Chilling me softly
Let's settle one thing: this is not Ishmael Bernal's Pridyider, the master filmmaker's memorable contribution to Regal's monstrously successful horror anthology franchise Shake, Rattle 'n Roll (1984)--thirteen sequels and counting (they seem to propagate like the undead), its fifteenth incarnation to haunt movie screens this coming Christmas. Bernal's film was a throwaway, a trifle concocted with veteran screenwriter/bank officer Amado Lacuesta to, y'know, entertain the kiddies, so they came up with the nuttiest premise possible: a killer fridge that swallows its prey whole.And yet for all its disposable qualities it's solidly (if implausibly) built, its chrome trimmings gleaming under the kitchen flourescents with flashes of genuine wit. A cabbage head in a sink turns into a severed head; a household maiden yanks open the icebox door and cools herself in its lusty exhalations (talk about sensual and chilling at the same time). Does any of it mean anything? Probably not (well, maybe a sharp jab at Filipino consumerism), but sophisticated humor is so rare in Filipino films, sexy sophisticated humor even more rare, and sexy sophisticated horror-comedy rarest of all one is more than willing to forgive this short's weaknesses, its very improbability. It's like a snowball in hell--shouldn't be there, shouldn't last, but there it remains, defying all expectations with the stubborn fact of its existence.
Which is why when the announcement was made back in 2012 that Bernal's minor gem of a classic was to be remade into a full-length feature by young-punk horror filmmaker Rico Ilarde I wondered; I had my doubts. But Ilarde is another kind of throwaway improbability--an '80s film brat who suckled on the milk of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter and Walter Hill, but works with the primitive sets and limited resources of a Filipino film studio, sometimes less (a significant portion of his output being no-budget independent digital features). His films have an arthouse cunning sprouting out of a pop-culture sensibility, are often a chimeran combination of various genres--comedy, romance, action, science fiction, fantasy, horror. Behind the bewildering facade are indie filmmaking smarts (creating action sequences and special effects practically out of spit and shoestring and off-the-shelf digital software) and behind that I submit is a kind of Spanish-Filipino mindset that (for one) tends to pit mestizo heroes against ancient (read: colonial/mythological/authoritarian) evils.
Only for this project the hero is not mestizo but mestiza--Andi Eigenmann (daughter of the late great Mark Gil) as Tina, a beautiful balikbayan returning to her family home after an absence of years, trying to learn more about the mysterious traumatic event that vanished her parents and sent her to the United States to stay with her aunt.
Ilarde complicates Bernal and Lacuesta's elegant setup, of predatory fridge claiming lovely lass' unwary bod. Here the lass still (unwittingly) offers her bod, but the spirit possessing the fridge is less predatory than it is jealous, setting up a crosscurrent of psychosexual drama streaming from that long-ago traumatic event (Ilarde in his recent scripts often locates the source of emotion in his horrors either in ancient family histories or long-ago personal tragedies, the memory of which is constantly being repressed). In this particular case possessive mother (Janice de Belen) and inquisitive daughter find themselves vying for the love of a melancholic father (Joel Torre)--shades of Mario O'Hara's Halimaw sa Banga, another horror psychodrama where the daughter-and-mother (stepmother, actually) rivalry erupts with supernatural fury.
Interesting direction to go, not entirely successful (Ilarde's most effective, most moving work for me remains his claustrophobic / romantic / comic / tragic / horrific genre-bender Altar (2008)) but Ilarde piles on the improbabilities with prodigious enthusiasm, from a shamelessly endearing meet-cute between young lovers (Eigenmann's Tina with her childhood friend-turned-police officer James (JM De Guzman), to a series of disappearances punctuated by the fridge door swinging open to reveal the victims' heads screaming in obvious discomfort, to a scuttling spidercrab creature that seems to have wandered in from the set of John Carpenter's The Thing, to hentai-sized tentacles shooting out of either side of the fridge (the better to snarl you up with, my dear!). Ilarde's apparently a firm believer in that old adage: "if it's worth doing it's worth overdoing, oversplattering, overwrapping in slimy tentacles." There's something refreshingly retro--antediluvian, almost--about the filmmaker's faith in the genres he's so gleefully combining and recombining, a mad scientist playing with his mail-order gene-splicing set.
By the time Ilarde shows us the depths of depravity and despair festering within the appliance (said depths a metaphor for the complexity of the human heart--oh, the wonderful literalness of horror movies!) we've long since checked our sense of credulity at the fridge door and are free to wander about, have a disturbingly good time. I'll say this much, though: Ms. Eigenmann is perfectly welcome to yank my icebox door open anytime, bask in the gusty exhalations of my admiration. Oh yeah.
First published in Businessworld, 10.16.14