I’m a sucker for the Pinoy horror film formula: a scary setting, well-done sound design, the gulat factor. I’m the person in the cinema who will scream first, and the loudest, the person who is so ready to be scared.
But of course the fear factor is only one of many aspects of the horror film, and one realizes given the effort that is put into a movie like Seklusyon (directed by Erik Matti, written by Anton C. Santamaria), that there is more to doing good horror than just getting an audience scared shitless. And certainly the cinematography, the context, the narrative itself of Seklusyon is enough to warrant some of the awards it has won: it speaks of the evil within us, the fears that haunt us, given the lives we live. It speaks of how in a Catholic country like the Philippines, the good is trumped by what is easy, and it is the false saviors that might be biggest enemy.
This ideological underpinning of the narrative of Seklusyon is not new for the horror film; that it remains relevant is of course a statement on nation and how far we’ve come — if we’ve moved even an inch, that is.
Yet where the ideological basis for the narrative was intact, the story itself was unwieldy, and at some point was delivering what was expected. On the deacons’ first night in seclusion, it became clear that what was haunting them was not this scary space cloaked in darkness and filled with religious icons, but the demons of their past, the unresolved issues of their own sins. After that, it was just a matter of watching the sins of these priests-to-be unfold, none of which were extraordinary sins (in fact, as K who watched the film with me pointed out, much of these sins discussed were the 7 cardinal sins).
Probably a bigger disappointment was the lack of nuance in the characterization of Angela, who might have been given the benefit of the doubt by the Church itself that was having her faith healing investigated, but in the telling of the film was not given even a pound of innocence. You knew from the beginning that she was suspect, and you would be correct.
This is also why it didn’t fly that there was only one deacon who was suspicious of her, and that all the others being eaten up by their own demons would just think her a savior. That would’ve made sense had she been given more of those moments where she is mere child, had there been reason at all for these adults around her to be drawn to her as a mysterious individual who means well. But there was not enough of that complexity in Angela, who was scary from the beginning and who, by the time she arrived at the seclusion house, was already obviously the “devil” the deacons had been warned about.
The unraveling as such was really just about the formula taking control: with gulat moments all over the place, well done effects, and a monologue in the climax where Angela explains her reason for being. It was like explaining a joke after it’s delivered, or just an indication of the possibility that the audience might not get it, even when the film itself sacrificed subtlety and nuance so that we would know for sure where it was going.
It also didn’t help the film any that I saw 2012’s Aparisyon (directed by Vincent Sandoval, written by Sandoval and Jerry Gracio) which also worked with the premise of seclusion and isolation in the midst of political upheaval, and how the evils from the outside might haunt us in the task of silence and calm and reflection. This was why I couldn’t help but wonder why the Seklusyon needed to happen in 1947, when certainly the kind of blind faith and belief, the crisis of the Catholic Church faced with the evils of the world, remain the same. Neither was there any other indication of period — not the language the film used, not the behavior or mannerisms of the people.
Seklusyon was successful horror, absolutely, if scaring an audience was the only goal. Once we get over the aspects of fear that were here though, one realizes that the story itself was not new, and its treatment even less so. The complexity of context, the historical specificity, the more nuanced characterizations, were missing which would have allow it to level-up from horror to haunting, enough to resonate beyond the time spent in the cinema.***
Postscript: One also hopes that the assessment of Seklusyon was not so embroiled in the notion that Shake Rattle and Roll films — a constant presence in MMFFs past — have been terrible all these years, because that’s an injustice to Seklusyon as it is an injustice to those who have played around with SRR, despite mainstream limitations. Shake Rattle and Roll 13 in particular comes to mind, which had films by Chris Martinez, Jerrold Tarog, and Richard Somes, and which brought the horror film back to contemporary reality, that is not merely about the evils within us, but about the repercussions of our actions as people. It’s still the stuff of my recurring fears.