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Any parent will tell you: until you have a child, you cannot know true fear. The idea being that when you meet your offspring and automatically transfer all your love so that it fixes on that target, so too arrives the mind-numbing terror of realizing how helpless one can be in the face of a world that doles out tragedy on a whim. That dread, that desperate helplessness, is what sits at the heart of Dan Villegas’ Ilawod.

ilawod

The story revolves around a journalist and his family. Dennis (Ian Veneracion), who began and has become known for what is essentially a “paranormal activity” beat in a daily newspaper, attends an exorcism with photographer colleague Carlo (Epy Quizon). Unfortunately, the ilawod, a water elemental spirit, takes a shining to Dennis (and with Ian Veneracion playing him, who can blame her?). She follows him home to his family.

Besides this, Dennis is also chafing under the financial pressure of his masculinity; his wife Kathy (Iza Calzado) is the breadwinner of the household. As such, he wants to transfer to a more “respectable” beat, something more realistic and serious that, one supposes, also pays better.

His son, Ben (Harvey Bautista), is identified by the ilawod as the weak link in the family and a seduction of the awkward and lonely nerd commences when the water spirit adopts the guise of the comely Isla (played by Teri Malvar).

Ilawod marks a first for director Dan Villegas: this is his first horror film. Known primarily for his facility with romantic stories (English Only, Please; Walang Forever, How to Be Yours, etc.), he displays that same facility with the horror genre.

Villegas knows how to stage a scene for uneasy effect, and is ably assisted by the cinematography of Mycko David, particularly in a striking rooftop sequence shot during magic hour, when day and night vie for supremacy in the sky. They also make clever use of negative space, evoking danger lurking in empty, sometimes unlit spaces. It helps that the film is shot with anamorphic lenses, a width that gives them more room to play, or mess with, our own fears.

ilawod-2

The film marks another first: It is acclaimed horror writer Yvette Tan’s first produced screenplay. Her horror background comes to play in the verisimilitude of the eponymous threat: it is to the creative team’s credit that many people continue to ask Tan about the origins and history of the ilawod. Isla answers questions about her background and life but is vague about details, and the writing is confident enough to avoid spoonfeeding the audience.

Where the film overcompensates, unfortunately, is in the score and sound design. An abundance of stingers and rising mood pieces will occasionally telegraph a scare in advance, or overpower an unexpected jolt in other cases. Some restraint and evocative silence, with some unsettling sound effects, could have given more texture to the scary sequences.

Though these sudden frights play nicely to audiences’ wish to be communally scared in a dark theater, what remains even after the credits have rolled is that aforementioned anxiety and dread. The helplessness with which Ben’s parents deal with the supernatural.

Was this inevitable? Is Dennis and his family’s plight deserved? Is the real villain the short-sighted albularyo who washes his hands of the affair? How do you fight something you don’t understand? How do you reason with a spirit older than man?

Ilawod makes fine use of its actors. Veneracion gets to play around with moods as the hold of the ilawod waxes and wanes, and Xyriel Manabat does heavy duty as the most beleaguered/traumatized member of the family. Calzado, being Calzado, is always great. Malvar surprises with a role miles away from what most audiences may know her from, in Ang Huling Cha-cha ni Anita.

Best of all, Ilawod has the conviction to end in a way that is uncommon in Philippine horror films, but one that is earned by its careful build-up. The last act is a wringer for Veneracion especially, as he finds himself drowning, overpowered by forces beyond his understanding.

Photos: Ilawod | Facebook

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