarify is that in no way is Munafik meant as a reference for anything other than entertainment. Or perhaps it should be taken as a mild lesson.
“I am grateful that I can feature elements of Islam in the film, but please don’t look to the film for definition of the word and other things,” noted Syamsul.
Syamsul’s last film was KL Gangster 2 in 2013 which was embroiled in its own scandal when the film was leaked online before it opened in the cinema.
The director was so upset by what happened that he didn’t make any films for the next two years. Previously, he had released at least one film (sometimes two) every year since making his directorial debut in 2008 with Evolusi: KL Drift. Most of his films were box-office hits.
Although Syamsul said he was over the betrayal (the leak) by an unknown party, he still choked up when the topic arose at the Munafik press conference held before the screening. He left the stage in tears.
“I have never faced that kind of challenge before,” said Syamsul after the screening, when he was much more composed and a little jovial having received applause during the film’s end credits. He admitted that he did think about quitting the film industry after the leak.
It is no coincidence that Syamsul’s character in Munafik is also at a crossroads in the film – perhaps an outlet for Syamsul to sort out his own feelings.
Yusof – the helmer of Skop Productions – said the younger generation in the film industry has a lot of potential, and this includes his two sons.
“I am glad to see my son is back after being disappointed with KL Gangster 2. Having been in the industry for four decades now, it is important to remember to never give up.”
Yusof continued: “It is also heartening to see that more and more Malaysian audiences are going back to the cinemas to watch local films. Currently, we see it with OlaBola. But, at the same time, a film has to have a good story first to become successful.”
This sentiment is echoed by Finas director Datuk Khusairi Abdul Talib, who said: “Syamsul can go far as a director. I believe this film will attract audiences to come and watch it in the theatre.”
Munafik does promise to give its audiences a good scare. Nabila’s performance in the film is simply a revelation.
The actress said she followed her director’s instructions to a T to achieve her character’s morose behaviour.
“I am truly grateful that Syamsul had a lot of faith in me to carry this character. Every scene my character is in is heavy,” said Nabila, who has collaborated with Syamsul three times.
For Nabila, one memorable moment on the production was during filming at the mortuary where unclaimed bodies were laid out in the room. Yes, real dead bodies!
The scene required her to crawl into the small space of a morgue drawer. “I had to do it three times. The smell was most overwhelming and I was scared,” shared Nabila. “But I wanted to go all out (for this role).”
Munafik opens Feb 26.