Thursday, November 03, 2022

Filipino horrors: Bahay na Pula (Red House), Matangtubig (Town in a Lake), Ma, Pagbabalat ng Ahas (Reptilia in Suburbia)

Cabinet of charcuteries

For my latest podcast (thanks to Karl Kaefer of Deviant Legion Network) I had to bone up on the best and the rest of recent Filipino horror. Could not catch everything, but what I did catch-- 

Brillante Mendoza's Bahay na Pula (Red House, 2022) has a married couple visiting the woman's ancestral home with plans of selling; the house is (what else?) haunted by wartime memories and ardent spectral lovers, but the problem isn't just real estate-- there's a suggestion that the man is involved in siphoning public funding, while the woman hopes to coax her former boyfriend into facilitating their house sale, by any means necessary. 

The plotting feels confused, not helped by Mendoza's elliptical storytelling-- secrets are implied by snatches of dialogue and significant looks, scenes jump with disorienting abruptness, crucial details are withheld. I get it-- Mendoza's trying to make us work at understanding his film. But by story's end there doesn't seem to be much to understand: we never learn what the crooked deal was about, and the subplot feels as if it could've been lopped off without much blood loss. 

But that's a minor complaint; I feel the material cries out for the kind of sidling, sinister camera movement that seduces the viewer, lulls him into an induced trance state of bliss before unleashing the electric shocks; instead Mendoza falls back on his verite style of nervous handheld camera footage, cut together in a jangling editing style. The visuals eventually settle down for the more atmospheric moments, but the images don't sing, the way Carpenter's or De Palma's might. 

Also the music, which blares ominously from first frame onwards, loudly, monotonously. When you work this hard at trying to scare an audience, it's difficult to be scared-- the filmmakers' anxiety is too apparent. 

Much prefer Mendoza's Kinatay, which Roger Ebert practically declared as the 'worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.' That fit snugly within Mendoza's abilities-- the story of a police killing, sparely told (script by the excellent Armando Lao) and unsparingly presented, Mendoza's gift for verite enhancing the film's unvarnished horror. Plus how many films do you know have the power to thoroughly offend a world-famous critic?

Perhaps my biggest issue with this latest was when I looked up the premise. Turns out there was an actual Red House located not in Oriental Mindoro but in Bulacan, and it was the setting for real horrors during the Second World War-- torture, murders, mass rapes. Sounds intriguing, and even more thoroughly in Mendoza's wheelhouse-- couldn't he have told that story instead? 

Jet Leyco's Matangtubig (Town in a Lake, 2015-- one wonders at the questionable translation) unreels in an altogether different register. Two girls, one missing, one found dead. The police interrogate possible suspects, organize search teams; TV camera crews arrive to conduct interviews and collect gossip. 

Part of the film's fascination lies in the town's muted response. No hysterical fits, no melodramatic shouting matches-- the town doesn't so much reel from the impact of the double crime as hunker down and brace itself for the coming ordeal, forced to deal not just with the police but the media. The dead girl's mother is buttonholed; she stares into the camera and says "to those responsible: have the decency to turn yourself in." Her quiet tone and calm intensity is mesmerizing, far more devastating than any wailing display of grief or anger. 

Leyco's visual style takes its cue from mother and villagers: understated, mysterious, not a little menacing. No loud schlock music score, mostly ambient sound and diegetic music. Definitely not for the short of attention span; others might appreciate the film's hypnotic pull. If Mendoza fusses too much over a mere haunted house, Jet Leyco takes an entire haunted community by a lake and compels us to puzzle over its eerie enigmatic surface. 

Kenneth Lim Dagatan's Ma (2018) involves a mysterious cave that can grant wishes, a boy with a dying mother, another mother heavy with child, and out of these simple ingredients fashions sneaky scary fun-- think a cross between Rosemary's Baby and The Monkey's Paw, with Dagatan like Mario Bava improvising stylish exercises in sustained dread out of a mere 30 pages of script a la Kill Baby Kill (at one point briefly evoking that film's most famous sequence). 

Dagatan has to put it mildly an obsession with bodily fluids; vomiting is practically a visual motif here, the liquids and occasional solid persuasively colored and realistically expelled. The overhead shots suggest an unsympathetic god looking down at his foolish creations, the gliding camera-- often peering over someone's shoulder while walking through a silent not necessarily empty house-- suggests a floating sense of anxiety. Of the four films I saw this is the most elegantly wrought, the most claustrophobic; the cave, a dark striated crack in the ground, is like an orifice which everyday people are drawn into, and less-than-holy creatures wander out. 

I spoke to two people who managed to see Timmy Harn's Ang Pagbabalat ng Ahas (Reptilia in Suburbia, 2013) and both had the same response: "What the fuck did I just watch?" 

The opening credits appear in italicized white lettering, the music lushly melodramatic, suggesting a Seiko Film softcore production. What follows is a melodrama: of two brothers competing for status (and use of a Mercedes Benz); of a wife sorely neglected by her alcoholic husband; of a neighborhood subdivision dealing with a rash of dog kidnappings. Call it a low-rent Falcon Crest, only why does Harn insert shots of a mad scientist (independent filmmaker Roxlee) looking into the camera claiming to have invented the first TV life form? Why does said lifeform look like the gimp in Pulp Fiction only the leather suit he's wearing isn't a suit but his skin? What's the repellent skin-flaking condition afflicting one shy teen and why is the other cute teen so interested in him?

It's not just the storylines; Harn somehow manages to evoke the faded, heat-warped celluloid of old film prints even more convincingly than Quentin Tarantino did in Grindhouse or David Finch in Mank; you almost hear the sound of the film projector clattering away in the booth overhead. The exaggerated acting, the group-portrait framing, the shots that linger to the point of uncomfortable suggest a filmmaking amateur, only the suspicion starts to dawn on you that what Harn's doing is perhaps deliberate-- that he's parodying low-budget commercial filmmaking the same time he's parodying the often lurid often ludicrous storylines that populate those pictures. 

It's not so much scary as it is unsettling, hilarious, jawdroppingly bizarre. Does the film count as horror? Not sure but it sure counts for something. O and that snake-man is an awesome dancer.  

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