Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Kuwaresma” is set in 1985. In a post-screening Q&A, director Erik Matti explained that aside from the ‘80s being the time of his adolescence, setting the film in this era is meant as a homage to films like Mike De Leon’s “Kisapmata” and Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s “Karnal.” “1985 is a perfect mood and tone to set up something up that harken back to this classic age of Pinoy gothic thrillers,” Matti said.
The film is the story of a college student, Luis (newcomer Kent Gonzales), who heads to his hometown of Baguio after learning of his twin sister Manuela’s death (Kent’s real-life sister Pam Gonzales). Mysterious circumstances surround her passing and as Luis tries to uncover the truth behind her death so does he discover the secrets of his family.
In the film’s promotional materials, it is described as “the story of a mother who will do anything to end her family’s nightmare.” Most likely, this is to capitalize on the stardom of Sharon Cuneta, the submissive Rebecca, mother to Luis and Manuela (“Kuwaresma” is billed as Cuneta’s first horror film.)
One part Stephen King’s “The Shining,” another part Shirley Jackson’s “A Haunting on Hill House,” “Kuwaresma” essentially is our answer to the American haunted house horror — the kind with an atmospheric malevolence bent on corrupting a house’s inhabitants. The Baguio setting only heightens this suspense.
“Kuwaresma” is interesting in how it takes the tropes of these kinds of stories and injects commentary coming from a contemporary lens. A character like Jack Torrance has always carried undertones of toxic masculinity. But with “Kuwaresma” — as Matti also confirmed in the Q&A — it is made explicit that the corruption latches on a character’s already existent misogyny.
For the most part, to portray the family patriarch Arturo, John Arcilla utilizes the same strongman histrionics he used in “Heneral Luna.” The relieved-of-command colonel believes in doling out abuse as a means to strengthen his children, the physical and emotional torture equipping them for a harsher world. (It is for this reason that the mid-‘80s — especially because it is the last years of Marcos rule — can be seen as a fitting setting for “Kuwaresma’s” takedown of toxic masculinity.)
Present in “Kuwaresma” is Matti’s ever-admirable dedication to craftsmanship. His deft hand is felt in scares more inventive than 2019’s other local horror offerings, Mark Meily’s “Maledicto” and Mikhail Red’s “Eerie.” “Kuwaresma” is closer to American director Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” in its relentless approach to horror. It exhausts its audiences by repeatedly stringing together two or three scares which can alternate from creepy atmospheric build-ups to the physical horror of bodies being flung, from fake-outs to standard jump scares.
This approach was also apparent in Jake Verzosa’s set photos. The acclaimed photographer was given two days to shoot on location and help capture the story of “Kuwaresma” through these riveting photographs.
“Direk Erik's brief was to basically play around with what we had — the cast, the set, and our limited time in Baguio City,” says Verzosa. “We had a shot list that we had to go through but also had room to experiment in between. Shooting in an old house in Baguio makes for a totally unique mood. The vibe, the weather, the light, the architecture, the environment — it's like nowhere else in the country.”
On working with the cast, Verzosa said: “The cast was great, all of them. We let the characters act out some of the scenes from the movie while shooting stills. John could flip the switch and give a very emotional, powerful performance while Sharon portrayed her character by being subdued yet intense. It was interesting to see both deliver such strong performances through different methods.”
In the photos below, Verzosa captures the psychological terror Matti has on full tilt in “Kuwaresma.”