Pagpag (Siyam na Buhay): Movie Review

Pagpag_filmIt took me a while to finally see my first Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) movie this year because the lines to the cinema were seriously messed up. My brother and I have this tradition of doing movie marathons during the MMFF season to support the local movie industry but when the malls opened on Christmas day, it seemed like a lot of people had similar ideas leading to a record P134 million box office take on the first day of screening alone. After several tries (read, going to the cinema for three days), we were finally able to get seats for Pagpag, the lone horror entry for this year — a joint venture by Star Cinema and Regal Entertainment starring teen hearthrobs Daniel Padilla and Kathryn Bernardo.

Pagpag (Dust off/Shake off)  is premised on the Filipino superstition about the things that are forbidden when visiting the dead, particularly the habit of not going home directly after going to a funeral to shake off any evil spirits that may have attached itself to the visitor at the funeral. The story involves Leni (Bernardo), a teenager orphaned by her parents and left to deal with their funeral parlor business and her drunk uncle (Janus del Prado) while also charged with the care of her adopted brother MacMac (Clarence Delgado). When Leni is hired to set up funeral arrangements for Roman (Paolo Avelino), a man shunned by the town for being a devil worshipper, she, along with a group of teens including rich kid Cedric Castillo (Padilla) who inadvertedly visit the funeral (and violate sacred traditions about the dead) is picked off one by one by the spirit of the deceased in an effort of his wife Lucy (Shaina Magdayao) to bring her beloved back to life.

There have been a lot of horror movies based on Filipino tradition and superstition and Pagpag is truly challenged to bring something new to the table. The fact that it is the only horror entry in the Film Festival, the pressure is doubled for the studios to produce something that would appeal to the horror buffs who are expecting to be scared witless for the holidays.

In casting the loveteam of Bernardo and Padilla, the filmmakers assured that the movie would be a hit. And if the shrieks of glee from viewers with every instance that the two hold hands or share a hug is any indication, the film was a smashing success. But horror is a tricky genre to pull off and I’m not so sure if newbie director Fransco S. Mortiz was successful in producing an effective screamfest for the holidays.

Considering all things, Pagpag had a pretty solid story. I think the story was not the problem, but rather, the execution. Because there was a huge amount of victims to be done away with (nine needed to die), I think the film suffered from a lack of buildup, settling instead of quick flashes of an evil spirit with bad make up to scare the audiences. What happens after is sort of a Hollywood rip off of kills done on previous movies, including the framing.

Speaking of bad prosthetics, while I appreciated the effort to use make up to the scare the viewers, the monster version of Roman looked like a rubber mask rather than a burned face. The worms of Cedric’s supposedly rotting shoulder (CGI) also needed some work. Effects wise, it really didn’t work that well. And don’t get me started on the teenage girls starring in this movie. Annoying is a mild description for their antics.

But if there were bad, there were also good facets to the movie. In my opinion, Paolo Avelino’s portrayal of Roman was nothing short of spectacular. The depth of this actor’s skills is truly remarkable and I for, one, was disappointed that he had very limited screentime for this movie. I would have preferred that instead of using a badly prostheticked monster, the filmmakers used minimal make up and utilized Paolo’s expressive eyes to convey the hate and the horror to his preys while on his killing spree. Janus del Prado was another star who provided the much needed comic relief for the movie. His zingers and comedic dialogue was a refreshing break from the killings. I never get tired of this guy, even if he constantly just lands supporting roles. Clarence Delgado’s MacMac was also great despite the limited dialogue.

All in all, while the movie was not too bad, I think the major mistake committed by the filmmakers is limiting itself and not committing enough producing a memorable horror movie. Despite the Pinoy premise, it did not adopt the movie for a Filipino audience  but rather, it tried to imitate Hollywood movie franchises like Final Destination. Sure, it had some sweet moments that would be appreciated by Kathniel fans. Sure, it had a good story going for it, but at the end of the day, while it was good for a couple of scares, it lacked the depth and the build up to make it a sustainable horror movie — one that would haunt moviegoers in their dreams. At the end of the day, it squandered the opportunities presented by a strong cast and a solid story and chose to be just another generic horror film and a poor copycat instead of a fierce original. The good news is that there’s always a next time to do better. It was a good effort after all.