My Ten Cents on: San Lazaro

Another year, another Cinemalaya. Yep! Its one of those times of the year when Filipino independent film-making talents (or in some cases, un-talents) come together to showcase their movies. I have always had a love-hate relationship with this film festival because this is the area where I meet many of the silent geniuses and loud-mouth, artsy-fartsy, opposite-of-geniuses all gathered in one place. On one hand, I’ve seen some great movies, and I got to meet Quentin Tarantino, on the other hand, I’ve seen these really sad movies that give our independent film culture the stereotypical reputation that it has, which is that they make depressing third-world movies that try to win Cannes Film Festival, or some other European independent film festival, basically looking at the local Philippine audience as secondary.

I’m not gonna turn this into a class-A rant on the Philippine Indie Film industry, because well, this post would be three times as long, and even I wouldn’t want to prattle on about it in public (you could totally message me about it though in private). But I will say this, the one genre where I’ve rarely been disappointed in the indie scene has been the horror genre. I’m not sure this is the only reason, but I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that horror deals with a fundamental emotion which is based on the beliefs of the society from which it originates.

What I’m saying is, that a person who grew up in the Philippines can’t make a good horror movie unless it carries something inherent in Filipino culture. Yes, there could be influences from films like Nightmare on Elm Street, or The Exorcist, but if a filmmaker doesn’t draw from his own system of beliefs, then it somehow feels hollow (e.g. all those Hollywood remakes of Asian horror films from The Ring to The Eye).

Wincy Ong’s San Lazaro is definitely what I’d consider to be a good horror film. The film follows the story of three individuals, friends Limuel and Sigfried, going on a roadtrip to take Limuel‘s brother, Biboy, who has been possessed by a demon, to an exorcist in the small provincial town of San Lazaro. And so, because I have no idea how to segue into this, lets just dive on into the movie, shall we?

+ The Horror

The first thing I’m gonna say about this movie is that it isn’t about the shock. Jump scares are few and far between, which I love a whole lot. People often assume (mistakenly, I might add) that horror comes from the high pitched organ music, while the character is slowly creeping toward a dark corner in the room with a quickening heartbeat playing in the background. That, my friends, is closer to suspense and terror than horror.

According to a quote by Devandra Varma, PhD in Gothic Studies and Honorary VP of the Vampire Research Society(extremely awesome title, I might add), that I pulled from Wikipedia, “The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.” So basically, before you find the corpse, you’re afraid, curious and don’t know what’s around the bend, hence terrified. But when you stumble on the corpse, you see it out there, that’s the time when you put your hand up to your mouth to stop yourself from screaming as you crawl frantically away backwards to rest your back on something, all the while fixated on the body. That is the feeling of horror. Sorry, kind of graphic and a tad extreme, I know, but hopefully it got the point through.

San Lazaro has its jump scares, definitely. But it rarely cuts away after. When the possessed character, Biboy, goes out of control and looks his creepiest, the scene sticks with it, and drags the audience deeper and deeper into the situation that they’re in, rather than a momentary shock moment. You find yourself thinking: “I WOULD NOT want to be there for that” and “… that is something I never want to see in real life… ever,” as compared to: “Don’t go near the dark alley! I’m gonna shut my eyes and plug up my ears now!”

Basically, the horror element in this movie comes from all the character’s different situations in general as compared to constantly being shocked. And I like that kind of subtlety, most horror movies don’t have it anymore.

+ The Humor

Not that I don’t love them, but I do believe there are way too many horror movies whose sole aim is to scare your pants off. That’s why I love Sam Raimi’s horror films. Evil Dead 1 and 2, Army of Darkness and Drag Me to Hell are among my favorite horror movies, simply because they make me laugh aside from trying to scare me. While the director of San Lazaro did mention the likes of The Exorcist and Ghost World as his influences, you can read it in his auto-interview, I really believe that, whether he intended to or not, his film ended up in the spirit of Raimi’s take on the horror genre. I really appreciate movies that go the unorthodox path and do something I don’t expect. That goes also for the…

+ Casting

The film was full of a cast of people whom you wouldn’t expect to be in a horror movie. One of the lead roles was taken by Ramon Bautista, whom, if you are unfamiliar, is one strong comedic force in the Philippines. Most of the characters aren’t typical of a horror film, and that makes it all the more interesting to see where the mixture of these characters in a horror plot will take you.

+ The Story-Telling

When I look at films revolving around exorcism, it usually follows the people trying to exorcise the demon, The Exorcist: The Beginning, or follows the person possessed, Exorcism of Emily Rose. This movie puts all three main characters Limuel, Sigfried and Biboy in the same boat. The movie follows this notion that there are different kinds of possession. Each of the main characters is possessed, through one sense or another, by a demon. There has been a long standing belief that there are different levels of possession. Heck, in stricter sects of the Catholic Church, if you’re in the state of mortal sin, that’s first-degree possession by the devil right there. Its always been a curious thought of mine as to why so few people would tackle this dimension of the idea of “demonic possession”.

I guess most people don’t see the market value of that kind of “possession” in a film, but San Lazaro provides a great level of insight into this, and actually turns this notion into a very intriguing way of telling the story.

Apart from that, the story is told through a series of seemingly random events inter-spaced within the storyline of the roadtrip. The fact that these flashbacks/flashforwards/flash….sideways(?) happens to all three leads, including Biboy, cements the fact that they are all on equal footing, which you rarely see in these types of horror movies. All in all, very nice touch.

San Lazaro was a great experience, and very deserving of the fully packed movie theater I watched it in. Though, while I did love the movie, I can’t say it was perfect, so here comes the downside.

– Scene Pacing

The scenes could have been edited together a little bit more cleanly, for me. There were some scenes that seemed to drag on too long, and there were others that seemed to cut abruptly. There were even a couple of long scenes that cut abruptly without a good flow going in between. Especially with some of the random sequences, I found a couple of them lacking in exposition, or some scenes which would have been an interesting plot point to explore, but gets cut off before I feel that it makes a good impact on the story. I can’t say, maybe it was the plan to make the scenes like that, but I felt them a bit lacking.

This had the additional burden of making the movie feel disjointed at some points. There was one scene where Biboy runs off into the forest in broad daylight, and in the next cut Limuel and Sigfried are searching the forest in the dead of night with a couple of flashlights. It snaps me out of my suspension of disbelief once in a while, and if you know me, I do get a bit strict when it comes to that. (Which is why when I edit it takes so damned long, because I’m very meticulous about cuts, but that’s neither here nor there)

– Crowd Control

There is one thing that big budget and low budget Filipino movies have in common, and that’s always having a difficult time finding good extras. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with our culture, where on the news, even when a dead body is being rolled off in a gurney, you would spot at least five people smiling and waving at the camera. We Filipinos love being on camera, whether its the stereotype that we all stop what we’re doing when someone is about to take a photo, or looking into cameras during recordings. We become very conscious when a lens is pointed at us.

This always makes it hard to find great people to populate the scenes of your movie, and is the reason why a lot of movies tend to have small casts, that and budget, but I’ll get to that later. San Lazaro isn’t immune to this either. There are a few side characters who kind of lose your attention because they’re clearly keeping their nerves in check, and it detracts from the experience for me.

– Budget

Okay, just to clarify, I’m not blasting this movie for being cheap. Rather, I’m saying that for the production value it had, it did a really good job, but if it had gotten a little more investment, I’m sure it would have been even better. Maybe if there were more time and money, they could have made a few more shots to fill in gaps here and there, they could have had more complex musical scoring, which wasn’t bad just… not so memorable. (which could either be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it)

That being said, this movie is still better than a lot of films that have like 500 – 1,000 times the budget, so kudos on that.

My Cents Worth: 7.5/10

If you haven’t seen it yet, its still screening on July 22, 6pm at the CCP Little Theatre. Its a film that’s definitely worth catching. I do hope more people make movies like this. Heck, after watching this movie, I’m seriously thinking about dusting off my video camera and taking it for a spin. It was a great experience, and for both the cost of the production and the ticket price, it is a definite bang for your buck.

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Posted on July 19, 2011, in Film Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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