Erik Matti is a talented and commercially successful filmmaker, but coherent storytelling isn't exactly his strong suit. He likes style, lots of it, slathered heavily over flimsy characters and nonsensical plots, filling up the space usually reserved for a film's themes and ideas. He likes to borrow, magpie-like, images, moods and colors from a wide range of filmmakers--Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Wong Kar Wai, San Miguel Beer commercials--tossing them in without rhyme or reason, to ferment in his celluloid chamber-pots. It would be nice to think he's aware of how hilariously his films play onscreen, but no; he's been heard to declare with the utmost solemnity about this or that oeuvre that he's consciously tried to emulate the works of a master like Ishmael Bernal, only to say "fuck it, I'm going to do things my way." Which he does, with inimitable results.
When he's working from someone else's screenplay, however, he's a different creature entirely. Dwight Gaston's screenplay for Pa Siyam (rough translation "Nine Days"--this refers to the traditional period of mourning after the deceased has been buried) is refreshingly low key: a family gathers together at their ancestral mansion to mourn the death of their mother, and a series of eerie events occur around them. This time there are no dead bodies in trunks, no suitcases full of cash, no nursing uniforms stained with rancid spaghetti sauce (don't ask): Matti is forced to put away his CGI toys, his whirligig camera and strobe-like editing tricks to tell the relatively straightforward story of a family frightened to within an inch of their lives.
And it makes a difference. Working on a smaller budget than he's used to and confined only to what he can do on-camera, Matti is careful to let such relatively subtle elements as silence and atmospheric lighting and the occasional ambient sound effect do most of his work for him--to let matters simmer, in effect, instead of keeping them a-boil. The deceased's children lie down to sleep and wake up in the morning to find themselves covered in leaves, blood, filth; they look around, and their faces convey their fear far more effectively than any digital effect ever can.
Helping Matti are an excellent cast of actors--Yul Servo as the handsome younger brother, Cherry Pie Picache as the maternal elder sister, and Roderick Paulate as the patriarchal eldest brother; Picache and Paulate in particular are wonderful character actors who've never gotten the attention they rightly deserved for the solid work they've done over the years, and Matti gets pogi points (rough translation: brownie points) for giving them these showcase roles.
It's not a perfect work, or an especially great horror film; the "sleep at night to find disgusting things in the morning" ploy wears thin after a number of repetitions. Jaime Fabregas, who plays a mysterious stranger, is always welcome (Fabregas as comic foil or flamboyant villain or--as here--intensely understated cameo is always welcome), but you wonder what on earth he has to do with the story, other than act as filler to bring the running time to feature-film length.
The climax, when the awful truth is finally revealed, is something of a letdown, though Matti brings most if not all his visual pyrotechnics (confining himself to a modulated palette of colors, he can't really knock your eyes out with his usual bright reds and yellows and blues); you pretty much guess what the family secret was all along, and one of the members actually blurts it out in the form of a question. And the consequence is--what? You'd think there'd be a form of revenge, Twilight Zone-style, where the family is banished to some nightmare dimension, or something; instead the film just ends, and everyone goes home in relative comfort and newfound peace.
The Philippines has had its share of horror films, but exemplary examples are, disappointingly, rare. There are Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero's Blood Island movies, which are a memorable mix of leering nudity and splashing gore and the occasional--usually thanks to de Leon--image of uncanny beauty. De Leon's first effort at internationally distributed horror, Terror is a Man (1959) a stripped-down, unsettlingly atmospheric adaptation of H.G. Welles' The Island of Dr. Moreau, is possibly their best (and, by implication, some of the best Philippine cinema has to offer); likewise with his pair of vampire films, Kulay Dugo ang Gabi (Blood is the Color of the Night, 1964) and Ibulong Mo sa Hangin (Whisper in the Wind, 1966).
Of recent examples, perhaps one of the better ones are Lino Brocka's stylish if slight Gumising Ka, Maruja (Wake up, Maruja, 1978), about a pair of doomed lovers that haunt a film production; Ishmael Bernal's witty horror-comedy short Pridyider (Frigidaire, part of the omnibus Shake, Rattle and Roll, 1984), where a household is menaced by a--you guessed it--killer fridge; Celso Ad. Castillo's Patayin sa Sindak si Barbara (roughly Kill Barbara with Fear 1974), arguably the most purely frightening Filipino film ever made; and Mario O'Hara's short Halimaw sa Banga (Monster in the Jar, part of the 1986 omnibus Halimaw), about how a woman's hatred for her step-daughter literally becomes monstrous. Matti's film doesn't quite scale the heights of these previous efforts--it doesn't have the visual elegance of de Leon's vampire films, the skillful editing of Ad. Castillo's Patayin or the knotted emotional complexity of O'Hara's Halimaw--but it does sit in their company without too much embarrassment.