Reviews of local horror films in 2019, Part 2

June 20, 2019

“KUWARESMA” by Erik Matti starts as a family drama about a young man, Luis (Kent Gonzales), who is called back home to Baguio after his twin sister, Manuela (Pam Gonzales), suddenly died. He’s taking up engineering in Lucena and you’d wonder why he’ll study there when Baguio has many good schools, starting with St. Louis. Anyway, he goes home and his parents, Rebecca and Arturo (Sharon Cuneta and John Arcilla), both remain silent and won’t reveal to him how his sister died.

At first, you’d think the movie is a psychological horror flick, what with the domineering father acting suspiciously like a nut case. But then, the story takes a sudden turn for the worse and reveals a big obnoxious twist from which the movie never gets to recover. Luis had monthly menstruation while sleeping and turns out to be Luisa, only compelled by their dad to act like a boy just because he desperately wants to have a son.

In which case, why is Luis shown at the start of the movie making out with a girl? Doesn’t the girl notice that he is actually a she and doesn’t have the male appendage at all? After this, we’re no longer willing to suspend our disbelief, even after such cheap scare tactics like Kent being harassed by a ghost who drags him downstairs and Sharon as the mom, Rebecca, being chased and attacked by the same ghost.

Surprisingly, after these undoubtedly horrifying encounters, both Kent and Sharon behave like nothing scary happened to them at all. It’s as if they’re used to having such strange experiences happening to them all the time. There’s also a subplot involving a clairvoyant (Guila Alvarez) and a crime that happened to another family years ago, but it doesn’t really contribute anything to help forward the story and make it more engrossing or convincing.

Even the title “Kuwaresma” has little relevance to the story, except for the fact that Manuela died and was buried during the Lenten season. It turns out it’s also actually another case of demonic possession as the father has actually been possessed by a demon all along. So it just drags. Ho-hum....

In the end, we feel sad for Sharon as Kent has an even bigger role than her in the movie. But the film’s biggest sin is that we don’t really get to sympathize and care for any of its characters at all. The extreme brutality of the father to his daughters are so dehumanizing but they and their mother allowed it to happen to them. In the end, they all just got what they deserve.

‘BANAL” is the directorial debut of J.A. Tadena, the cinematographer of Erik Matti in films like “Dos Ekis” and “Prosti”, and also Raya Martin’s more recent “Smaller and Smaller Circles”. But because of creative disagreement with APT Entertainment who handled the post-production, he requested not to be credited at all in the movie. Maybe he was able to foresee that the barely promoted “Banal” would be a big flop and was soon quickly pulled out from the theaters where it was showing due to a dismal lack of viewers.

The very thin storyline is something we’ve seen before in several other horror teen flicks, both foreign and local. It’s about a group of young people who are warned about going to the haunted forest of a mysterious mountain on Good Friday. But they are all hard-headed and reckless. They even pull some strings just so they can continue with what they think would be a great adventure.

As such, when they eventually get lost and bad things start happening to them, we don’t sympathize with them at all and we can even say: “Buti nga sa inyo, mga gunggong! Nakarma kayo! You get what you deserve!”

Bianca Umali tries her best as Erika, the daughter who wants a miracle at the top of the alleged sacred mountain but all the other cast members (Miguel Tanfelix, Kim Last, Andrea Brillantes, Taki) play thankless characters who are shown always arguing with each other you feel relieved when they are eventually disposed of.

‘CLARITA’ is the latest local horror film to be shown and just like “Maledicto” and, to an extent, “Kuwaresma”, it is also about demonic possession and exorcism, which is very popular in local showbiz. Local films that also tackled this topic are “Sanib” in 2003 by the late Celso Ad. Castillo starring Aubrey Miles, and “Sapi” in 2013 by Brillante Mendoza starring Baron Geisler and Meryll Soriano. Exorcism has also been depicted several times even in several episodes of such TV shows as “Magpakailanman” and “Maalaala Mo Kaya”.

The claim to fame of “Clarita” is that it is actually based on a real case of demonic possession that happened to a 17-year old girl, Clarita Villanueva, in post-war Manila in May 1953 while detained in the Old Bilibid Prison in Manila (but the film was shot in the former Quezon Insitute owned by the Philippine Tuberculosis Society). The case was reported not only locally but also by newspapers abroad. It was even made into a book, “Bitten By Devils: The True Story of Clarita Villanueva”, written by Lester Sumrall who claims he is actually the one who exorcised Clarita with the help of God.

No less than the mayor of Manila then, Arsenio Lacson, became personally interested in the case as he feels it’s giving his city a bad name. In the movie, Nonie Buencamino, playing Mayor Lacson, is shown at the start of the movie (without Lacson’s signature sunglasses) in two sequences, then he is suddenly dropped and is never mentioned again.

Clarita (Jodi Sta. Maria, who certainly doesn’t look like she’s 17) is arrested for vagrancy and claims that she is being tormented by evil spirits. Three doctors assigned to look after her all die mysteriously. Two priests are assigned to help her, Fr. Salvador (Ricky Davao), a veteran exorcist, and Fr. Benedicto (Arron Villaflor), who is a skeptic and turns out to be, like Fr. Xavi in “Maledicto”, had a previous bad experience with possession in the case of his own mother. You really can’t understand why he is a doubting Thomas when he already saw his own mom actually being possessed and he even has a scar on his face to forever remind him of it.

An additional character is a neophyte female newspaper reporter who covers the case, Emilia (played by Alyssa Muhlach, daughter of Almira and Bong Alvarez), who also has her own personal problem with regard to her sister who was raped by Japanese soldiers.

In fairness to the movie, it’s fairly well-crafted, particularly the cinematography by Mycko David that establishes the right mood and atmosphere. But as a horror flick, the movie doesn’t offer anything really new. All the manifestations shown by Jodi as Clarita, from her writhing and screaming, going into a trance, walking on her fours backwards (Jodi obviously had an acrobat as a double) and cursing in a foreign tongue, have all been done and seen before in other movies about possession, from Linda Blair in “Exorcist”, Jennifer Carpenter in “Exorcism of Emily Rose”, the Anthony Hopkins movie “The Rite”, to the more recent performance of Miles Ocampo as the victim in “Maledicto”.

Ricky Davao tries his best to project the weariness of the older priest but Arron Villaflor gives a lifeless performance as the younger one, looking like he’s also possessed and is just sleepwalking in his role. Newcomer Alyssa should have been subjected to lots of acting workshop before she was allowed to face the camera. And the costume designer made a big booboo in allowing her to wear pants and blouses that look too modern for the 1950s. If they watched the movies of Carmen Rosales and Anita Linda during that era, they’d see that women of that era almost always wear dresses called bestidas. It was only Nida Blanca who’d wear pants called pedal pushers in her role as the tomboyish heroine in such films as “Batanguena” and “Waray Waray”.

The film is directed by Derrick Cabrido who directed well-received indie films about kids, “Children’s Show” and “Nuwebe”. In “Clarita”, the problem of purging the demons inside Jodi’s body is quickly resolved after Ricky asked it to mention his names. The moment the devil did so, it left Jodi right away. The end. So pinahaba pa nang pinahaba, 'yun lang pala ang solusyon which was already used in “The Exorcist”.

Why didn’t they just ask the devil to say his numerous names right away? The truth is we got so bored while watching “Clarita” as there is nothing in it that we haven’t seen before in past movies about possession and exorcism. Clarita is given a back story with her ‘albularya’ mom (Yayo Aguila), but it really didn’t contribute anything much to the movie.

The dumbness of the characters also turned us off. When Jodi impersonates Arron’s mom and Alyssa’s sister, they quickly believe that it’s their loved ones, when they both already know that Jodi is possessed by a demon. What big fools! We’re used to characters in horror movies acting stupidly and this is one of them. This plot element is also not original as it’s been used in other possession movies before, even on TV shows.

It could have been more affecting if we get to care for the first two doctors that Clarita get to kill. But we know very little of them so we don’t really care when they are killed. The third doctor, played by Che Ramos, is a selfish and opportunitistic one, so we have no sympathy for her at all as she really deserves to die. “Clarita” might be based on a real life story but, sorry, it’s not scary at all.