By Noel Vera
Directed by Eduardo Dayao
THE HORROR GENRE is experiencing some kind of renaissance, interesting premises being hurled at our faces right, left, fore, aft, with varying degrees of success.
Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended (2015) had a brilliant idea — tell a horror story entirely through a computer’s many pop-up screens — but dissolves quickly in a sea of tired horror clichés of the “found footage” variety.
Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) starts out strong as a harrowing portrait of a single mother with her troubled child, but doesn’t seem to know how to direct its focus properly (who’s in danger, who’s the danger: mother or child?).
Genre outlier David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows takes its cue from John Carpenter’s gliding-camera sense of menace to record the constant approach of a vengeful shape-changing wraith, only to stage a silly swimming pool climax that undercuts much of what went before (to its credit the victimized teenagers are fascinating fatalists — if anyone can survive or even thrive under such circumstances it would probably be them).
Perhaps best of the lot is relative old-timer M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, which uses the aforementioned found-footage cliches — done with more stylish camera work than is standard for the genre — to tell the touching story of a fragmented family’s attempt to pull together. The plot’s all kinds of nonsense — if you look too closely it immediately falls apart — but the movie’s emotional thread, at least, feels strong.
Eduardo Dayao’s Violator doesn’t really start out with a strong premise so much as with a series of vignettes, one more creepily enigmatic than the next: a police officer learns of his impending mortality; co-workers stand on a rooftop, gazing at the city below (this doesn’t end well); another pair — co-workers? lovers? old friends? — lug gasoline cans across a rocky landscape; a couple has sex and quarrels and when the father turns to leave has to face his child’s inexplicable unspeaking fury.
The first half is brilliant, a loosely linked sampling you might say, a lopped-off cross-section of Metro Manilan middle-class society from police officer to schoolteacher to office worker to gang member, their predicaments quickly sketched, their circumstances deftly hinted at. Perhaps most unsettling is a Ringu-style videotape about a religious cult, complete with guitar-led singing and baptismal rituals involving acolytes floating, hooded and fully clothed, in a nearly empty swimming pool. The video sets the tone for the film’s latter half: a sense of gathering unease, of half-glimpsed figures and apocalyptic omens and dark water pouring relentlessly from the heavens.
What recent horrors seem to have in common is this ability to come up with a good even great concept, then not knowing what to do next. Dayao seems to be trying to bypass this weakness by starting his film vague then zeroing in on a single narrative, one that brings together some if not all of the earlier characters (a few are mentioned in passing).
Does it work? Some critics prefer the ambiguity of the vignettes; I’m of the school of thought that a belatedly applied unifying narrative can work too, if the story told is interesting or wild enough. Hence the police station — appropriately named Precinct 13 — where the dying officer and his men and a handful of civilians face an end-of-the-world deluge, an encroaching band of aforementioned cultists, and their own inner demons. John Carpenter (by way of Howard Hawks) meets Kurosawa Kiyoshi, with a dash of Hideo Nakata — if that’s not interesting I don’t know what is.
It helps that Dayao seems to be trying to get away with filming on as few bulbs as photographically possible. (“If you don’t have the money to light a movie properly,” he seems to be telling us, “then let the audiences’ imagination do the work for you.”) Maybe his most striking effect, for those who actually notice, is to approximate the kind of visually obfuscating fast-cutting often found in standard-issue horrors without actually doing any fast cuts (makes you want to give the picture a standing ovation for its audacity).
The links and allusions Dayao wants you to make aren’t exactly clear, which I suspect points to another of his working principles (“if you don’t have the money to do anything much less properly execute a properly written script then just scribble a few suggestions and let the audience’s imagination make all your connections for you”). The folks trapped in the station are of the Hawksian variety — tough, profane, not without a sense of humor or sense of irony. They don’t have much to work on plotwise, but that’s part of the horror. These are reasonably intelligent, reasonably strong-willed folks trying to deal with ordinary life and what they gradually come to suspect is the end of the world, and they have little to hold on to, much less work on. It’s overwhelming them — slowly, gradually, like rising floodwater.
It’s a good cast: action veteran Victor Neri and relative newcomer Anthony Falcon (Agent X-44!) are an amusing pair of cops; Timothy Mabalot as Nathan Winston Payumo makes for an unlikely agent of the Apocalypse — but it’s his very unlikeliness, coupled with Dayao’s deft framing and lighting of his oh-so-young face (complete with diabolical grin) — that makes the chills surprisingly effective.
But the film really belongs to the two elder members of the cast. I don’t find the backstory driving Andy Bais’ Mang Vic all that persuasive, but Bais plays the role with wide-eyed Takashi Shimura-like intensity and damn if you don’t end up buying what he has to sell anyway, especially when all hell breaks literally loose. Joel Lamangan’s Police Chief Alano is the weary wary heart of the film. He’s doomed even before the film begins and he knows it and somehow finds the strength and courage to go on.
Which might be the most overt takeaway message of this most oblique and elliptical of horrors, easily the best in the genre that I’ve seen in recent years: we’re all done, doomed, damned — yes. But sometimes we do manage to go on.
The film will be screening for the Cinema One Originals Festival at the following venues:
Fairview Terraces C1
Fairview Terraces C1