Erik Matti's latest shows finesse in building and unleashing terror. I If only the same can be said for its story.
May 15, 2019
Drama, Horror, Thriller
For a filmmaker with a seemingly endless supply of creative vigor, is there such a thing as over ambition? Erik Matti’s horror-drama, “Kuwaresma”, leads me to believe the affirmative seems true.
The Blumhouse Model—already a real thing I assume, echoing within walls of conference rooms where film execs hunker over long tables to birth the next horror hit—is indisputably effective. There will always be a place for lightly subversive, thoroughly spooky, and beautifully produced horror films in the market. In fact, since 2010’s “Insidious”, Hollywood (and the world, for that matter) has yet to turn its head against a Blumhouse blockbuster. Think of the mini-empire the studio has built, with seethingly retrograded shockers like “The Conjuring” movies and “Annabelle: Creation”. “Kuwaresma”, as it appears on the onset, has all the elements that make said Blumhouse pictures rightfully successful. And if you’re an exec from Reality Entertainment, you’ll find it hard to resist the urge of not banking on that.
Erik Matti, however, has no business in making just a Blumhouse-like horror movie. He had already tried, and respectably failed, in 2015’s “Seklusyon”. This time in “Kuwaresma”, the hope is simply to keep things saddled off the back of a great horror story, and maybe for good measure, have something relevant to say, as do his other films, “Honor Thy Father”, “On The Job”, and “BuyBust”. Selfishly, too, I wanted the film to at least annex the intelligent discussion Matti had fostered in 2004’s “Pa-Siyam” about the dysfunction of the Filipino as both a family unit and as a people. Thinking about this not an hour into the film, though, it becomes clear that it was me who’s being overambitious.
The film, set in the 80’s, aims to emulate the ferocity and inherent kookiness of horror movies from the era. It opens with a towering type, written with which is the year of the Lord on which the incoming devilry occurs. A young Filipino family gathers by the piano for a siesta of sing and dance, and unlike George Lutz in the real-life case of “Amityville Horror” movies, the father doesn’t wait for his young ‘uns to lay asleep before axing them to grotesque littler pieces. This opener impresses, obviously not for reinventing the wheel, but for how great it sounds and looks. There’s a fair bit of technical flair that the movie displays right off the bat, and much of it is owed to Neil Bion’s lensing, Edwin Romulo’s score, and Roma Regala and Michael Español’s production design.
The real movie, however, starts after the opening sequence, some years later when a college student named Luis (Kent Gonzales) is summoned back home for his twin sister, Manuela (Pam Gonzales), who died of mysterious circumstance. On his return, he finds his subservient mother, Rebecca (Sharon Cuneta), and dogmatic father, Arturo (John Arcilla), conspicuously tight-lipped about his sister’s death. Luis knows something is up, he is certain after the nightly terrors his dead sister subjects him to. But whatever happened to Manuela, the film holds off on telling us up until a parapsychic named Salve (Guia Alvarez)—an obvious callback to Lin Shaye’s Elise Rainer in the “Insidious” movies, the same wide-eyed stoicism, chic fashion sense, and all—visits Luis and tells him that not everything is what it seems.
“‘Wag na ‘wag kang papasok,” warns Salve, speaking of a mind-corrupting evil that infests their house. Like the Hill House and the Overlook Hotel, the Fajardo household feels like an appropriate place where devils could unwind—a legitimate candidate for 10th Circle of Hell if Dante is looking to expand. It’s home to Arturo and his monolithic ways and lust for machismo, for which John Arcilla layers on a distinctly unnerving air that explodes right on the movie’s delirious upshot. But the real star is obviously Sharon Cuneta, who jacks each botched character moment with disquieting intensity, even if the script can sometimes relegate her to nothing more than a plot device.
Which brings up an interesting point…about the points (*wink, wink*) the movie tries to studiously make. The feminist slant in “Kuwaresma” isn’t exactly ripe, and it often feels like an afterthought in that many of the female characters here—Salve, Rebecca, Manuela, and others—are developed with some very questionable creative decisions. A twist at the movie’s climax presents me a vague idea of how bad things truly are, and it’s one that I can’t see to sit well with a certain group of audience. These sharp left-turns are what Matti holds onto in making the elements of horror work in his movie. He says: “I always am up to the challenge to do a horror film that can get a proper terrifying reaction from the audience.” And while I’d be first to admit there’s ample sophistication in building and unleashing terror in “Kuwaresma”, it’s hard to say the same for its story (which Matti co-wrote with Katski Flores).
“Kuwaresma” and its more meaningful takeaways—the gross fence-sitting and blissful ignorance, which applies both to a submissive wife too unflinched by her abusive husband and to countrymen and women too inebriated to bother about its nations’ downfall—are sadly lost in a story built with what ultimately feels like a mishmash of half-baked, misguided ideas.
"Kuwaresma" and its meaningful takeaways—the gross fence-sitting and blissful ignorance, from within the family unit and in the country—are sadly lost in a story built with what ultimately feels like a mishmash of half-baked, misguided ideas.