WHENEVER SOMEBODY ASKS which Filipino horror film is the quintessential Halloween night viewing, I oscillate between the savory answer (Mike De Leon’s Itim comes to mind, a pick that feels rightful and won’t raise eyebrows) and the unsavory one (Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’ 2014 film, T’yanak, a modern reimagining of their leaps and bounds superior and more seminal work from the late ’80s). Suppose I give into my natural proclivity for recency bias, and I would say Kenneth Dagatan’s excellent period horror, In My Mother’s Skin, is worth every Filipino’s time. For all other times, my default answer would be the 2004 film and Erik Matti’s best horror film to date, Pa-Siyam.
The film opens with a homecoming — the worst kind. Nilo (Roderick Paulate) and his siblings travel to their hometown at the news of their mother’s death. All estranged from the family’s matriarch, the siblings brought home heavy hearts, weighed heavier by the effortful proceedings of managing the funeral and the eponymous ritual of nine-day novenas. The story unravels in the family’s vast estate, left to the tending of their caretaker and house-help, who insists that their mother’s room be locked shut. Strange things happen at night. The local priest, meanwhile, refuses to enter the house’s vicinities. What really happened to their mother, and what secrets does her death harbor?
Viewers who are only familiar with Erik Matti’s recent work will sadly be oblivious to his older gems (think: the campy, scrappy Gagamboy) and likely identify his work with presentation, the ‘visual flair.’ The best examples have the sense of pulling back, like 2015’s Honor Thy Father and the recent HBO miniseries On the Job: The Missing Eight. The worst ones seem to forego story (and substance) over style, as was the case with 2018’s BuyBust, and Matti’s more recent horror forays like Kuwaresma and Seklusyon.
Pa-Siyam — a sparse and somber ghost story about the modern Filipino family — is an outlier in Matti’s work. Make no mistake, the film has some interesting visuals. But forced to inhabit the trappings of a deliberately paced ghost story, Matti has to let the supernatural mystery be the focus, along with the message the story tries to convey. Hauntingly, the film is also about Filipino diaspora, its built-…