Metro Manila Film Festival 2017: Haunted Forest’s Glossy Sheen Couldn’t Disguise How Bland & Undercooked It Is

TL;DR: Great ideas & high production values are abound in Haunted Forest, but the sloppy execution renders it fruitless.

Haunted Forest has all the trappings of an excellent horror movie. Aris (Raymart Santiago) is a cop who is reassigned to his hometown, bringing his only daughter Nica (Jane Oineza) with him at his sister’s home. Both of them have a rocky relationship ever since Aris’ wife died, with Nica acting out or ignoring his demands. Aris helps out his friend & chief of police Nardo (Joey Marquez) in investigating a series of chilling murders inflicted on women, supposedly caused by a sitsit, an aswang-like creature lurking in the forest. When Nica finally opens up to her cousin & her friends, she joins their outing in a nearby river; including a cute boy named RJ (Jameson Blake) who clearly likes her. After the trip, she starts acting irrationally & prone to fainting. Soon she finds herself slowly reeled in by the sitsit and her friends & family will do everything they can to save her.

Unfortunately, the whole movie is completely dull. There’s a drought of scares due to its sloppy staging & generic nature, especially once it descends into the typical third act confrontation that’s neither thrilling nor fun. This extends to the whole film, where each scene feels perfunctory, shallow & oddly paced. There are also unfortunate scenes involving the village’s mentally disabled local named Voltron – who is the only witness to the murders – where Aris & Nardo beat him up senselessly for comic relief, that stands out for being hateful & ill-suited to the movie.

But glimmers of what could’ve been can be seen throughout the movie. Instead of becoming a metaphor for every father’s nightmare for their daughter taken to its extremes – like the Taken series – it wisely focuses on the father-daughter bond at its core, trying their best to rebuild what was lost after a horrible tragedy. It’s easier to root for these characters when it’s grounded in something painful; compared to Regal Films’ previous Haunted Mansion, where every character is either bland or despicable that you start rooting for their deaths. Raymart Santiago & Jane Oineza both shine in these roles as they reconnect after failing to communicate for so long. The rest of the cast elevate what could’ve been staler material in the wrong hands. Joey Marquez is doing his “gruff dad” shtick he’s been doing recently & it works. Jameson Blake sells his growing relationship with Nica as RJ thanks to their undeniable chemistry. Even if Maris Racal & Jon Lucas aren’t given much to do, they still enliven the film with their presence. There are also two standout sequences – Nica’s violent freakout & its aftermath in her bedroom – for managing to be creepy, but it’s pretty much downhill afterwards.

That’s not even mentioning the movie’s polished production values, so even when the movie isn’t working at all, at least it:s beautiful to look at. Rommel Sales’ cinematography creates eerie images in the dark. Ericson Navaro’s production design deserve praise for adding a foreboding atmosphere, like the creepy tableaus the victims end up in after their deaths. The CG special effects are also well done, but it distracts from the movie’s overall vibe.

Despite all this, it never rises above its middling quality. There are seeds of a better horror movie surrounding the movie, but it is in dire need of a more assured hand to pull it off. What we have instead is half-baked movie that never reached its full potential.

List: MMFF 2017 Entries Ranked By How Likely It Will Last in Theaters

The 2016 edition of the Metro Manila Film Festival was an unheralded critical & commercial success, all thanks to a simple yet critical rule change: Only finished films are allowed to be included in the film festival, where it will be judged by a selected jury if they are worthy of being included. In previous years, only scripts are submitted, which are still subject to changes, & while there’s a criteria as to what kind of films get selected, it’s basically useless since easily marketable movies headlined by famous stars like Vic Sotto & Vice Ganda are prioritized. (You can read a detailed look at these shenanigans here.) People are discussing the movies themselves, instead of whether it made a ton of money in the box-office.

And because we live in the Philippines, any whiff of progress that shuns powerful gatekeepers & lessens corporate profits will be stopped. That’s what happened this year, where a compromise was made: there will be four slots alloted for script submissions & finished films. Unsurprisingly, MMFF mainstays who were shunned last year got their spots back. However, a bunch of promising titles were also included in the lineup.

But being included in the MMFF lineup isn’t a guarantee that your movie will be seen. Theaters are very eager to pull out underperforming movies from their cinemas even on the second day of the film festival, just so they could open more theaters for box-office hits. Allowing more commercially viable films under the guise of accepting them as script submissions is going to make this problem worse. Regardless of quality, all of these movies have a right to be seen for the duration of the film festival.

As a sign of where things are headed, I’ve ranked all of the entries for MMFF 2017 based on how likely it will be pulled out in theaters. These movies will be ranked based on star power, the success of the movie’s genre during the film festival & educated guesses based on my experience watching movies for this film festival. Quality is not an important part of the ranking, but it is still considered; depending on the early reviews & the track record of the people who made the movie.

While ensuring that all of these movies will be screened for the entirety of the film festival would be better, seeking out you’re selected movie entry as soon as possible is unfortunately the best course of action. And unsurprisingly, the first half of the list are finished film submissions, while the last half are script submissions, which will not have any problems securing theaters for their movies.

1. Ang Larawan

This film adaptation of Larawan, The Musical – which itself was also adapted from National Artist of Literature Nick Joaquin’s The Portrait of the Artist as Filipino – is the most fascinating of the bunch; which means it’s not long for this world. It tells the story of two unmarried sisters trying to stay afloat during the onset of World War II, when their father, a famous painter, stopped producing artworks. However, his self-portrait has attracted the curiosity of journalists & pretentious art critics, & it might be their way out of their financial mess. This historical musical has already premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival, where it got a rave review from Variety, but that may not be enough to pull in audiences. Historical movies aren’t huge moneymakers during the film festival, but the novelty of being a musical might pull in the right audience. It needs to build positive word-of-mouth as soon as possible or it will not make it to the end of the film festival.

How long will it last: For malls with a lot of cinemas, it will survive until the end of the film festival. But if the reactions from critics & audiences are muted, it will be screened 2-3 days in the film festival. Afterwards, malls will pull it out in favor of more profitable entries.

2. Siargao

Paul Soriano tackles the romance genre for the first time, with a love triangle set in the gorgeous island of Siargao. It looks very promising, since it’s written by Anj Pessumal – who co-wrote English Only, Please & worked on some of Star Cinema’s biggest hits like Starting Over Again – & Paul Soriano bringing the technical prowess his previous movies have shown in his latest movie. The footage from the trailer alone is jaw-droppingly beautiful. However, there’s another romantic movie in the lineup with a similar looking tone – composed of MMFF standbys – so it might not stay long in theaters.

How long will it last: It will make it until the end of the film festival, but its theater count will decrease every day. It needs to have vocal support from critics & audiences so it can survive the entirety of the film festival. It could even have an additional week or more in theaters after the film festival, if audiences flock to it.

3. Deadma Walking

This movie already won an award before it got made. Based on a Palanca-winning screenplay, it tells the story of a gay man who fakes his own death & throws an early funeral with the help of his best friend, after he’s diagnosed with cancer. This looks like a great alternative for those looking for a comedy starring gay men that doesn’t involve Vice Ganda, but that may be its downfall as they face off against Vice Ganda. It does have potential to become the sleeper hit of the festival, if critics & audiences will enjoy its mix of farcical hijinks & heartwarming moments about friendship & mortality.

How long will it last: It will get a complete run for the entirety of the film festival. There’s a chance it could even stay for at least another week in malls, if reactions from audiences & critics are ecstatic.

4. Haunted Forest

Regal Films may have allowed the Shake, Rattle & Roll franchise to die for now, but that doesn’t mean they stopped making horror films for the MMFF. They now have Haunted Forest to provide scares for the audience during this season. A father & his daughter visit their province at the worst time possible, since their small town is being attacked by a creature called sitsit, who targets women & killing them. It looks like Regal Films is banking on this one to become a profitable crowdpleaser, just by looking at the film’s impressive special effects, production design, & cinematography. They have good reason to do so, since the very similar looking Haunted Mansion was the surprise hit of MMFF 2015. And there’s no reason to doubt it, since audiences are always looking out for horror movies at this time of the year, & being the only horror movie – one that looks this slick – makes it stand out in the lineup.

How long will it last: There’s no question it will retain its theaters for the entirety of the film festival, and its life after will likely be fruitful too. It could stay for at least one week in cinemas after the film festival, before it gets swallowed by new releases. By then, it would have probably made a bunch of money.

5. Meant to Beh

Formerly known by its more cringeworthy title Love Traps: #FamilyGoals, Vic Sotto & the rest of the Eat Bulaga Acting Troupe – as I’d like to call them – are back, trying hard to capture their box-office dominance before Vice Ganda swooped it from them like a thief in the night. Their latest attempt now includes Dawn Zulueta, reuniting with Vic Sotto after more than 30 years & last worked with him in Okay Ka, Fairy Ko! Both of them play a married couple who decide to split up & date other people, while their children try their best to bring them back together. It looks like the same, formulaic shtick Vic Sotto has doled out in recent years, which caused them to lose their hold with audiences. These movies aren’t widely praised by critics either.

In fact, last year proved they need the MMFF more than it needs them. When Vic Sotto & Vice Ganda’s entries weren’t included in MMFF 2016, they released both movies on November 30, 2016 alongside Moana & other Hollywood movies. Vice Ganda’s Super Parental Guardians grossed ₱75 million on its first day alone, while Vic Sotto’s Enteng Kabisote 10 & the Abangers (ugh) kept their total box office gross to themselves. The closest data I could gather was they grossed ₱4.4 million on all SM Cinemas around 3:00 PM on their opening day. I even remember the theater count for Enteng Kabisote 10 & the Abangers dwindling every week. During the week before Christmas, the movie was already dropped in Ayala cinemas; which is how I ended up watching it on SM Megamall.

But now that they have their spot back, there’s a ridiculously high chance they can earn their money back & then some. They have already carved out a space for themselves during this film festival by presenting themselves as the choice appropriate for the whole family; even if their previous movies have been homophobic, colorist, or sexist. For those who deem Vice Ganda movies as too risqué for kids – and they are – they will flock to the good-natured charms of Meant to Beh.

How long will it last: Thankfully for Vic Sotto, it will get to complete its festival run. While their box-office performance last year was terrible compared to the previous years, they have a chance to pull in more audiences, which might ensure it will have at least one week after the film festival.

6. All of You

We should be thankful that Derek Ramsey, Jennylyn Mercado, & director Dan Villegas have carved a space for romantic comedies in the film festival, with the surprise hit English Only, Please, & they seem intent on carrying that tradition. Their latest movie focuses on a loving couple finds out how hard cohabitation can be. This would have to be offensively horrible for it to become a huge commercial flop. Villegas’ brand of mixing emotional honesty with romantic comedy tropes has always been a hit with critics & audiences. Looking at the trailer alone, it seems like they have another great movie in hands that will pull in huge audiences.

How long will it last: If this movie connects with critics & audiences the same way English Only, Please & #WalangForever did, it will have a long life in theaters. It will get at least four weeks in theaters, including its festival run, & it may survive the onslaught of Hollywood releases in January as its theater count slowly dwindles.

7. Ang Panday

Coco Martin continues his quest to mold his image out of Fernando Poe Jr. until Da King himself will be irrelevant & forgotten, lost to the sands of time, as he headlines & directs the latest reboot of Ang Panday; the credited director is Rodel Naciaceno, which is Coco Martin’s real name. Shifting the locale from a small provincial town to the streets of Tondo, Manila, Coco Martin plays the grandson of Flavio Batungbakal, who needs to become the rightful heir of the legendary sword in order to defeat Lizardo. What’s most striking about the latest reboot is it cribs numerous aspects from FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano, like the shaky, handheld camerawork, the focus on family, shooting on gritty locations, the explosive action scenes & pairing Coco Martin with a beautiful woman who will certainly be put in danger. There’s no reason to doubt it will be a huge hit, considering it fills the gap left by Enteng Kabisote & its novel take on the Filipino classic might make it more attractive to audiences. It’s also catnip to fans of FPj’s Ang Probinsyano, which continues to be the highest-rated weekly primetime show in Philippine TV & currently renewed up to 2018; running a new episode five days a week without any breaks & beating out its competitors in the same timeslot.

How long will it last: This will be one of the biggest moneymakers in the film festival, so not only will it get to complete its festival run, but it will probably get an additional two weeks in theaters after the film festival is over.

8. Gandarrapido: The Revenger Squad

There’s no doubt this movie will become the highest grossing entry in the film festival. Super Parental Guardians is the highest grossing Filipino movie of all time, earning more than ₱600 million; it helped that this movie was playing in provinces during MMFF 2016 eyeroll emoji. It proved Vice Ganda can pull in ridiculously huge audiences that he can break box-office records he previously set. This doesn’t look any different, as Vice Ganda is using his acerbic, reference-laden brand of comedy to take on the superhero genre, with Daniel Padilla & Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach by his side. Judging from the trailer, Bb. Joyce Bernal might have a better handle on mixing comedy & action scenes. The special effects look so much better compared to what we see in Filipino films. All of this could add up to the biggest moneymaker in the film festival. Don’t be surprised if the movie you’re planning to watch is removed to make room for this one.

How long will it lastThe question isn’t whether if it will survive in theaters, but how long will it retain its theaters. It will have additional two weeks in theaters after the film festival. Afterwards, its theater count will slowly deplete, where it will hold for at least two weeks in malls with a great number of theaters, before it’s ignored for newer releases by February.