The genre of horror has always been looked down on in the international film scene. Critics look at horror films as crass and informal, not worthy of ‘serious’ analysis and examination. Often, they are categorized as either niche films or B movies. But for a third world country like the Philippines, where cultural workers serve as social critiques too, horror films are successful in the box office and with the critical audience. In fact, the longest-running film franchise in the country, is Shake Rattle and Roll, a horror film with 15 installments as of 2014. In this video essay, we examine a Filipino horror film that made rounds in the international film scene through its Netflix release – the 2018 film Eerie directed by Mikhail Red. We discuss how Eerie failed to fulfill two known categories in the horror genre.
In his study of Chito Rono’s 2004 film Feng Shui, Tilman Baumgartel noted the difference between Southeast Asian horror films and those of Western horror movies. According to him, the latter portrays the horrific other. They are based on ghost stories and folklore meant for an audience who actually believe in the existence of these spiritual beings. On the other hand, Western horror films serve as allegories to comment on contemporary social issues and concerns.
It is no surprise then that good horror films are those that satisfy either one of these categories. Some of the best horror films in the country either tell tales of horrific characters or acts as a commentary on social issues.
And the biggest problem with Eerie is that it badly fails to please both horror film categories.
In the center of Eeerie’s story is a guidance counselor of an exclusive Catholic high school. She struggles to find answers to the death of her students while also trying to battle her own demons. As she experiences supernatural meetings with the dead, she also investigates the corruption inside the institution where the story is set.
Eerie follows the format of typical horror films. It is set mostly at night, follow a religious or spiritual sect, and heavily relies on jump scares. It isn’t shy in making itself known that it follows a formula of the horror genre.
What’s good about Eerie is that it creates a world that is simple enough for the audience to understand but is, in a way, complex that it gives the viewers a suspension of disbelief. It paints a world of high school girls who rebels in the uber strict guidance of their school administrator nuns. It resonates with the Filipino crowd, largely Catholic, who is familiar with the conservative and disciplinarian nature of the church.
While horror films are fictional in nature, it becomes easier for the audience to immerse themselves in the plot if the storyline is, at the very least, familiar.
But for every other element it has, it fails badly.
The horrific other
Asian horror films and television series employ a horrific other character. She, often a female, serves as the horrifying figure in the entire story. She looks otherworldly and is often in pursuit of revenge or vendetta. It is through being horrific that she gains power.
While looking different and unworldly, this character is something familiar to the audience. In Philippine horror films, she is a folklore character, maybe as ancient as a tiyanak, a vampiric toddler, or as contemporary as Robinson’s half human half snake urban legend.
In Eerie, the horrific other is a dead student who happens to haunt the school grounds. Yes, a vengeful ghost might be a familiar character, but the film’s discussion of her is uninteresting. There’s no depth in her character and if there is any, it’s put too late in the storyline that the character missed any chance of gaining sympathy from the audience. It’s difficult for viewers to relate to a persona whose motivations are not well-defined. At first, you think that she’s up for revenge against the social institution that failed her. But, spoiler alert, she was actually fueled by her selfishness and innate evil character.
As social commentary
And as social commentary, Eerie doesn’t do the job either. At first, it hints on being a critique of the ultra-conservative nature of the Catholic church, especially schools they manage. But then, the film shifts into blaming an irrational teenage ghost for ruining everyone’s lives. It throws away the potential of talking about a whole plethora of Catholic corruption and hypocrisy. Instead, in an attempt to offer a twist, it chose to blame teenage angst as the culprit for every supernatural and horrific event that happened in the story’s setting.
This is what makes watching Eerie much more difficult than it really is. Mikhail Red belongs to a generation of third-world filmmakers whose desire to be political often becomes a detriment to their storytelling. Benedict Mique’s thriller film ML feels forced as it comments on Martial Law and Marcos’ dictatorship without a hint of subtlety. Meanwhile, in Eerie, Red kind of hesitates to be political and social on his storytelling. It is as if he blatantly chooses to make Eerie politically neutral so as to make the film palatable to all. And in doing so, the storyline became generic and forgettable.
The horror genre in the country and in Southeast Asia, in general, continues to evolve. While we still see works that center on featuring a horrific other, some films try to combine the two. In these times of great political turmoil in the country, horror films are essential not only to entertain the people from the harrows of everyday life but also as an opportunity to tackle serious issues in a less formal and direct manner.
While Eerie is breaking borders in the international film streaming scene, it is difficult not to wonder how it appealed so much to the online audience. And in a way, it is disappointing to see how a sub-par Filipino work gets to introduce Philippine cinema to the international audience. Maybe, Eerie’s success and apparent overrated-ness are a testament that critical success does not necessarily equate to theatrical success – that Eerie is but a reminder of how technology has become this powerful tool that defines what arts we appreciate and what kind of life we live.