Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It takes a lot of cinematic excellence to create a great horror film. The classics of the genre, such as “The Exorcist,” “The Shining” or “Psycho,” is intelligent enough to tap into our latent psyches to explore the contents of our subconscious, rifling through our fears and turn them into imagery that plays out the way we want them to — or not. Most of these films toy with our fear of death and the fear of the unknown and turn them into exercises of endurance. But it takes a whole lot more for a horror film to be truly scary. It can be a single image — the face (or lack thereof) of a demonic entity, strange sounds that you still hear even after the film is done, or just that feeling of dread that creeps up on you every now and then.
Here are a few films that have really scared the shit out of me.
“Paranormal Activity 3” (2011)
“Paranormal Activity” remains as one of the most quintessential outings of found footage horror. It is deceptively simple but that simplicity banks on something so primal that it can be dismissed as insignificant. In the third installment of the series, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman introduced a camera strapped into an oscillating fan. It’s an ingenious set up that seems to act as a technical trick at first. Since the movie is set in 1988, the “fan camera” is a proto-CCTV that covers two areas of the household. Once the scares get going, it becomes a device of terror. “No one’s controlling the camera, so every time it pans away, you’re like ‘No!’ You know something’s going to happen when it’s panning away,” says Joost in an Entertainment Weekly interview, where he compares the fan cam to this cat video. The black cat is far away at first but slowly comes into view as the camera pokes in and out of hiding. It’s a cute video but replace the cat with a demon and you’re in for a string of sleepless nights. “Paranormal Activity 3” has the advantage of “answering” the initial mysteries of the two movies. This time, the entity is far more demonic, preying on two little girls who just want to sleep at night. You really shouldn’t mess with demons, period.
Technically a sci-fi film rather than straight up horror, M. Night Shyamalan uses an atmosphere of disquiet for this alien invasion flick. The twist may be a little stupid for supposed intelligent creatures. But that comes at the end. For the rest of the movie, Shyamalan crafts an impressive game of alien and mouse, showing only a sliver of the “monster” until we get a full view courtesy of a news clip. The pose, the sudden appearance, Joaquin Phoenix’s look of terror all made for an unforgettable scene that would haunt me for years. In the years after “Ancient Aliens” and even an “Unsolved Mysteries” reboot, “Signs” holds up as a menacing home invasion movie with a few tricks up its sleeve that can’t be diluted by Shyamalan’s later outings (we’re looking at you, “The Last Airbender”). “Signs” banks on the mystery of the unexplained, from the crop signs to the motivations of the invaders. All you know is that they’re banging on your door, ready to wipe you out.
The idea of horror in “host” occurs in two layers. First, the actual demon summoned during a seance (over a Zoom call!) by an erring group of friends when one of them fakes contact with a spirit — this, apparently, is a no-no as it creates an opening for a more mischievous entity to assume the identity of the fake spirit. Secondly, the film is believably set during the pandemic and the Zoom-call length spook fest is enough to trigger anxiety. It recalls the maddening ennui of video meetings, the oppressive sense of grief that comes from the realization that you can’t just go out and hang out with your friends even to have a goddamn seance. The fact that “Host” utilizes the video conference as a site of hauntings and murders is ingenious enough to make you look over your shoulder anytime you’re using Zoom. And it’s just not swinging lamp or flickering lights — “Host” even uses face filters to its advantage. Nothing is sacred.
“Halimaw sa Banga” (1986)
Horror stories and movies have trained me to fear ordinary household objects. Innocuous looking antiques, grandfather clocks, blank-faced statues — even the toilet wasn’t safe when “Shake, Rattle, and Roll III” unleashed the undin. In the ‘90s huge ass jars were the rage in most tita households for some reason. Forget ghosts, these jars, I was told, cost 10 times what we could afford so I must tread carefully around them. Then, I watched Mario O’ Hara’s “Halimaw sa Banga.” The film is the second half of the anthology “Halimaw” (the longer entry as well, which is probably why it feels like a proper movie — the jury of the 1986 Metro Manila Film Festival also thought so when they awarded the film as the 3rd Best Picture). The title alone is enough to spook a little kid. Evil stepmother Margarita (Liza Lorena) pillages ancient sites up north for artifacts to sell to or keep. When warned about the cursed objects, she said “Basta ako, all I can see is money in these jars.” She brings home one and evil is unleashed. “Halimaw sa Banga” is full of religious imagery — culled from Philippine lower myths and Catholic iconography. The titular monster though is not just another bloodthirsty creature but an “angel,” a victim of a witch hunt whose crucifixion scene alone is horrific enough to watch.
As a “found footage film,” “Noroi” relies on a creeping sense of dread rather than technical trickery and confusion to create a terrifying atmosphere. It is a slow burner, clocking in at two hours, but it never feels like it. What we are watching is essentially a documentary, a show from footage left behind by a paranormal journalist who suddenly vanished after pursuing a mysterious case. The events feel mundane at first: a neighbor hears eerie voices of babies from the house next door, a psychic actress hears noises from the apartment upstairs above her. The investigation takes a tragic turn when a child with telekinetic abilities vanishes. All signs lead to Kagutaba, a demonic spirit revered by an occult group and has left a horrific curse in its wake. “It feels realistic, it feels personal. Watching it is like walking down the hallway in the school at night. Instead of some imminent danger, I feel uncomfortable and I don’t know why,” says Accented Cinema’s explainer on the film. The ability of “Noroi” to instill a deadening sense of unease with practically just the unknown is most impressive — something that only great horror films can do.