MANILA, Philippines – Horror films have always been an unspoken tradition within the Metro Manila Film Festival. But with the Shake Rattle and Roll franchise clearly absent from this year’s line-up, horror fans will have to look elsewhere for their holiday horror. In this case, it’s going to be with Pagpag: Siyam na Buhay.
Pagpag explores the many Filipino superstitions of the traditional wake; particularly the belief that guests of the deceased should shake off (in this case, pagpag) the spirit of the dead by not going straight home after visiting the deceased.
But Pagpag uses more than a few other superstitions ranging from the belief that guests shouldn’t bring home food from a wake or look into a mirror in the presence of the dead. It’s interesting to see how superstition has become intrinsic to Filipino culture, particularly among those surrounding the dearly departed. And though Pagpag misses the opportunity to expand the lore of any of these beliefs; they nevertheless provide a thrilling, fun and campy premise for a horror film.
In Pagpag, a rebellious young teenager Cedric (Daniel Padilla) and a headstrong funeral arranger Leni (Kathryn Bernardo) make the mistake of violating a number of superstitions during a wake. They soon discover that these seemingly innocent desecrations come with grave consequences. One by one, each of their friends are killed off as Cedric and Leni race against time to make amends with the dead. (READ: Winners of the MMFF)
The style of superstition
From its production design to its lighting, Pagpag’s overall aesthetic is especially well-crafted. Its stylish execution often makes up for slips in its story, which admittedly takes far too long to get going. And when it finally does, its rather mechanical plot ends up being nothing more than a long-running check list of deaths as each of the friends of Cedric and Leni are brutally murdered.
But despite its obvious holiday demographic, director Frasco Mortiz pulls no punches with his body count. Pagpag is a surprisingly violent film by Metro Manila Film Festival standards, but that particular aspect only adds to the fun of the film.
While most of the film is simply a prolonged count down of slayings, there is a morbid thrill to seeing how each character will be punished for disrespecting superstition. Though the story still follows a near mathematical formula of plot points, the deaths themselves provide the satisfying entrée to this buffet of brutality.
‘Til death do us part
Daniel Padilla and Kathryn Bernardo are undoubtedly the hot ticket in Pagpag, but the film’s real substance falls on the shoulders of the deceased Roman (Paulo Avellino) and his wife Lucy (Shaina Magdayao).
Buried under the gaudy exterior of Pagpag’s teenage, camp horror is an admittedly powerful story of a grief-stricken couple. While the rest of the cast seem perfectly content with hamming up their performances or playing to type, Paulo Avellino’s portrayal of an inconsolable father becomes especially resonant. Although Avellino has long since proven his ability as a dramatic actor, it becomes gratifying when he delivers the goods on a genre that doesn’t expect him to.
Admittedly, Pagpag was designed as a teen horror flick with a younger demographic in mind. But while it would be easy to dismiss the film for its focus on its young stars, and despite the many missteps of its story, Pagpag still carries with it a germ of something greater.
Setting the right tone
While more discerning horror aficionados will find Pagpag lacking in the scare department, it’s worth noting that Mortiz’s intention as a director is just as much to delight as it is to horrify. But what’s particularly remarkable about Pagpag is Mortiz’s ability to juggle various tones without losing focus. The film whimsically skirts along the lines of horror, romance and straight-out comedy, but still manages to feel like part of a much larger whole.
With Shake, Rattle and Roll missing in action, it’s refreshing to see the festival open up to lengthier, more ambitious horror films. Although Pagpag does lack in scares, it does deliver on a handful of satisfying thrills that may be cheap but are thoroughly entertaining.
Watch the trailer here:
Zig Marasigan is a freelance screenwriter and director who believes that cinema is the cure for cancer. Follow him on Twitter at @zigmarasigan.
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