What makes Filipino horror films scary?

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From Catholic guilt to the nation’s anxieties to public transport, we try to find out how Filipino horror films make us shake, rattle, and roll. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Note: The article contains spoilers for the "LRT" segment of "Shake, Rattle and Roll VIII."

It’s a beautiful sight to behold whenever there’s space in the Philippine public transportation system. But during this particular night, the carriage bringing people from Santolan to Recto is deserted, save for a couple of wandering souls. You have the working class clocking in or out of work. An evangelist is in the corner preaching the word of God at this godless hour. There’s the young couple anxious for the sermon that awaits them at home. But something different happens this time. The last trip skips its supposed final stop, and instead, brings its passengers to their final destination, where something deady awaits them.

This is the premise of “Shake, Rattle and Roll VIII: LRT.” The episode follows Jean (Manilyn Reynes in her fifth appearance in the franchise) and her son Jimmy (Quintin Alianza) as they attempt to escape the underbelly of the Light Rail Transit Line 2. One by one, some of the country’s brightest stars have their hearts ripped out of their chests by the LRT’s eyeless monster.

Since it premiered in 2006, Mike Tuviera’s survival horror has garnered a cult following. Recalling the production of the segment, Tuviera says, “‘LRT’ was an absolute blast to make, and what I have received from fans of the episode is that it scares them effectively, but also ends up being quite effective and thought-provoking. You're in for a rollercoaster ride, and end up ruminating on the greater evils out there.” To this day, there are still commuters out there that are wary of taking the last trip because of this episode. So how was “LRT” able to leave a scar on the country’s collective psyche? Why do we find ourselves looking away when we see a bagua mirror? How did the manananggal end up being scarier than Michael Myers? What exactly makes our horror films scary?

Folklore and the real

There’s a dichotomy that can be made when American and Asian horror films are placed side by side. The classic all-American slasher creates terror through its tension and gore. Cue John Carpenter’s “Halloween Theme - Main Title.” On the other hand, there’s subtlety in the Asian ghost film. Fear is a muse to be wooed with atmosphere and history. In his essay “Asian Ghost Film vs. Western Horror Movie: Feng Shui” published in Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society, Tilman Baumgärtel recalls “Feng Shui” as the first horror film he saw in Manila and dives deeper into this dichotomy.

Stills from Chito S. Roño's "Feng Shui."

Borrowing from Robin Wood’s Freudian and Marxist analysis of horror films, Baumgärtel highlights how American horror cinema features “the return of the repressed.” The slasher film’s slice of classic Americana provides commentary on America’s social anxieties and traumas. Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger became placeholders for the patriarchy, neglect, and sexual repression among others. This can ultimately be attributed to Western modernism’s attempt to rationalize the world.

This is where Asian ghost films differ. In Japan, they believe in yūrei — spirits that have unfinished business on Earth. It’s the malevolent spirits of Kayako and Toshio that haunt the cursed house in Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-On.”

“In this regard, we share a kinship with our Asian neighbors, whose most successful horror products also borrow from their specific cultural milieu,” Tuviera shares. The aswang is what your lola swears she saw in the barrio she grew up in. Sapi is what happened to the friend of your friend during their high school recollection. Balete Drive is the road no driver dares to cross past midnight. Our fears are more than just metaphors.

Philippine cinema conjured up its first horror film in 1927. Jose Nepomuceno’s “Ang Mananaggal” scared Filipinos for the first time in black and white. However, the manananggal had always hovered above us, waiting for the right time to strike. In his accounts of the Philippines back in 1589, Spanish friar Juan de Plasencia noted in outlining the “priests of the devil,” “The seventh [kind] was called magtatangal, and his purpose was to show himself at night to many persons, without his head or entrails. In such ways the devil walked about and carried, or pretended to carry, his head to different places; and, in the morning, returned it to his body — remaining, as before, alive. This seems to me to be a fable, although the natives affirm that they have seen it, because the devil probably caused them so to believe.”

The story of the manananggal evolved over time and continued to provide fuel for our nightmares. However, with familiarity comes predictability. This is why Kenneth Dagatan, the director of “Ma” and “Sanctissima,” believes in the need for reimagination in local horror. “But we’re telling these stories again and again in the same way for the past years. And I think we need to reimagine how we tell these horror stories because all of the elements we’re looking for are all there, but reimagining how we tell it, to give a new voice, a unique taste, is the hardest part.” Director Prime Cruz breathes new life to the manananggal narrative by turning it into a love story in “Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B.”

The creature from “LRT” is also a reimagination of our classic horror. “[The idea for the monster in] ‘LRT’ was born from the popular modern day myth of the snakeman underneath the changing room in a mall. I took that idea and just ran with it, creating something that I hope successfully merges the past and the present,” says Tuviera. Over time, our monsters mutate.

Scream queens and commercial sensibilities

Despite her ability to smoothly transition from shock to anguish to indifference in a span of one second, Toni Collette’s performance in “Hereditary” was snubbed by the Academy Awards. In its 92 years of existence, Hollywood’s most prestigious film award-giving body has only bestowed trophies to 18 horror films. Katrina Tan, a PhD candidate in Film, Media and Communication, points out how Philippine cinema differs from this. “In some Hollywood films, horror films do not [always] have big stars, but ours almost always have popular stars. The combination of genres and stars are some strategies of commercial producers to widen the audience they can target.”

There’s a certain kind of prestige that comes with these roles. From Susan Roces to Lorna Tolentino to Kris Aquino, and more recently, Nathalie Hart, it was always a privilege to be frightened to death in the titular role of “Patayin sa Sindak si Barbara.” Even the pillars of Philippine drama aren’t afraid to venture into the darkness of horror. Vilma Santos-Recto learns that faith may not always be enough to heal in Chito Roño’s “The Healing.” Maricel Soriano deals with spirits as frightening as her mambabarang wig in Frasco Mortiz’s “The Heiress.” In addition, Mikhail Red’s “Eerie” was heavily marketed as the film that would bring powerhouses Charo Santos-Concio [who broke out in the 1976 horror film “Itim”] and Bea Alonzo together.

Dawn Zulueta in the 1995 remake of "Patayin sa Sindak si Barbara." Screenshot from ABS-CBN FILM RESTORATION/YOUTUBE

Filipino horror understands that a good scream queen is a good investment to have. “Eerie” writer and media archivist Mariah Reodica links this to our artista culture. “It seems like a rite of passage for every celebrity whether they can act or not. We have a strange fascination with seeing stars get spooked.” For example, soon after their appearances on “Pinoy Big Brother” or “Starstruck,” these promising young stars would find themselves crossing over to the silver screen. Call it the reality competition show to horror film pipeline. This trend persists even until today. Topel Lee’s “Bloody Crayons” and Peter Abanna’s “Banal” gave top billing to the country’s up and coming stars.

These are the people that the nation wants to root for. Vilmanians would be on the verge of fainting as the possessed Kim Chiu attempted to stab the star for all seasons in “The Healing.” God forbid anything bad happens to KathNiel in “Pagpag.” Tension is born out of seeing our favorites in dire situations. This was how we were terrorized alongside the OG scream queen herself. When Lotus Feet showed up in the periphery, the country’s sweetheart Kris Aquino let out the scream in “Feng Shui” that would launch a series of horror films — and we lived for it.

Catholicism and cultural trauma

Additionally, our horror films pick at the scabs of the wounds of our cultural memory. “Filipino horror draws heavily from spirituality, Catholic imagery, and this idea of what’s forbidden or sacrilegious. We do have a lot of religious and colonial guilt to deal with, and it’s expressed potently in a lot of horror films,” Reodica says. This type of horror can only come from a country that has undergone centuries of Catholic indoctrination. Historically, the Spanish conquest used the Church as an ideological apparatus.

Here in the Philippines, possession is punishment. Blessed were the good indios for theirs was a place in the colony. Damnation awaited those who strayed. Derrick Cabrido’s “Clarita” presents the classic cautionary tale of a woman possessed. Jodi Sta. Maria contorts her body and breaks her bones to warn us of the pitfalls of our waning faith. There’s an extra layer of horror that comes with knowing that you brought your damnation upon yourself. And so we go to church on Sundays and pray that the devil doesn’t take us. “[T]hese beliefs that were essentially handed down to us are also what punish us,” says film critic Emil Hofileña.

Jodi Sta. Maria in Derrick Cabrido’s “Clarita.” Screencap from BLACK SHEEP/YOUTUBE

It’s a simple premise: the presence of the divine dictates survival. However, that isn’t always the case. “There are horror films that feature religion and its agents as savior of the possessed character… but we also have films which critique religion,” Tan adds. We also see this desecration of the sacred in Erik Matti’s “Seklusyon.” The film crafts an atmosphere of fear by tapping into the rich imagery that Catholic iconography has to offer. The Blessed Virgin transforms into a lover scorned, priests become vessels of abuse, and an innocent child bleeds black. However, the fear here ultimately lies in what the film shows at the end. With the blessing of the devil, the greedy, the abuser, and the pedophile are ordained and become part of the institution. If religion can’t provide salvation, what’s left for us to believe in?

“Analog of the anxieties of the nation”

In his analysis of the “Shake, Rattle and Roll” franchise, University of the Philippines professor and media studies critic Rolando Tolentino invites us to view the beloved series as an “analogue of anxieties of the nation in general, which contextualizes the series’ scope of some 30 years of nation-formation.” With its first iteration premiering in 1984, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” has been around long enough to witness the fall of a dictator, the rise of neoliberalism, and the emergence of several national crises from the administrations that followed. Tolentino would argue that the anxieties derived from the film are reactions to the anxieties that are lived out by the audience.

This alludes to the ability of horror films to articulate the nation’s desires and fears. Set during the reign of a Guatemalan dictator, Jayro Bustamante’s “La Llorona” uses the legend of the weeping woman to echo the call for justice for the Mayan genocide from 1982-1983. The film is a politically-charged slow-burn that tells the story of a community in need of reparation and healing.

Dodo Dayao’s “Midnight in a Perfect World” invites us to stare into the void of our country’s dark horrors and wait for the void to stare back. “‘Midnight in a Perfect World,’ in particular, has really only gotten stronger for me the longer this pandemic has gone on, since it seems to understand that very specific anxiety that comes from being isolated, feeling like you’re losing your senses, and trying to escape the evil of the outside world,” Hofileña says. But in this darkness, there’s one thing that we can make out. “Its allusions to both the Duterte and Marcos dictatorships are clear as day.”

Jasmine Curtis-Smith in Dodo Dayao's "Midnight in a Perfect World." Photo from QCINEMA

Despite its release in 2006, “LRT'' feels hauntingly familiar. Through the archetypal sacrifice of her beloved, Jean and Jimmy emerge from the claustrophobic LRT station and come forth to behold the stars. The danger has passed and they find safety in the presence of the police. They are taken to the station where they are reunited with the LRT’s other survivor, Nina (Empress Schuck). Locked up in a jail cell, it is here that the three learn about the film’s sinister twist. The LRT monster appears.

“‘LRT’ in particular, was an attempt to borrow from mythology as well as more contemporary ideas. It's basically akin to the aswang or kapre archetypes, but married into a more contemporary setting where politics even play a greater part in the evil that occurs than just the creature itself,” Tuviera says. As if it had predicted the future, “LRT” would call into question the power and control that the police have. What do we do when the people who had vowed to serve and protect us are the ones shooting our children in the streets, planting evidence, and feeding us to the monster?

Dying in public transport and at the hands of the police — there’s probably nothing more horrifying and Filipino than that.