‘Biyernes Santo’ review — The ugly hand of zealotry

Vivamax’s Holy Week presentation is a bloated and incoherent occult horror lost in its existential ideas about religion and idolatry.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review first appeared on Unreel on March 28, 2021. It’s being republished as part of the upkeep of our writing archive.

WE ARE AT A POINT that any fond remembrance of our life before COVID-19 is welcome. For Filipino cinephiles, the yearly routine of going through the rubble of early-year releases is part of a lifestyle we miss, if only slightly so. The first few months of the year are composed of (mostly) bad films, from cheapo B-horror flicks to moderate-budget films that studios need to take off their shelves. Knowing that we’re confined to our houses, Vivamax hopes to emulate this Q1 moviegoing experience by releasing Pedring Lopez’s Biyernes Santo, an ostensibly nondescript horror-fantasy that, for viewers patient and keen enough, ultimately proves to be a somewhat rewarding watch. Keyword on ‘somewhat.’

Unlike other Vivamax titles, Biyernes Santo isn’t about scintillating bodies — a rare sighting for a studio notorious for making films that show a lot of skin. Not that Lopez’s film doesn’t show any flesh; there’s plenty here, but not the ‘bomba‘ kind. Interesting, too, is the way that it codifies religious idolatry in a language any horror fan will understand, turning Filipinos’ complicated relationship with religion into a Lovecraftian cautionary tale.

Stricken with grief over his wife’s death, Roy (Gardo Versoza) enlists the help of his clairvoyant niece, Grace (Ella Cruz), to ward off a particular “bad energy” from his lush estate. This energy, as we learn from the cold open, is brought on by Roy’s wife, Lia (Andrea Del Rosario), who exercises her faith in the service of a God. Which God it is, precisely, remains unknown. But sharp-eyed viewers will infer from visual cues that this God is different from the one that the religious statues of Christian saints in their mansion might suggest. The constant presence of Peter Paul Ruben’s “Saturn Devouring His Son” implies that Lia’s God might be something much older than Christianity itself.

Biyernes Santo is directed by Filipino filmmaker Pedring Lopez, a filmmaker with an interesting perspective on genre films, coming from 2019’s Maria and 2015’s Nilalang. Seeing his name inspires some confidence, but Lopez’s work here feels a bit too straight-faced and feels less assured compared to his indulgent yet confident works. This seeps into the film’s technicals: the lensing looks inconsistent, the colors oscillating from anemic-pale to annoyingly dark.

To be fair, Lopez has an arduous undertaking. The story — an overdrawn metaphysical and existential mystery spaced over a couple of days (why they didn’t confine the story in the eponymous day marking the death of Jesus Christ is beyond me) — is incoherent and bloated with exposition and awkward conversations between characters. Speaking of, the characterization isn’t all that great, including that of Grace, whose tragic history of child abuse doesn’t yield any significant payoff, nor does it provide any insight as to why she had chosen her vocation as a spiritualist. There’s talk of Djinns, which is a welcome and interesting addition, but the screenplay barely does anything with it except use it as a red herring.

Good horror stories need causality. Events play out as a cause or in the effect of another thing that happens in the story. In Biyernes Santo, things happen with barely any consequence. I’d be lying if I said that an existential occult-Lovecraftian horror film isn’t the last thing I’d expect from Vivamax, and I’m glad that this film exists. Still, I find it to be such a waste of a great idea when the execution is fundamentally not all there.


Biyernes Santo

2021 | Horror, Fantasy | dir. Pedring Lopez

A father takes his daughter, who is traumatized by demon attacks, in a rest house in time for holy week. He enlists the help of his spiritual healer cousin to protect her from evil. But as they go nearer to Good Friday, the dark force intensifies.

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