The local movie industry had been on a sad slump since the beginning of this year. Whatever the genre, nothing seemed to work. So far, the only film that hit it big in the box office was a romance that starred a very popular young love team, but that was hardly a surprise.
However, this horror film by Mikhail Red hopes to break that trend with the very loud media hype surrounding it, despite its uncommon combination of female lead stars -- Bea Alonzo and Charo Santos.
Sta. Lucia Academy is an all-girls school housed within the convent of nuns led by the very conservative and very strict Sor Alice Nicolas.
In 1995, Patricia Consolacion was their kind and approachable guidance counselor. Because of a personal trauma in their family, Pat was very sensitive to the problems faced by the students. In fact, she can even see and communicate with the tormented spirits of girls who had died on campus, like Erika Sayco (who hanged herself in the restroom) or Clara Nemenzo (who was strangled in the courtyard).
Director Mikhail Red started things off very well as he opened the film with an uneasy montage of images depicting the daily disciplined routines of the girls and nuns in Sta. Lucia. He generated that uncomfortable mood right off at the start, and that was very good. However, as the film went on, to generate more scares, he unfortunately resorted to as many predictable horror tropes in the book as he could throw into the mix, sometimes becoming repetitive.
There were jump scares galore here, all with that slow, steady, quiet setup, then that sudden blast of loud blaring music to jar the tension and elicit the screams. Also, despite being the "premier" Catholic school in Manila in the 1990s, the long medieval-looking halls of Sta. Lucia Academy seemed perpetually cloaked in darkness, with practically no evident security system nor any working lights at night. It was so pitch black in there that the characters had to carry flashlights and even light matches to be able to see what was in front of them.
There were spooky reflections in mirrors, scratchy-sounding cassette tapes, Latin chanting, red-lit darkrooms for developing film, abandoned toilet cubicles, vivid nightmares, furniture shrouded in white cloth, water turning into blood, and the ubiquitous religious statues (If you recall, Sta. Lucia had her eyes on a plate which in itself is a ghastly image). I thought it would not have a scene set on a dark rainy night, but indeed there was, right at the film's climax. Finally and not the least, there was also a vengeful spirit who wanted to punish others because of how badly she was treated in life.
Sor Alice (pronounced with three syllables "a-li-che") started out as such a strong imposing character, red herrings notwithstanding. However, her final breakdown confrontation with Pat was marked with an abrupt and inexplicable shift in personality, which for me was such a sorry development in her story, and could have been done better. With her incredible screen presence, Santos embodied Sor Alice with so much passion and power, which all but dissipated (and wasted) in that one key scene.
We know how good Alonzo is as a dramatic actress, and she showed her range off very well here in a genre so different from the romances we are more used to seeing her in. Her Pat was a very brave, empathetic character who was not difficult to root for, even when she was being either very dedicated or very foolhardy to be staying up way past midnight in abject darkness, over and beyond the call of her duty, and dare to speak with and even counsel the souls of disturbed dead girls.
Jake Cuenca played the intrepid police investigator Julian Castro. Maxene Magalona played a young novice nun, Sister Mia, Pat's friend in the faculty. Miguel Faustmann played the cheerful Father Darwin, the rector of Sta. Lucia Academy. Gillan Vicencio, Mary Joy Apostol, and Gabby Pineda played Erika, Clara, and Joyce, the three psychologically disturbed girls with whom Pat had close encounters with.
Mycko David's classy cinematography was filtered in dull grey, practically washing out all color, except for the occasional shock of bright red. The editing of Nikolas Red and Jeffrey Loreno worked well with the somber music of Myka Magsaysay-Sigua and Paul Sigua, and the sound design of Immanuel Verona to create the whole eerie atmosphere that pervaded the whole film. The script by Mariah Reodica, Mikhail Red, and Rae Red had some nifty original elements in it, with M. Night Shymalan's "The Sixth Sense" an obvious inspiration (not really Corin Hardy's "The Nun" as many may think).
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."