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.

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Mano Po 7: Tsinoy is a Gorgeous, Overstuffed Movie Reeking with Blandness

TL;DR: Mano Po 7: Tsinoy is a bland, beautifully shot movie full of plots that couldn’t develop properly for two hours.

The latest entry in the long-running Mano Po franchise begins with so much promise. It tells the story of a seemingly perfect Chinese-Filipino family & probes in the cracks within. Debbie and Wilson Wong, played by Jean Garcia & Richard Yap respectively, have been married for 25 years. They have three children: Wilson Jr. (Enchong Dee), Caroline (Janella Salvador), & Catherine (Jana Agoncillo). The celebration of their 25th anniversary is interrupted when Wilson Jr. gives a rambling speech while drunk & creates a commotion, causing embarrassment to his whole family. Wilson is having none of it, so he forces him to go to rehab once again. Inside, he meets a troubled woman named Jocelyn (Jessy Mendiola) that changes his life forever.

That’s not the only problem this family has. Wilson’s relationship with his family has been turbulent. He’s a cold, controlling man who focuses more on his businesses rather than his family & he forces his family to do what he thinks would be better for them instead of what they would rather do, because that’s the way he was raised, which we get to see in flashbacks. The lack of romance between Debbie & Wilson pushes her into the arms of a rugged, heartbroken man named Marco (Jake Cuenca). Meanwhile, Caroline has a passion for singing but instead studies the cello due to her father’s insistence. One of her classmates is Henry (Marlo Santos) which she finds annoying, and she starts to have a crush on her sleazy professor (Kean Cipirano). Amidst all of this, we also get to learn about Wilson’s relationship with her mother (Rebecca Chuaunsu) & his strained relationship with her gay brother (Eric Quizon).

Yes, it’s another tale set focusing on a multi-generational Chinese-Filipino family – it wouldn’t be Mano Po without it – but there’s a lot of weighty material to be mined here. Unfortunately, it wastes that opportunity, opting to go unsurprising places. This movie is drowning in cliches, from the strict Chinese father to the unloved wife, you can easily guess how the story will unravel.

This would’ve been fine if it told these stories with care, but that’s not the case here. There are so many stories not all of them can develop organically. The movie ends up moving to the next story beat because the plot demanded it. The casualties of this approach range from something little, like Debbie’s affair with Marco, since it hinges on Marco not having a single friend he can confide with his problems, to something offensive like Caroline’s story concerning with her professor & her classmate. The whole thing ends up bland & derivative, manufactured to induce emotions to the audience by being completely phony.

Still, the whole thing is tolerable to watch, thanks to the fine acting from the cast, which work well for a family melodrama. There’s no question veterans like Richard Yap, Jean Garcia, & Rebecca Chuaunsu can deliver the right performance for this kind of movie, but Enchong Dee & Janella Salvador can match them with the right amount of histrionics without pushing it over-the-top. Ian Loreños also deserves some credit from crafting beautiful images & sequences, like a single take taking us behind-the-scenes at the Wong’s 25th wedding anniversary, Debbie & Marco’s flirtation in the balcony which will lead them to the bedroom, & the family’s trip to Taiwan. And while the movie’s quick pacing botched every story in it, it does allow it to move smoothly from one scene another.

If only that were enough to turn it into something memorable. This is a bland, overstuffed family melodrama from another long-running franchise with a decent hook. This could’ve been wonderful, but the whole movie ends up nothing more than a shrug.