The unquiet ones: Haunted houses in Philippine cinema

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Erik Matti's "Pasiyam" is a more traditional affair, making the house a character in and of itself, ornately imposing, complicit in the strangeness. Photo from REGAL ENTERTAINMENT

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The thing about ghosts is the way they tend to get stuck. Ask anybody who claims to see them, claims even to consort with them, and they tell you that a ghost is most times a shambling, rudderless gunk of psychic trauma tinged with a desperation and an inability to move on, some can write on walls, but none can walk through them, can’t even open a door. They’re terribly lonely and terribly clingy and the favorite things they like to cling to are places: geography, architecture, real estate. They’re also rather un-cinematic.

You can trace the first account of a haunted house as far back as 61 AD. You can similarly trace the modern haunted house story to gothic fiction. As horror archetypes go, few are as persistent and as enduring as the haunted house, or the haunted place, figuring as it does in most horror fiction and cinema, where the presences gain agency and aren’t as stumblebum, and figuring, too, in the ghost stories we tell each other.

The frequency with which it occurs in Southeast Asia may have to do with our residual nonchalance when it comes to the supernatural. In Manila, you have entire subdivisions where every other house is allegedly haunted, entire districts where every office allegedly has a resident spirit or two, entire cities allegedly built on the bones of the wartime dead.  

Of course, none of this is settled science, none of this is science at all really, which means ghosts are very pliable myths. “Ghosts attach themselves to people not places” says a character from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” which isn’t a haunted house film by any measure, but opens up narrative possibilities regardless.

Nobuhiko Obayashi’s gleefully hallucinatory “Hausu” (House) doesn’t so much expand the trope but blasts it as wide open as it can go: the actual house itself is what literally eats its residents in this one.

Sigaw .png A history of abuse manifests as a haunting in Yam Laranas' "Sigaw" (2004), where an already terrifying, labyrinthine apartment complex becomes a hellish prison for a mother and her daughter. Photo from REGAL ENTERTAINMENT.

“Hausu” may, of course, be an extreme example. You could do worse with something like Pedring Lopez’s “Darkroom,” a fairly conventional but more efficient use of found footage syntax than its Hollywood counterparts that also manages to self-reflexively comment subtly on itself.

Yam Laranas’ “Sigaw,” of course, already has that creepy labyrinthine apartment building, but my own favorite bits happen when the characters are forced to leave it, like that brilliant sequence when they get tired of running from the angry ghost chasing them and decide to watch a movie, as you do. But slog through your usual slew of haunted house films, domestic or foreign, Asian or Western, and most of it feels stuck, too: in rehash, in lazy writing, in the dull comforts of its own clichés, always some restless spirit wanting something: retribution, justice, vengeance, closure, audience-friendly endings.

The restless spirit in Mike De Leon’s “Itim” wants something, too, but at some point, the film diverges from genre conventions into a slow-burning soup of deviant patriarchs, gothic dread and religious hysteria. It is, in many ways, the quintessential domestic haunted house touchstone, but a haunted house film works best when it becomes a point of departure into something else, and one can argue that De Leon’s “Kisapmata,” where the deviant patriarch takes the place of the restless spirit, is itself a haunted house film of a sort or at the very least a haunted house inversion, if only for how it taps into what is ultimately the genre’s sub-textual crux: the inexorable corruption of the last safe place.

Altar.png In Rico Ilarde's "Altar" (2007) a down and out prizefighter takes a grunt job renovating a house and discovers its terrifying secret in the attic. Photo from CINEMA ONE ORIGINALS

My own go-to domestic haunted house film, Erik Matti’s “Pasiyam,” in which strange things happen when an estranged clan of siblings converge at the family home after their mother dies, is an ostensibly more traditional affair, hewing to genre ordinance not least by making the house a character in and of itself, ornately imposing, complicit in the strangeness. But its slow-burn horror is upstaged by the familial dysfunction, and in its most harrowing scene, where the eldest brother has an emotional breakdown when he confronts his dead mother’s history of abuse, the film manages to be both terrifying and heartbreaking without one emotion canceling the other out.

All doomy and coarse with despair, Rico Ilarde’s first haunted house film, “Altar,” where a down and out prizefighter takes a grunt job renovating a house that holds a secret in its attic, is not the lush, pungent gumbo of his “Under the Cogon” nor the loopy psychedelia of his “Pridyider” re-imagining, but rather the bleakest, blackest hole he’s ever dug.

There’s sufficient juice in its pulp tropes and arcane imagery for visceral pump, but the unease seeps in from the existential dread simmering underneath. We’re all flies to wanton gods, it seems to be saying, and their sense of humor has a mean streak. In a world painted this black, getting stuck with whatever ghosts that attic holds is almost a reprieve.