The Filipino cinephile is someone who unwittingly resigns to a way of life that subjects them to the early-year rubble of big film outfits. That was, for the longest time, the lifestyle we’ve all been subscribed to. Then, COVID-19. More than a year into the pandemic, Viva decides to simulate the Q1 cinephile experience by releasing Biyernes Santo, a Vivamax-exclusive occult horror as nondescript as many of the studio’s yesteryear duds. An okay distraction, I guess, from the barrage of films from their current star filmmaker, so prolific at making movies with perspectives so pointless Takashi Miike would bifurcate his own body, crosswise.
Biyernes Santo, at least, doesn’t condemn porn as a legitimate trade nor does it outright shit on mental health issues. The film doesn’t use shock as a crutch. But there also lies its biggest problem: it doesn’t use shock at all. Or at least not effectively.
Stricken with grief over his wife’s death, Roy (Gardo Versoza) enlists the help of his clairvoyant niece, Grace (Ella Cruz), to ward off “bad energy” from his lush estate. The reason as to why he has to hire a spiritualist, the movie doesn’t bother to explain, because in the cold open we immediately learn that Roy’s wife, Lia (Andrea Del Rosario), serves a God (an Elder God from Lovecraft’s oeuvre?) different from the one that the many statues of saints in their mansion might suggest. With better execution, it would be apt to call this set up a red herring, but here it peters out too quickly, leaving the movie’s mystery uninteresting and eventual “twist” feeling empty. It doesn’t help that the production design choices clue us in on the later reveals (case in point: the ever-present dupe of Ruben’s “Saturn Devouring His Son”).
Biyernes Santo is directed by Pedring Lopez, a filmmaker with an interesting perspective on genre films, coming off of 2019’s Maria and 2015’s Nilalang. Seeing the name inspired some confidence, but Lopez’s work here feels self-serious yet uncertain compared to the indulgent yet confident direction in his previous films. This irresolution seeps into the film’s technicals; the lensing is inconsistent, the colors oscillating from anemic-pale to annoyingly dark.
To be fair, Lopez had their work cut out for them. The story itself—an overlong and overdrawn horror story spaced in a couple of days instead of containing it in the eponymous day marking the death of Jesus Christ—is dull, incoherent, and bloated with exposition and awkward conversations between characters. There isn’t a clear path for any of its characters, including Cruz’s, whose backstory as an abused child never gets any significant payoff, nor does it provide any insight as to why she had chosen to become a spiritualist. There’s talk of Djinns, an interesting albeit foreign addition to Philippine horror, but the film does nothing with it, except use it as a red herring.
Good stories have strong causality. Events play out as a cause or in effect to another event. In Biyernes Santo, things happen with little consequence; conflicts and characters’ decisions and reactions rarely ever click. Sitting through it it’s clear how it lacks in the way of story, horror, or nuance. I guess that tracks, because there’s plenty of Filipino horror movies set during the Holy Week—the best one, Mike De Leon’s Itim, hasn’t been bettered since 1977—and this one, though it has gone as far as using one of the days in the Holy Week as its title, doesn’t seem interested in our obsession as people about religious beliefs.