For his latest film, director Erik Matti returns to a favorite genre of his -- horror. Previously, he had done "Pa-Siyam" (2004), the two Aswang Chronicles films "Tiktik" (2012) and "Kubot (2014), and "Seklusyon" (2016).
When Sharon Cuneta agreed to be the lead actress of this new project (her very first horror film of her entire career), what was supposed to have been a small film eventually grew in proportion to the magnitude of its star.
It was 1985. Luis Fajardo was called at his boarding school in Lucena City to return to their home in Baguio because his twin sister, Manuela, had died suddenly.
When he got there, neither his obstetrician mother (Dr. Rebecca) nor his ex-military father (Col. Arturo) would tell him exactly what happened. From his first night and every night that followed, Luis would experience one bizarre horrific event after the other, seemingly from his sister who blamed him for leaving her behind.
As proven from his previous films, Matti was a master in creating a chilling atmosphere. From the very beginning, even a favorite Christmas song like "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" took on an eerie air, especially with all the whispering voices and whimpering cries that were heard along with it. The old Baguio house of the Fajardo family was built even before World War 2. Its rooms with its antique furnishings (including a fully-equipped labor room!) seemed perpetually shrouded in shadows, even during the daytime.
What seemed to be a simple story of a dysfunctional family at the start slowly turned out to be more and more convoluted with warped twists which revealed themselves as the film unfolded, as written by Katski Flores. Aside from the family, there was only one other side character -- a mysterious woman named Salve (Guila Alvarez), who introduced herself to Luis during the wake as someone whose preternatural talents might be of help to him.
The biggest surprise, though, came midway in the film, when Rebecca dropped a big revelation bomb which was so incredibly crazy and wild, I am sure no one could ever see it coming. This scene was so insanely shocking that it will leave mouths agape in disbelief once this plot point was played out. However, I personally did not think it particularly worked well, nor did it feel entirely necessary in the overall narrative, which became a bit overstetched towards the end.
Cuneta was able to create a nebulous character mystery in her portrayal of Dr. Rebecca Fajardo. Throughout the film, we cannot really decide what sort of mother she was. She struck us first as a long-suffering martyr of spousal abuse, but later she seemed to be seamlessly becoming different inexplicable personalities, sometimes within the same scene. Cuneta was really pushed through the wringer and challenged like she had never been before with this exhausting and maddening role.
John Arcilla was a terrifying presence as Col. Arturo Fajardo. It initially seemed like he was channeling Vic Silayan's fearsome father character Sgt. Carandang in the film "Kisapmata" (Mike de Leon, 1981). In a while, he would be slobbering as he lisped with a demonic-sounding foreign language. Later, he would be involved in bloody torture scenes which would make you wince in pain. Still later, he would be shouting out blasphemous pronouncements which will make you writhe in your seat with guilt for merely hearing them.
Seventeen-year-old acting newcomer Kent Gonzales played the plum role of Luis, the precious only son of the Fajardos upon whom his father had imposed unrealistic expectations of excellence. He was able to hold his own in his scenes with the two senior acting heavyweights he was with. There were some unexpected developments in his character which were unfortunately not explored too well. In an interesting piece of casting, his real-life younger sister Pam Gonzales played Luis's ill-fated twin sister, Manuela.
Aside from the point that Manuela was interred on the second Sunday of Lent and there was a scene that recalled Ash Wednesday, I do not really get why "Kuwaresma" was the title of this film as a whole. Unlike many other Pinoy horror films, there was no overuse of spooky religious statues here, nor did it feature Filipino Holy Week practices and superstitions, despite the religious-sounding title.
Overall, the film was technically excellent. There was fascinating mixing of music and spooky sound elements with a full wall of sound effects. The production design really worked hard with the costumes and props as the scenes jumped decades from 1944 to 1965 to 1985. Its moody bluish-tinged cinematography plus the tight editing created some good jump scares, with above-average ghost and monster visual effects for more frights. Fans of Filipino horror will like this one.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."