Friday, April 17, 2015

Maligno (Malignant, Celso Ad. Castillo, 1977)

Supped full with horrors

Celso Ad. Castillo's Maligno (1977), his horror genre follow-up to the hugely popular Patayin sa Sindak si Barbara (Let's Frighten Barbara to Death, 1974) uses many of the previous films' cast (Susan Roces, Dante Rivero, Mary Walter) but ups the ante considerably by openly inviting comparison with Roman Polanski's masterful Rosemary's Baby (1968)--Satanist cult targets attractive young couple (Roces as Angela Cortez; Rivero as her husband Paolo) and their unborn child--with mixed results. On one hand the film's tone isn't as understated, the music decidedly unsubtle; on the other Ad. Castillo (unlike Polanski) does manage to grant the cult's leader his moment onstage, front and center, instead of forcing him to lurk about in the shadows. In the guise of Eddie Garcia's Lucas Santander, he's a grand, eloquent figure, given to slouching insouciantly in the darkest corner of his prison cell and pronouncing judgement on society's religious hypocrisy; unlike Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer, Garcia caters to our more traditional notions about evil cultists, but I guess if you must play a cliche, you should at least play it big. Garcia plays it so big the very bars of his cell seem to tremble. 

Ad. Castillo toys with the editing here, a la Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now: the sudden flash cuts either suggest  parallel actions, or one action with a connection or effect on some future action, or vice versa. Better yet is his use of silence, where he stretches out a moment of anticipation so far and so long you find yourself clutching your armrests, fingernails threatening the upholstery (less effective when viewed online--this really should be seen in the movie theaters). Better than even that is his gift for imagery; unlike in Patayin sa Sindak his horror effects here are more practical and more subdued--hence, more evocative: Fire blooming and leaping, pursuing the heroine; wind signaling the unleashing of powerful forces. Better yet are the shadows, invisible presences that reveal themselves on a wall, against flickering firelight--like a nightmare version of Peter Pan, where the boy not only has to look for his shadow but fight it tooth and nail.

Best of all is the sheer sensual beauty of the images, a quality I consider crucial for great horror (Ad Castillo seems able to produce them one after another in an endless royal flush). Blood pours down a polished white mask like maple syrup; fire blooms in a ring around Angela surrounding her, threatening her; mist curls lazily round a dead woman, a startling visualization of her exhaled soul.

About a third of the way into the picture Ad Castillo does a sudden left turn and instead of Rosemary's Baby we have a cross between The Exorcist and Freaky Friday--an in my book clever move, as the two lesser films provide rich feeding ground for ideas, yet sit so insignificantly in one's memory (for the record, not a big fan of the Friedkin) you're not comparing better with lesser. Or: Ad Castillo's horror fantasy improves on the Friedkin's simplistic treatment of (not pop-up horror, that's too easy) spiritual dread, of the kind of existential terror that arises when you ask who really runs the cosmic order of heaven, earth, hell.

Tempting to juxtapose Roces' performance with Mia Farrow's, but Ad Castillo short-circuits comparisons by piling on Angela's suffering. Her first child, her husband, finally her priest are taken away from her; surrounded by flames with all hope lost and none forthcoming, she finally comes into her own: "I don't care about you anymore!" she yells into the apparently empty night sky. Startling words, coming from someone who's lived all her life (as have eighty-six percent of her fellow Filipinos) in the solid embrace of the Church.

The final images (skip the rest of this article if you plan to see this film!) are Ad Castillo's response to her blasphemous query, and you can react two ways: with a bark of laughter as the film's credibility flies out the window, or with a gasp of wonder, as you refuse to believe Ad Castillo had the balls to go that direction. What other horror film has a finale quite like this? What other film horror or otherwise totally heedlessly abandons narrative logic in favor of unshaped emotional turbulence so late in the game? Closest I can think of is Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy, which didn't so much have a happy ending as it did a half-satiric affirmation--for better or worse--of the majestic yet terrible hold faith has over peoples' lives

Was this Ad. Castillo's game plan, to emulate Rossellini? A kind of sideways-agnostic, partly skeptical, partly fervent tribute of considerable visual power? It's a powerful something, anyway--as with even the best of Ad. Castillo, one can't be confident of a coherent or even consistent system of thought behind the film, one can only marvel at a prodigal talent that flings everythingincluding the kitchen sink and the sacrificial altar (sacrifice pinned firmly to its flattop) at the big screen. Dare I say it? Why not, as Ad. Castillo obviously dared--his best work in the genre, and possibly one of the greatest Filipino horror films ever made.

First published in Businessworld 4.9.15

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