TL;DR: Otlum looks great, but it mucks up a decent idea by being lazy & derivative.
It’s hard to get over the fact that a movie called Otlum got included in the Metro Manila Film Festival in the godawful year of 2018, as if the MMFF executive committee is coming up with new ways to show how obnoxious & terrible this whole endeavor has become. For everyone who doesn’t speak Tagalog, Otlum is the Tagalog word for ‘ghost’ spelled backwards; which means its English title will probably be ‘Tsohg.’ This method of inverting a word or its syllables is described as tadbalik, & is used to create new Pinoy slang that will often be used by the hippest of youths. The problem is no one really says ‘otlum’ unless they’re referring to the movie or saying it ironically like what my cousin & I have been doing for the past few weeks. It reeks of trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. It’s not cool & it’s never gonna happen.
The same can be said for the popular clique at the center of this lackluster horror movie. Outside of their conventional beauty, the film doesn’t offer any compelling reason why people admire them at all. All of them are bland, amorphous cutouts whose sole characteristic is defined by their ties to the group, & they all talk like they were written by an adult trying & failing to capture how today’s youth talk & feel. Instead, it goes for the easy route of having them awkardly drop the word ‘hashtag’ in conversations & sigh explain what an ‘otlum’ is.
At least one part of the problem makes sense, since their connections aren’t formed by warmth or affection. They are basically a part of a fraternity founded by a smug asshole played by Jerome Ponce, where the only way to enter is through a series of punishing, embarrassing tests; one of them had to drink everyone else’s urine in order to be accepted to the group. He lords over everyone with his strict rules & his demand for absolute devotion to their brotherhood, & the rest of the group is chafing under his restrictions beneath their happy facade. It’s not allowed to date anyone within the group, yet there’s already a man & a woman hiding their romantic status from everyone. It doesn’t help one of the boys has a crush with the same woman, and he’s starting to suspect the truth behind the couple. One of them even starts questioning their humiliating rituals to enter their group. It’s unclear what they get out of the group but they’re still sticking it out for some reason; even if it makes them all slightly miserable.
This doesn’t stop Fred (Buboy Villar) from trying to force his way into the group. He doesn’t have anyone except for a distant mother (Irma Adlawan) who only bothers him for money he earns from repairing appliances, & a so-called friend (Kiray Celis) who always berates him whenever he’s around, so his need to befriend them is a somewhat understandable and completely misguided attempt at making connections. He becomes so desparate that at one point he bribes their affection with free food & drinks. Most of them have no intention in including him in the group, yet they continue to harass him as part of his “initiation.” As part of his final test, Fred has to stay inside an abandoned orphanage with a disturbing past for the whole night. When he finds out that they never intend to include him in the group anyway, he vows to take revenge. He kills himself & haunts them one by one with the help of a young ghost lurking in the same orphanage. Whatever fraught bonds the group has becomes even shakier. Some of them consult a paranormal investigator (John Estrada) to help them fight against Fred & his cohort. However, even the paranormal investigator himself has a grim past with the orphanage & now he is forced to face them in order to save the rest of the group.
It’s so hard to care about what happens though. Besides the awful dialogue & half-baked motivations from almost everyone, it’s just a nasty, boring slog of a movie. Outside of Fred, which is the film’s most sympathetic character, it’s a head-on plunge into awful human behavior without the wit, insight, or even a believable piece of humanity to make it bearable. This makes it harder to care for the group, which means there’s no tension when Fred starts terrorizing them. It also doesn’t help that its scares are done at a bare minimum, with nary a hint of inspiration or effort done to them. They feel so lifeless, like it’s an obligation for the film to deliver something scary when it doesn’t seem interested in doing so. Seeing a ghost run out of nowhere in plain sight doesn’t constitute a scare, nor does it grip anyone into thinking that something bad might happen to anyone.
It does have some of the best visuals for MMFF 2018, which is shocking considering the dire material. While none of it is mind-blowing, Jun Dalawis & Teejay Gonzales uses a ton of close-ups & medium shots that capture the insular, alienating world of the popular group & Fred’s forlorn existence. There’s a care & craft here that just couldn’t be seen on the script. This can be found in its best scene: Fred crying alone in his workspace after he was ditched by the popular clique, left drenched in the rain while wearing a formal suit. It’s framed by simple static shots that often obscure his face, with Buboy Villar finally revealing the totality of his anguish & disillusionment. It taps into what could’ve been a nuanced, acidic horror film about the toxic nature of fraternities & what makes them so attractive to people like Fred.
Instead, what we get is a rote horror movie filled with dumb, underwritten characters that’s hard to care for. At the very least, it is only 75 minutes long, so this isn’t as punishing as it should be. If only the film tried even harder to be good as much as it tried to sound cool, we could’ve gotten something more substantial.