‘Bliss’ (2017) Review – The Demented Beauty Of Deviance

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The psychological-horror genre is relatively new to Filipino movies, mostly due to the local studios enabling an overlong cycle of ripping off Asian horror movies. Continuing the resurgence of Filipino cinema is Bliss, a psychological-horror movie that knew how to fuck with audiences – figuratively and literally.

Bliss follows actress Jane Ciego (Iza Calzado) after she survives a near-fatal accident on the set of her latest film. Paralyzed below the waist, Jane learns that the house she’s recovering in is more akin to a prison, where suspicious people and sinister forces conspire to keep her from discovering a dark truth as her perception of reality crumbles.

For all intents and purposes, Bliss has no right to exist. But like former porn stars serving in public office, Bliss is a reality that some may feel discomfort with – though unlike the former, Bliss is a welcome change of pace.

Deviance Is Bliss 

When I say Bliss has no right to exist, I mean that in the best possible way because it’s not like most Filipino movies. If it were pitched to studios a decade earlier, Bliss would never have made it past the drawing board because some stupid studio head would prioritize what sponsors and what the ornery fucks at the local ratings board had to say over financing anything with artistic merit.

In a few words, Bliss is expertly made. From the simple yet striking visuals to the disturbing story of repressed fears among many other fucked up things, Bliss is a textbook psychological-thriller crafted to near-perfection. It also helps that the actors on board gave it their all, bringing the necessary escalating emotions and tensions to life. Even if it could be said that some of the people Jane interacts with are generic stereotypes, they still serve a purpose and Bliss wouldn’t be the same without these darker and more serious takes on familiar archetypes.

At worst, those who’ve seen enough psychological-thrillers in the past may be able to predict what happens next before all the pieces of the puzzle are dropped. However, this does little to take away from the fact that Bliss is still a mystery worth following. All this says is that I need to stop watching too many goddamned movies and maybe get a life while I’m at it.

Mysteriously Blown Load

Bliss is the kind of thriller that’s put together well, but closer examination reveals a few cracks in the otherwise air-tight mystery movie at hand. Again, this does little to erode the film’s status as a Grade-A thriller, but it denies an otherwise impressive movie from achieving perfection.

Without giving away too much, the central conflict of Bliss finds Jane in a surreal mix of reality and insanity that continually fucks with her mind, while also finding new ways to do so in each passing scene. If the whole movie was built on this premise, Bliss would have successfully created its desired nightmarish dreamlike experience with flying colors. Yet for some reason, the causes and explanations behind these events are almost immediately revealed before the second act even kicks in. Seemingly too excited to say the punchline, Bliss nearly wastes a good set-up by prematurely blowing its load and reveals the secret behind the ongoing mindfuckery too early.

Since the ending is a foregone conclusion for those who were able to catch the jig or unveil a good amount of the mysteries by the movie’s one hour mark, Jane’s struggles switches from a matter between life and death to a waiting game where the audience just witnesses the mystery solve itself. Scenes that are meant to explain everything from a certain character’s perspective came off as spoon-feeding rather than self-explanatory, and shortening or outright cutting a few of these would have benefited the movie’s final run time.

Despite these and a particular depiction of sexual deviance that will rub some people the wrong way due to the real-life sensitivity of the issue, Bliss manages to keep viewers guessing and enthralled in Jane’s torment, leaving them eager yet fearful of what lies ahead for the trapped actress. It’s a testament to director Jerrold Tarog’s skills as a filmmaker that these minor gripes do nothing to affect the overall quality of Bliss, because a weaker director would have surely let these fuck the entire movie up.

The Right Dementia

For those familiar with psychological-thrillers, Bliss may not offer anything new but it’s still a great example of the genre at work. For those new to the genre or at least those who nearly gave up on Filipino cinema, Bliss is a demented miracle to behold that shows the medium’s capability when let loose, free from the bondage of outdated studio mandates and enforced product placement.

Bliss will disgust and offend certain viewers (conservative moviegoers, be warned), but this is exactly what Filipino cinema needs: a good dose of deviance and malice with no pretentious, mean-spirited bullshit attached. The shocking elements of Bliss are there for good reason, and they’re not just some sick director’s fetish being shat out on screen.

If you’re of age and prepared for some disturbing cinema, Bliss deserves your time of day. Not only because it’s a great movie, but to spite the dumb local motherfuckers who tried to ban it with an X-rating despite giving the insult to intelligence that is Fifty Shades Darker an uncut, R-18 pass.

Yes, that really happened.



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Seklusyon (2016) Review: Religiously Demonic Dark Horse

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Translation: “Seklusyon” means “Seclusion” in English

I’m going to get straight to the point: Most Filipino horror movies are shit. The genre has been in such a bad shape that it was up to a guy known for directing crime-thrillers to save the day, and for the most part, he pulled it off.

Set some time after World War 2, Seklusyon sees four young, aspiring priests in the midst of their silent retreat. As the retreat drags on, a mysterious supernatural presence makes the retreat house’s trapped occupants face their inner demons and confront a more sinister force. Coinciding with this is a lone priest’s investigations regarding a girl who claims to be a prophet of the Lord.

Given Seklusyon’s premise, one might expect another generic story where the immature forces of Heaven and Hell duke it out by fucking with random peoples’ lives instead of actually going at it. But since this movie is no pandering piece of shit, there’s a lot more going on in Seklusyon than what meets the eye.

Sacrilege Done Right

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Seklusyon doesn’t fit in with local horror movies. By that, I mean it’s actually good and disturbing as fuck – not another cliche-ridden clusterfuck.

A major problem with many local horror movies is that they are inherently NOT Filipino movies. This is because movies like the later Shake, Rattle And Roll entries lazily rip-off foreign horror movies, thus creating a pathetic, poorly translated and low-budgeted copy of the latest American horror trend.

Seklusyon on the other hand, is both well-made and insightful in the darkest ways possible. The movie shines an unforgiving light on the nation’s traditional Christian values and shows how questionable things like blind faith really are. From religious statues that cry tears of blood to morally shady priests, Seklusyon is a cinematic mockery of everything that defines Filipino Christianity.

It is through an ominous atmosphere, a masterful use of tension that adds dramatic weight to the blasphemous imagery, and a warped visual familiarity, that Seklusyon derives its disturbing motif from its native land. This makes Seklusyon’s frights all the more real and relatable for someone too familiar with the story’s setting. For lack of better words and as fucking corny as it may sound, Seklusyon is a true Filipino horror movie in every sense of the word.

A Lack Of Faithful Focus

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While Seklusyon excels in meeting its genre’s expectations, it falls short in story because it prioritized the artsy metaphors over the characters. Though the cast of Seklusyon deserve credit for being smarter than the average sentient slab of meat (i.e. The Victim) in any sub-standard horror movie, they still lack humanity. The characters of Seklusyon don’t have much to them outside of a backstory that can be summarized in a single sentence, and most of them exist to be spiritual cannon fodder.

Seklusyon also has a bad habit of skipping to the next set of nightmarish symbolism before delving more into any given character’s development, denying audiences of the chance to be truly invested in the plight of those onscreen. At most, the characterizations in Seklusyon are serviceable at best, so don’t bother trying to remember some hapless fucker’s name.

It doesn’t help when Seklusyon basically has two plots happening at the same time. On one end, the devout Miguel (Ronnie Alonte) tries to keep his faith and sanity intact as the seclusion goes from bad to demonic in the span of a single scene. Meanwhile, Father Ricardo (Neil Ryan Sese) investigates the circumstances surrounding the supposedly holy child Anghela (Rhed Bustamante) and the ramifications her miracles may imply.

Though both narrative arcs are worth following, it would have benefited Seklusyon if it focused on just one story line. By cutting scenes between Miguel and Fr. Ricardo, the tense atmosphere of Seklusyon tends to break when it awkwardly transitions from an exercise in isolation to the equivalent of a holy investigative documentary. Both of these narrative styles could have made a good horror movie, but simply combining the best of both worlds only resulted in needles clutter for Seklusyon. This was most evident when both arcs finally converged, only for one to be abruptly ended before rushing into the climactic, unsubtle tirade against the nationally dominant mindset.

Still, it’s a testament to Eric Matti’s talents as a director when he delivers the best Filipino horror movie seen in decades despite some minor bumps on the creepy road to a painful salvation.

The Monster Called Society

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As a dude who loves the ever-loving shit out of horror movies and film in general, I nearly gave up on Filipino cinema after learning how to dread the annual combination of shitty horror and the old MMFF’s slew of bullshit. Thankfully, movies like Heneral Luna (2015) and Seklusyon restored my faith in the local industry, and they’re a good reminder of the power of film in the local sense of things.

I live in a country where half the populace would literally vote a statue of Jesus Christ for president if the opportunity presented itself, making Seklusyon a much needed bitch slap to the face for those who blindly worship whichever charismatic motherfucker gets up on their gold-plated pedestal of false hopes. Seklusyon may be one-sided in its anger against the hypocritical powers that be, but it’s an unapologetic reminder of the dangerous faults of Filipino idolatry – religious and otherwise. Seklusyon shows that it’s not demons or supernatural entities that people should fear, but rather, the undeniable influence and reach of fanaticism.

This film represents more than the fact that Filipino filmmakers can actually make good films when given the chance: It also serves as a dark reflection of Filipino culture, with the nation’s well-known and infamous drug-like dependency on Christianity only serving as a highly critical starting point.

Seklusyon may not be perfection incarnate, but it’s the closest thing to it. That, and Seklusyon is a collection of everything that makes horror movies great: a compelling story, unsettling imagery, an unrelenting setting, bleak social subtexts, and a shit-ton of dead babies.


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The Visit (2015) – Demon Granny Docu

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The words “Shyamalan” and “Found Footage” normally spell doom for any movie when they’re used to describe it but when you combine the two in the same sentence to describe a single film, you’d be forgiven if your first reaction was to gag at the thought of a shaky cam “horror” movie directed by the man responsible for turning the phrase “Twist Ending” into a fucking punchline. But in what can only be described as a form of irony, Shyamalan throws a twist at audiences by presenting a Found Footage Horror that’s not as bad as the Subgenre’s label implies nor is it as horrid as that one time he turned goddamned plants into serial killers.

THE VISIT is, at its very core, yet another Found Footage movie that follows the formula to the letter: you got your young moronic leads who demand to film everything even in the worst moments of their life, spastic jump scares that look more epileptic than a person’s panicked perspective, safe PG horror and fuck knows how much unnecessary filler all of which are meant to guarantee a timewaster that’ll be forgotten after one can of beer but THE VISIT somehow takes these generic elements and turns in a rather decent little film. Granted, it’s not as big or as impressive as Shyamalan’s early works but it’s a nice return to form for a director who was once labeled as the next Hitchcock before turning into a walking meme. THE VISIT may be a slave to conventions but at the very least it shows these familiar tropes in a different if not brand new light, giving something to invest in rather than leaving the audience bored and waiting for everyone onscreen to die.

The first half of the movie is guaranteed to misdirect anyone watching it because it’s as generic as one would expect in the post-PARANORMAL ACTIVITY age. Just like every other cookie cutter Found Footage Movie in the 2000’s, THE VISIT stars a pair of obnoxious kids who (while on a pretentious artistic streak most probably made up by Shyamalan in pure THE LADY IN THE WATER style) decide to film a documentary about their first visit to their grandparents’ house because that’s totally what millennials do on family trips. After roughly half an hour worth of the usual pre-horror filler including wigger free-style rap numbers by the thirteen year old boy done for some ungodly reason, the movie shifts gears and suddenly goes all-out on the tension that’s sorely missing in most every other Horror Movie out right now. Instead of being loaded with fake-out jump scares perpetrated by random teenagers walking into loud shit or barrels of blood rented from an Eli Roth set, THE VISIT brings back the old-school kind of horror where tension and silence speak volumes, all of which helps make a supposedly silly premise (i.e. murderous grandparents) actually effective. Right after the kids’ first night where they see grandma act like some SILENT HILL refugee, shit gets real and the tension just keeps on mounting when the grandparents’ shenanigans go from bad to pure batshit insane. In a time when Horror Movies are more than content to annoy the audiences with loud noises and horny partygoers as seen through epileptic cameras, THE VISIT proved to be a pleasant surprise by being a Horror Movie that actually understood the genre’s style and appeal in its more silent moments, choosing to gradually make its viewers uneasy instead of slapping them in the face with gag show level juvenile scares.

Now this would’ve been a perfect escalation of events that all leads to a nail biting climax but Shyamalan instead chose to fill the movie up with a fuckton of padding. If he simply reduced the amount of filler in between the tense scenes, the movie would’ve been shorter but better. It was a good thing that there were breaks every now and then just to lighten the mood after seeing something like a senior citizen scratch a door butt naked right before going to the next scare but there were many times when the mundane shit in the morning just wouldn’t end. THE VISIT uses these breaks properly and gives some time dedicated to unexpected character development that helps justify some of the genre’s absurdities (like filming a murder so that there’s evidence of what happened) but for the most part, the movie has a tendency to repeat certain beats just to hammer in the fact that something’s wrong. The first time it’s shown that grandpa’s hiding something, it’s a mystery you’d want to see solved but the nth time grandpa’s doing some weird shit in the barn, it gets boring because it’s already been established half an hour earlier that the dude’s off his knocker. THE VISIT is a horror movie, it’s pretty fucking obvious that something wicked this way comes.

After angering an entire generation for shitting all over a live-action take of their childhood, Shyamalan scales back and proves that he isn’t ready to be lumped alongside the likes of Uwe Boll just yet with a passable if forgettable return to the Horror/Thriller Genre that shot him to fame decades ago. THE VISIT is a lot more subtle and toned down compared to his superior films and it’s thankfully dry in the self-indulgent Shyamalan Tropes that were mainstays in his more infamous works but it’s a serviceable Indie Horror that’s guaranteed to entertain a lot of bored people when it finally hits cable TV in the future. For a guy who took a lot of artistic risks to varying degrees of success, it’s pretty bittersweet to see him deliver one of the safest Horror Movies in recent memory that no one would remember for good and/or bad reasons but after forcing audiences to watch him jerk off to his supposed artistic prowess over the course of six movies post-UNBREAKABLE, it’s a welcome sight to see the guy humble himself and play by the rules for once.

 

 

 

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