‘Ilawod’ gets clever while working within familiar frameworks

Dan Villegas’ (with a script from Palanca winner Yvette Tan) first horror film finds its terror in the neuroses of the modern family.

“Ilawod” tells the story of dissatisfied journalist Dennis (Ian Veneracion) who mainly investigates supernatural claims. He’s tired of not being taken seriously as a journalist and is trying to get a promotion. But in his last assignment – covering a ritual exorcism of a woman possessed by a malevolent spirit – something seems to have followed him home. Soon, he and his family (IzaCalzado, Harvey Bautista and Xyriel Manabat) are experiencing all sorts of bizarre happenings, and in the process, tensions that lie just beneath their seemingly placid façade are revealed.

There is something really clever behind the familiar horror movie plot of “Ilawod.” On the surface, it is just another story of a family under attack by the supernatural, of modern Filipinos suffering from the whims of the animistic past. “Ilawod” is not just a story that settles with the standard thrills of weird, malevolent beings causing harm to regular people: it is also a fairly compelling study of the modern family, the horror built on the tensions that exist between past and present, between traditional roles and contemporary attitudes. The film functions as a perfectly good horror movie, featuring all of the requisite elements of its genre. The film doesn’t really go for the surprise scares that have defined the genre in the last decade or so. Instead, it prefers to unsettle, with subtle bits of strangeness that create a feeling that something isn’t right.

The moment Therese Malvar appears on screen, even before all the big revelations, the audience is aware that something untoward is going on. The atmosphere of strangeness builds and builds, creating a constant sense that none of these characters are really safe. It’s a shrewd strategy. But where it really gets good is how it combines this horror tale with a foundation of modern neuroses.

The dynamics of the relationship between Dennis and his wife play a big role in the story. There are evil spirits in this story, but the true villain seems to be a sense of insecurity, an inability to let go of traditional gender roles that end up pushing the characters away from the relative safety of their familial bond. In the end, it is a really clever examination of male pride, and the film in its quieter moments delivers a sense of existential terror that goes beyond what’s expected from the genre. The film matches this with a pretty strong technical package. The movie doesn’t really set out to wow anyone with out-of-this-world visuals, but it does a lot within the story’s fairly mundane settings of condominiums and offices.

The music does get a little overbearing at times, though. Veneracion is a good fit for the lead role, the film utilizing his most obvious qualities to its advantage. There is a lived-in quality to the portrayal of his relationship with Calzado, which gives the movie extra dimension. And Malvar continues to be one of the best actresses in the country, regardless of age.

“Ilawod” is a sneaky little movie that confounds expectations. One can certainly see ways that the film could have pushed things a little further, could’ve bucked convention even more in order to fully let its themes shine through. But working within the limits of what appears to be conventional local mainstream horror filmmaking, using many of the same elements of the standard soulless scare fests that we tend to get from local studios, “Ilawod” manages to deliver something rather profound.