Critic After Dark

Directed by Mikhail Red
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AT ITS best Mikhail Red’s Eerie is exactly that: eerie. The son of pioneering indie filmmaker Raymond Red has I’d say inherited his father’s eye for editing, composition, and lighting, fashioning films that are (whatever else you might say about them) strikingly visual, with accompanying social commentary.

Classic horror with its reliance on atmosphere and imagery seems a natural fit for the filmmaker; the real surprise to my mind is that Red didn’t start in the genre — his debut feature Rekorder is about a camcorder operator who sneaks into theaters to pirate first-run movies; Birdshot about a girl who shoots down the endangered Philippine eagle; Neomanila about an orphaned youth recruited into a notorious death squad. Red seems to have circled — tentatively, hesitantly — till he could finally swoop down to claim the genre for his own.

The results are mixed alas — disappointing if you’re thinking of Red’s natural abilities, not so if you remember his tendency to willfully pick the less easy, less obvious path.

The scene is a Catholic girl’s school, the fictional Sta. Lucia Academy; one of the students has been found dead. Pat (Bea Alonzo) is a guidance counselor enjoying easy rapport with the students, plus a sideline hobby of keeping in touch with alumni, of the undead kind.

Red’s film purrs along in these early scenes: the eloquently moody lighting, the often pleasingly angled if not symmetrical compositions, the leisurely pacing that — when the story pivots — turns unbearably tense. I’ll cite one shot early on, of a row of glass panes, where the overhead neons blink off one by one — a simple shot with little overt relevance to the main narrative, save establishing with superb assurance a tone of quiet foreboding and encroaching darkness.

The film is bracingly old-school — a refreshing lack of handheld camerawork, maybe a spare handful of shock cuts, precious little in the way of digital effects. One thinks of Ti West’s approach to horror, in films like The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, where a seamless script and perfect plausibility is sacrificed in the name of style, and the single most unsettling element isn’t the supposed phantoms or diabolical spirits but the restlessly sidling camera.

That and the massive old academy with its brooding chapel and endless hallways. The statuary, some of which are draped with cloth and seemingly ready to move once your back is turned (cue David Tennant whispering urgently in your ear “Don’t blink”). The religious paraphernalia with the accompanying weight of centuries of Spanish-Filipino Catholicism, and most of all the nuns — imperiously tall and sheathed in black cloth, you can almost imagine them unwrapping to reveal a cape the color of night, or giant batwings stretching up into the moonlit sky.

Tallest and most imperious is Sor Alice, the reverend mother ruling the institution with iron hand, played by the still-beautiful Charo Santos-Concio — appropriate, considering that her first film was Mike de Leon’s Itim, a gothic thriller whose influence has stretched over the years to loom over this, one of its many progeny.

De Leon’s film — his first feature — is a touch light on social commentary, mainly some subtext about the tyranny of the upper class in general and the male patriarchy in particular. Red isn’t operating on his level, but does do De Leon better by lightly (perhaps too lightly) touching on (among others) self-harm, bullying, homophobia, domestic violence, the stigma against mental health issues, the tendency of religious institutions to cover up crimes rather than uncover the truth.

Eerie is far from perfect. One wishes for a more unconventional sound design (loud noises to startle viewers and clanging music for chase sequences is so ’80s) and makeup (you can tell the director saw Corin Hardy’s The Nun). One wants to learn more about Pat — we’re teased with the detail that her brother committed suicide but learn little else. Why is she so passionate about reaching out to her students? How did she acquire her supernatural senses (don’t need a definitive answer, just maybe some speculation on the subject)? Why (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) set Pat so squarely against Sor Alice when you’re just going to deflect the blame elsewhere? Makes for a clever twist, true, but religious oppression and sexual abuse are classic motives for bullying, and equally classic motives for taking revenge, and Alice was shaping up to be such a magnificent villainess — Nurse Ratched in Count Dracula drag — that to learn she isn’t (or isn’t completely) guilty is a keen disappointment. As for the choice of true culprit — you catch a whiff, likely unintentional, of “blame it on the victim” behind that line of thinking.

No, not a perfect horror, not even a particularly innovative one. But as an exercise in low-key scares done in sleek seductive style you could do much much worse (James Wan’s The Conjuring with its heavy-breathing shock tactics comes to mind). Here’s to Red’s next film, hopefully with a more solidly constructed script.