Movie Review: Eerie Scares & Thrills, But Isn’t Impactful Enough

TL;DR: Despite being another showcase for Mikhail Red’s brand of technically accomplished genre filmmaking packed with sociopolitical commentary, Eerie is dampened by plot issues & unoriginal scares.

In his previous films, Mikhail Red crafted sharp, stylish thrillers probing the corrupt institutions that allowed . & poverty to flourish in the Philippines through the eyes of people trying to survive these harsh conditions. Eerie marks a huge departure for him, because this would be his first horror film & his first film for a mainstream studio. Making a jump from the independent scene to a massive studio like ABS-CBN Films has always been tricky, but the film retains enough trademarks from his past work that suggest we’re not watching a watered down version for a wider audience.

It even has the bones for what could’ve been straightforward mystery. Set during 1995, one of the students for the Sta. Lucia Academy for Girls, a highly prestigious Catholic school for women, is found dead under inexplicable circumstances. Guidance counselor Patricia (Bea Alonzo) is doing her best to take care of the students’ mental & emotional state after the incident; especially Joy (Gabby Padilla), who now has survivor’s guilt that worsens her suicidal tendencies.

Instead of trying to figure out what caused her death, school principal Sister Alice enforces stricter rules on the campus & insists on returning to their everyday routine of teaching & prayer, since she believes this would be best for the students & the school’s reputation. Undeterred by Sister Alice’s orders, she decides to investigate the case on her own alongside an investigator played by Jake Cuenca. She does hold a secret that will be helpful to her quest: she has clairvoyant powers that allow her to see & communicate with the dead. She happens upon Eri, the ghost of a student whose death decades ago seems to involve Mother Alice & may be the key to unlocking the school’s dark secrets.

The journey to get there is rough though. Watching Patricia piece the mystery together is unengaging because she’s a passive presence in her own investigation. Most of the clues are handed down to her, and if she does find a significant detail, it doesn’t give her & the audience a satisfying eureka moment that connects everything together. It doesn’t help that the characters are bland & uninteresting, mainly used as a vessel for the film’s themes.

It’s disappointing, since the film contains his penchant for sociopolitical commentary. What unfolds is a tragic story of vulnerable people forced to follow blindly to their doom by the same Filipino institutions that’s supposed to protect them, & the nearly futile attempts by those brave enough to fight back; even if the fragile, corrupt nature of these institutions mean they can be exploited for personal gain.

The cast does try to muster up all the gravitas they have to flesh out their roles. Charo Santos reveals the darker side of the maternal authority she’s shown as the host of the long-running anthology series Maalaala Mo Kaya (Memories). Even in embodying Patricia’s relentless drive for the truth, Bea Alonzo plays up her exhaustion & terror. When she’s faced with the evil lurking in the campus, she tries to muster up all the energy to express her immediate dread, but she’s clearly fatigued & overwhelmed by her situation. Jake Cuenca doesn’t get to the much in his role, but Gabby Padilla does. She ends up being the heart of the film – leading to the most touching ending Red has done so far – with her sympathetic portrayal of a troubled woman who only wants someone to be there for her.

When Patricia does go on her secret trips to the supernatural, it doesn’t push its already creepy setting to weirder, newer places the way its opening credits seem to imply. It doesn’t mean it’s a complete disappintment though. While the film offers clichéd, derivative setpieces that heavily rely on pulling you in before shocking you with a jump scare – which can get repetitive – it is deftly executed with a steady, patient camera that slowly tracks its characters to horrors beyond our reality. Even the quality of the jump scares swing between lazy & playful.

Taken as a whole, this is another showcase for Red’s nimble, precise genre filmmaking. The whole film is stylish, yet presented without pizzazz. With the help of cinematographer Mycko David, it has a somber atmosphere bathe in shadows & darker hues that emphasize how inescapable the gloom surrounding the campus. It’s a technically accomplished film, but its plot issues & unoriginal setpieces weaken what could’ve been a compelling film.

Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Birdshot Lives Up to Its Moniker as a Coming-of-Age Thriller

TL;DR This “coming-of-age” thriller can be slow & awkward at times, but this is a movie that lives up to its moniker. Definitely one of the best Filipino movies of 2017.

Birdshot is one of the more atypical entries in Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017. It is billed as a “coming-of-age thriller” & it mostly delivers on that promise. It is a unique movie that combines two genres seemingly at odds with each other, yet it comes out fully-formed, creating an unforgettable experience.

It tells the tale of Maya (Mary Joy Apostol in her debut role), a young girl taken care of by her father Diego (Ku Aquino). They are poor & surrounded by fields of wheat, since they live on a land his father is taking care of. Diego wants his daughter to learn how to hunt so she could take care of herself when he’s gone. Maya unwittingly enters a sanctuary for the endangered Philippine eagle – Philippines’ national bird & the rarest eagle in existence – and decides to shoot one for practice. Her father isn’t happy about what she did, since killing one is a criminal offense. Now they both have to hide the crime to the police & try to keep their family intact.

It is also about Domingo (Arnold Reyes), an idealistic rookie cop with a strict moral conduct working hard for his family. He is partnered with Mendoza (John Arcilla), a corrupt cop who knows his way around the crooked system he works for. Both of them are investigating a missing persons case involving a group of passengers departing to Manila. Domingo is intent on solving the case, but is forced to drop it in order to solve the disappearance of a missing Philippine eagle. Mendoza wants him to focus on the new case, but Domingo wouldn’t listen, especially once he finds out that the passengers include a group of farmers who are going to reclaim a land that is rightfully theirs.

birdshotArnold

These two stories dovetail to create a tale of corruption, conspiracy & survival in a world where institutions created to help everyone are controlled by the rich & powerful, leaving those who are defenseless to fend off for themselves. The result is a society built on a cruel food chain, where the weakest are left behind to suffer or worse.

And this is the world Maya & Domingo where they will undergo a rite of passage, forcing them to chose between doing the right thing or staying alive. The genre mashup takes a while to gel together, since it takes up lots of time to setting up its milieu. It doesn’t help the movie focuses too much on the “thriller” aspect of the story, which means there aren’t as many character interactions that would’ve made the movie land harder than it should’ve.

birdshotHaribon

That coldness even shows in the performances, which comes off as stiff at times, but the cast rises above it. Mary Joy Apostol is outstanding as a young girl forced to fight back for her survival. Ku Aquino is great as Maya’s stern & protective father who tries his best to shield her daughter in the world they live in. Arnold Reyes portrays Domingo as a man going through huge lengths to maintain his ideals & realizing it will cost him dearly. John Arcilla is often hilarious as a cop who’s finally settled into his role in this brutal ecosystem.

And yet, it pays off immensely in the 2nd half, where the two plots entangle further & the boiling tension ratchets up until it is unleashed to the audience. This is only Mikhail Red’s 2nd film & it fulfills the promise he showed in his debut Rekorder.  Fusing the tale of a young girl growing into a woman & a rookie cop who’s way out of his league within the framework of a thriller is pure genius. He exhibits a total control of mood & expertise in the technical aspects of filmmaking & it shows on every frame of the film.

birdshotSunrise

It helps that he’s backed by the great cinematographer Mycko David. Birdshot is filled of beautiful images, mostly isolating the characters in environments that engulf them completely, or using close-ups to trap them in the situation they currently in. The best examples of this often occur at night, where people would be swallowed by the darkness if not for a few sources of light available to them or shadows cast across their faces; emphasizing how they are a breath away from being subsumed by forces beyond their control.

That is a feeling familiar to most Filipinos & Birdshot captures it fully. It may not be totally successful, but the results are captivating & exhilarating, while emphasizing the cruel reality at its center.