There’s always a place for horror films that run on sheer terror as diesel. For better and for worse, Yam Laranas’ films seem lax as they nestle in the stylistic macabre they conjure. 2001’s Radyo is sharp, almost Hitchcockian in its fondling with tension. 2004’s Sigaw matched the ruthless, vengeful terror of J-horrors of the time. 2012’s The Road, to the best of its abilities, mimicked the posh madness of French New Extremities. These films bear a certain veil of technical finesse, lending his detractors a free shot to dub Laranas and his works ones of style over substance.
Flash forward to 2020, Laranas tries to overturn this formula. His latest, Nightshift, feels like a sloppy attempt at some version of The Seventh Seal, if it had Blumhouse to produce but none of the studio’s polish. The whole thing has no horror to speak of, never mind the subtlety and restraint that made his previous films work.
The culprit, I submit, is the story, written by Laranas himself. It reads like an uninspired Twilight Zone episode, wherein characters are forced to spew existential insights in painfully awkward moments. The premise tells us that a young morgue assistant named Jessie (Yam Concepcion) is stranded in a state hospital infirmary. There, she fumbles over croaking, flinching, and sometimes formaldehyde-drooling cadavers. And if there seems to be no lifelike concept of time, it’s because there isn’t. Her boss, a well-meaning, Dickinson-spewing pathologist named Alex (Michael De Mesa), might as well be Saint Peter.
The film feels out of touch with any sort of reality—including its own—that of the few frights that it does land, none of them feel rooted. At one point, Jessie finds herself assaulted by a towering phantom. Much of what makes horror great is in the way it reacts to the horrors of its story, but here our protagonist merely carries on with work, cued by fades-to-black and smash-cuts. This is all in favor of the film’s attempt to gnaw at bigger themes. There’s much talk about death and the afterlife, but little interesting insight about neither things.
This nudges you to the direction of style, an area which we understand Laranas knows like the back of his hand. However, there’s little, if any, to speak of in Nightshift. Laranas, who shoots his own films, can’t seem to find his way around the film’s makeshift set. He enlists the help of Swedish scorer Oscar Fogelström, whose stingers and violin strums ultimately do his mostly acceptable visuals a disservice.
Past the second arc, you squirm at the prospect of a red herring, partly because it’s so obvious that you’re right, and that if you are, it isn’t going to be good. When it unfurls to the true monster that it is by the third act, you recognize its fangs and claws. It’s a feral little beast that nibbles at the film that could have been—a ripe concept that fritters its promise in its own prevailing ambivalence.
Yam Laranas’ latest is riddled with empty thrills and uninteresting inquiries about death.