Childhood with Invisible Serpents

These are nighttime tales in dream territory. Numerous apparitions culled from films of the supernatural, tales of the unexplained, and urban legends that whisper unto themselves. It’s never easy to keep your grip in their undertow. It has been a while since I closed the book, devoured by the stories of boxes that open portals into other realms (ala Lovecraft’s “Dreams from the Witch House”), horror anthology editors getting trapped in their own horror stories, non-romance brimming from the set of a horror film, and a sensual confession about ghosts that like to discuss films. I read the book on the train, but that wasn’t much of a hindrance, since every time I read each of the stories in Joe Hill’s excellent collection 20th Century Ghosts, my entire consciousness is transplanted into other realms.

A thick and unrelenting air of dread pervades the collection. Even in some of the stories without supernatural elements, there is an unexplainable sense of horror that attaches itself to the story. Perhaps it’s this subtlety that makes the stories in 20th Century Ghosts more effective. Even the lighthearted fare of “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead,” which is a not-so-romantic tale set during the filming of zombiemeister George Romero’s cult classic Dawn of the Dead, becomes strangely eerie.

The stories are flooded with seemingly innocuous trinkets and elements: cardboard boxes, black phones, aspirators and masks. Most of the stories unravel like a confessional, unblinkingly laced with such tenacity, trembling from the fear of these encounters. While “Pop Art may be riddled with the terrors of adolescence such as school bullies and nasty folks with bad parenting skills, the story at its core is an intimate story of a friendship on the borderlines of life. The narrator’s friend, Art, is inflatable, suffering from a rare genetic condition. The heavy darkness of the premise is at times penetrated by the whimsical colors of innocence harbored by these two friends, punctuated by images of crayons, invented games ,and balloons. It’s haunting but nevertheless endearing.

At the center of 20th Century Ghosts is the collision of forces, supernatural or not, during childhood. The titular story is about young kids who come across a ghost inside a theater. Hill uses cinema as a vehicle to maneuver through the various encounters these children have, and the eventual impact throughout their lives. Abraham’s Boys deals with Van Helsing and the secret that he keeps from his two boys while Last Breath is a strange tale about an even stranger museum of silence, where last breaths are kept for display, seen through the eyes of a child. The eerie Twilight Zone-ish “The Black Phone is about an abducted boy trapped in a basement where the titular phone lurks, haunted by the ghosts of other abducted children.

The Cape” could easily fall into a trap of ludicrousness since it is about a cape that gives the character, Eric, the ability to fly. Comic book influences may be scattered here and there but Hill gives the story a strong atmosphere of disintegration and detachment. The same can be said of “You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” a disturbing Kafka-esque tale mashed up with old-school creature features and golden age science fiction fear-mongering.

Hill brings us to even stranger territory with his cataclysmic transformation of tired horror tropes into a fully fleshed monster. The collection’s opening shocker “Best New Horror chronicles the tale of Eddie Caroll, a professional editor of horror anthologies, who has been working on the same series for over a third of his life. His wife has abandoned him, not because he was cheating or some other vice, but precisely because of his job.I mean all your horror shit, and all those people who are always coming to see you, the horror people. Sweaty little grubs who get hard over corpses. That’s the best part of this. Thinking maybe now Tracy can have a normal childhood. Thinking I’m finally going to have a life with healthy, ordinary grown-ups,” his wife told him. We feel his exhaustion in reading old horror tropes, tired vampire tales, unspeakable horrors and chainsaw wielding psychos. One day, Carroll receives a story called “Buttonboy: A Love Story,” sick, misogynistic slasher porn. Carroll, elated by his discovery, goes on a search to find the elusive author, which proves to be a fatal mistake.

Strange as it is, “Best New Horror doubles as a critique on the genre but at the same time, it also follows the same path we were hoping it’ll tread. Hill’s execution is deftly subtle and it amazingly works, holding us to its bitter and ambiguous ending. There is a high chance that Hill might lose the reader with an ambitious story such as this. but he didn’t fail to deliver.

However, it is the novella “Voluntary Committal” that, in a very disturbing and unsettling way, emerges as the crown piece of the collection. An outright confessional of a fractured childhood, the story revolves around Nolan, his autistic brother Morris, and Nolan’s friend Eddie. Morris is unusually fixated on building vast tunnels and houses with cardboard boxes which mysteriously lead to portals to different dimensions. The story ticks like a psychological shakedown despite the carefully calculated narrative,  terror lurking just beyond the borders as the story moves toward its end.

These are the characters that populate Hill’s collection: broken-down spirits haunted by the ghosts of their childhood, be they tangible or not. With today’s frenzy of blood-and-gore shockers and generic broken-limbed ghouls, not to mention the daily terrors we see in the news, it’s not easy to find genuine tales that take you to places unknown, stripped bare in the face of these invisible serpents that plague our existence. Hill’s horror stories are crafted with such familiarity, it’s troubling enough to lose yourself in his worlds.

Originally published on The Philippine Online Chronicles (Aug 2010)

Faces of Evil: Shapes of Horror in Cinema

Perhaps, under the literature of the fantastic, the horror genre is the most curious. Shaping our fears and dreams into inhuman figures and bestial creatures, horror writers have sought to exercise demons by sifting through nightmares. Most of these horrors are coupled with despair, paranoia and loathing. Are these portents that the supernatural is as powerful more than ever? Or is it just the work of the devil?

But these days, the devil isn’t enough to spook people out of their wits, may it be super typhoons or convicted/deposed politicians clamoring for vindication, this era faces a new brand of horror. The following films tackle these modern horrors head on in their own terrifying terms and heights.

ANTICHRIST (Lars Von Trier, 2009)

Misogyny may not ring a bell to many but Lars Von Trier’s controversial Antichrist may be more than enough to shock you out of your skull. Earning jeers from the Cannes audience and film critics alike, Antichrist was met with resounding repulsion with only a handful applauding its courage to explore psychological horror through blood-stained misogynistic glasses. Starring Williem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (she won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival 2009 for this role) play an unnamed couple who seek refuge in their cabin in the woods (called ‘Eden’) after the death of their only son. With Biblical illusions running amok, not to mention exposure both of the actor’s genitals, gynocide and sexist overtones, Antichrist features a deep-seated kind of horror that exposes the fragile psychological nature of humanity when faced with such chaotic and sexual upheaval.

THE STRANGERS (Bryan Bertino, 2008)

Crime is nothing new if you’re living in the Philippines. Instead of living in fear and triple-locking our houses from stark raving madmen roaming our streets, we have learned to shrug off these kinds of things. Cashing on this complacency is Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008). Starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, inspired by true events, The Strangers is about a couple trying to rekindle their relationship while staying in a remote vacation home. This seemingly romantic evening, complete with low lighting and rose petals, is shattered when they are terrorized by three masked strangers prowling inside and outside the house. Building the film’s terrifying atmosphere is its pace, never kinetic, never slow, just enough to build a hair-raising tension. With the creepy use of country ballads, ominous tracks demonstrating the strangers’ uncanny capability to slip into the house unnoticed, and intense framing shots, Bertino’s film unerringly reminds us that the idyll complacency we often aspire for could be a perfect breeding ground for anxiety, fear and paranoia.

CARRIE (Brian de Palma, 1976)

Although nothing new, adolescence might be the most common stage of our lives swarming with existential anxieties and other kinds of nightmarish incidences. With horror being a perfect vehicle to peddle these kids of adolescent fears, Brian de Palma’s seminal film Carrie, succeeds in tackling varying themes such as religion, belongingness and sexual frustrations. Based on a Stephen King novel, Carrie tells the tale of the titular character’s (played by Sissy Spacek) struggle in high school while trying to come to terms with her telekinetic powers and her mother’s fundamentalist ravings. The film may be hysterical at some point but de Palma’s visual sensibilities and disturbing sense of humor gives us one of the most unforgettable high school year and prom night in cinema.

FUNNY GAMES (Michael Haneke, 2008)

The word unsettling doesn’t even cover how disturbing this film is. A shot-for-shot American remake of Haneke’s 1997 film of the same name, Funny Games retains much of its nastiness: a brutal portrait of a family terrorized by two psychotic kids (played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbett). For its entire 112 minutes, you will probably attempt to jump from your seat, yell at your TV and hurl something at it, berating the characters for their stupidity and lack of a sense of emergency.
But this is the kind of complacency that Haneke banks in this film. The idyll promises of a lake-side weekend in a bourgeois getaway leaves much room for deception. Set aside the questions for once, Funny Games does nothing to explain every motive (especially the two killers), which may just as well be the variation of Brian Bertino’s The Strangers ’ “You just happen to be home”.

Wrapped in such palpable tension, Funny Games never breaks its streak of mayhem and violence. You will feel sorry, you will feel like your heart is being ripped apart, you may even cry uncontrollably or will just simply be shocked by everything that unravels before you. Hide your wife, hide your kids. This kind of terror isn’t supernatural but it renders locks and bolts useless.

SCREAM (Wes Craven, 1996)

The plot of Scream is not exactly new for its time: some cloaked killer going on a bloodbath chasing this nubile girl. There are intentions, hidden in the folds of his cloak and underneath the mask. Everything plays out according to rules, both proclaimed and implied,  but there are still many times that the rug gets pulled under our feet. Coming from a long line of Z-list slasher films, gorefests and routine scares, Scream was a breath of fresh air or a shock right down the spine.

The script’s intelligence has always been something that has set itself apart from its predecessors: ball-dropping, film-checking smartassness as embodied by the film’s resident horror film geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy), stereotyped of course as a friend-zoned, scrawny dude working in a video store. The movie tests the audience: how much do we know about horror films? Are the numerous nights watching horror flicks enough to get us through this film?

In a way, Scream is actually a study of horror films. It maps out audience response; how we formulate theories as to who the killer is and who gets slashed next. The filmmakers want to play a whodunit and we’re part of the clever ruse to overturn our expectations of the genre’s tried and tested formula.

But that doesn’t make Scream a less enjoyable film. It’s one of the few remarkable films which mixes wit and fast-paced thrills and in the process, sets a higher bar for the succeeding films (both its sequels and the rest of the horror film industry). It’s relentless, pulling tricks one after another and as the body count goes up, we’re left wondering how quick the film’s quick wit will wear off until the last blood splatters on the wall (or someone’s face). But we have to wait for the sequels for that.

SESSION 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

A good horror movie always starts with an excellent location. Brad Anderson’s Session 9 is set in the sprawling Danvers State Mental Hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts, matching the terrifying eeriness of the Overlook Hotel and Rose Red. Tension rises as an asbestos removal crew unearth the past of the hospital, particularly about a patient suffering from a dissosciative identity disorder. With their personal issues in tow, each of them journey off into the darkest recesses of their minds where they discover deeply unsettling truths.

BOUNDARY (Benito Bautista, 2011)

It’s in Ronnie Lazaro’s face. His nerves bundle up like a frayed rope carrying a grand piano up to a 35-storey building. The pressure mounts, almost paralyzing viewers, daring them to squirm in their seats as they witness the slow unfurling of fates which, by the time Raymond Bagatsing sits in Ronnie Lazaro’s beerhouse bright taxi cab, can only end in an almost ritualistic bloodshed. Bautista plays with our fears, using the everyday dangers of riding a cab, and personal dynamics to wound us with his nihilistic worldview.

MISERY (Rob Reiner, 1990)

Misery has no room for sunshine. Throughout its 107-minute running time, Misery runs like a terrible train ride to the pits of hell. It’s not that the film has creatures from the underworld; it has the worst kind of villain: a deranged and frantically obsessed fan in the form of Kathy Bates’s Annie Wilkes.

The film tells the story of bestselling novelist, Sheldon, who almost dies in a blizzard. As luck would have it, he is rescued by his number one fan, Wilkes (who later reveals she ‘follows’ Sheldon every now and then). What commences is a riveting cat and mouse fight heavily imbued with madness and savagery. Propelled by Bates and Caan’s performances, Misery is a hardwired, blistering psychopath thriller. This is Stephen King (whose novel was the basis of the film) at his best: camp, gore and good old horror.

This article was published in the Halloween special section of The Phililppine STAR on 28 October 2011

The Element of Crime

Living in the Philippines has its usual terrors. While our culture is steeped in the fantastic and the mythic, our daily lives are plagued by elements that are all too real and threatening. The six o’ clock news is a repository of these evils: daily crimes of corruption, murders, robberies, rapes, and more killings. Ours is a country where a crime, as heinous as it is, goes unpunished and unsolved for decades. It’s a grim scenario, which is why crime goes hand in hand with horror in this country of ours. Crime stories may not be populated with ghouls and supernatural creatures but the feeling of dread and terror is more manifest than any great horror story of film.

In many ways, and as explained in guest editor F.H. Batacan’s welcoming letter, the stories in Philippine Genre Stories Crime deviate from the usual norm of crime fiction. The genre has been associated with CSI-style narrative, police procedural and the crime/gangster cult films which are all dipped with too much gore and gunpowder. Sounding an open call for a crime issue of a publication could possibly yield results, considering the fact that the Philippines is a country which has a crime rate that could possibly be on par with Mexico’s sleaziest towns or New York’s dank alleys.

Each of the stories in PGS: Crime issue (which unfortunately is the final PGS issue in print) mines a distinct aspect of crime: a missing relative, a family hiding a hard secret, a woman lost in the forest of her psyche, a kidnapping, and bureaucratic nightmares. Stories always have the capacity to reflect the characteristic of the country which the story is set. Fiction is something that is still rooted in something clear and real. Crime fiction presents a unique opportunity to reflect not only on the state of crime and police work in the Philippines but also on how the psychological capacity of each of the perpetrators in the story reveals an outlook that is never too far from some of the most evil criminal minds in the world.

In Alex Osias’s “Blogcaster”, set in a not so far-off future, bloggers who expose the negligence and crimes of the government gradually ‘disappear’. Told in a series of blog posts, comments and correspondence, ‘Blogcaster’ feels real and paralyzing, with the implications of internet journalism more relevant in these times of one-click publishing and high-speed trickery.

The crimes in Dominique Cimafranca’s ‘Grenadier’ and Maryanne Moll’s ‘God is the Space Between’ unfurl in different ends of the spectrum. The payoff in ‘Grenadier’ is as swift as its titular device, exploding in sharp fragments, making it a thrilling read. On the other hand, Moll’s ‘God is the Space Between’, although well written, slugs through its curlicues of words until it rips into bloodshed.

Remembrances flood Xin Mei’s ‘Less Talk, Less Mistake’ (which actually is one of the longest stories in the issue) and Crystal Koo’s ‘The Last Time I Saw Uncle Freddie’. Familial ties have always been the root of crime, with Cain and Abel being the primal examples. ‘Less Talk’ unravels a harrowing family secret hidden for generations while throwing in the relations and dynamics of a Filipino-Chinese family.

Of all the stories, it is Koo’s ‘Uncle Freddie’ that gives the meanest punch. Despite its pace, ‘Uncle Freddie’ is a haywire investigation of one man’s past, crisscrossing generations, immigrant issues and identities.  Koo uses a reverse narrative to thicken the intrigues which works in the story’s favor.

In this final print edition, Kenneth Yu’s PGS tidily summarizes its seven-issue run in his farewell letter. The stories published in the past issues have varied qualities and quirks but PGS has always been about Yu’s belief in good storytelling and giving writers a chance to tell their perspectives especially in genres overlooked by bigger publishing venues. Stories, after all, are but a small part of our cultural fabric, and with tales as harrowing as these, it’s undeniable that we face different forms of horror, no matter how disguised it is.

Visit http://www.philippinegenrestories.com

This article was published in the Halloween special section of The Philippine STAR on 28 October 2011

Cello’s Doughnuts and Dips

MANILA, Philippines – Everyone’s crazy about donuts. Some people list donuts as one of their all-time favorite foods. Husband and wife Cello and Jutes Templo are two of these people. Their love for donuts prompted them to open up a donut shop of their own, especially since Cello had always wanted to open her very own bakery. A donut-making seminar and a several experiments and taste tests later, Cello’s Doughnuts and Dips was born.

Unveiled in the midst of the “donut boom” in the country in 2004, Cello’s originally started in the aisles of grocery stores until Cello and Jutes opened their first branch on Katipunan. Their popularity not only hinged on the quality of their donuts but also their diverse range of flavors (they have over 20). When someone mentions Cello’s it’s easy to identify them with their Oreo, Choc-Nut and Cheese donuts — flavors that are distinctly theirs.

“We were thinking of the flavors for our donuts, so Cello and I just browsed the supermarket shelves and grabbed our favorites like Oreos, Choc-Nut and M&Ms. They became one of our original flavors, along with Candy and Choco Sprinkles and Cheesy. Oreo’s one of our best sellers because how can you go wrong with Oreo?” Jutes shares.

Another thing that sets Cello’s apart in the trade is that their donuts are kept warm. “Donuts taste best when they’re freshly made. People are used to non-hot donuts. So we made it a point to keep our donuts warm as opposed to the other store-bought donuts. People are used to the cold donuts that they buy as pasalubongs. So we thought we should make different donuts. Warmer, fresher donuts taste better and we wanted our donuts to be that way,” Jutes explains.

Read more 

Published on October 27, 2010 in the Food & Leisure section of The Philippine STAR

In Ghost Colours: Buenas Noches, Espana

Bathed in the most vivid colors and the bittersweet tears of discovery, Buenas Noches, Espana (Raya Martin, 2011) careens like a skyrocket towards the infinite promises of the cosmos. It is a playbook steeped in the filtering reins of history. It finds joy in the most random moments until it totters to the jarring realizations brought about by the paintings of Juan Luna in the Bilbao Museum. However aimless it may seem, Buenas Noches stands beside Martin’s explorations of Philippine history, creating a continuing arc that ties the fictional strands of an ever-shifting narrative.

Inspired by the first documented teleportation account, where a soldier stationed in Manila suddenly appears for palace duty in Mexico, Buenas Noches is an approximation of a colonial experience sifted through foreign eyes, much like the parcels of our country’s war-torn history in books. As the film’s couple teleport through time, bookmarking Mexico, Philippines, and Spain as destinations, they weave a trail of reminiscences that silently concludes on a scraggy science-fictional landscape where history, life, and death go hand in hand with our own notions of relationships and personal journeys.

Buenas Noches gives a new meaning to the ‘road trip’ sub-genre. Igniting from the faint static of a television, to the tree-lined roads of Bilbao (or is it the Philippines?), the film unravels like a delicious psychedelic that grafts a lingering mark in your mind. The heavily processed film flips colors every now and then as the images shift in and out of time. Adding to the jarring cinematic experience is the wailing guitar feedbacks and sound effects from Saturday morning cartoons. It can prove unsettling at times, with the audiences strapped in their seats wondering where the images will take them or if there is indeed a destination, but Buenas Noches is more than a simplified history lecture or a scenic picture of two lost lovers.

In the film, the images skitter, skip, go on loops and recall the tricks of remembrances as if fact-checking they’re real or made up to patch the gnawing pain of absence. These images swirl in the droning soundscape (conjured by Owel Alvero and Pat Sarabia) until they crash and burn to the misty seas of the moon.

Of course, a film like this poses inherent difficulties for the viewers. There is no clear cut narrative and if there is, it is heavily buried in the film’s images and sound.  There are guides but we’re pretty much on our own once the reel starts unspooling. As hard as it may seem, the experience of watching Buenas Noches on screen is akin to a scraggly trip down to the metal machine music rabbit hole. And we’ll all tumble along just fine.

Buenas Noches shows our playful approach of history, treating it sometimes as a game of hide and seek with overwrought names, dates, and instances. But when faced with the weight of it all, we carry our identities on our backs like sculptures of forgotten gods emerging from our collective memories. Buried in the sinewy lines of Luna’s paintings, where muscles are contracted and flexed as if to depict the struggles of his era, Buenas Noches forges images that are both painterly in effect and devastating at the same time.

Originally published on Pelikula Tumblr

Futures

Futures
by Don Jaucian

In Remton Siega Zuasola’s Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (The Dream of Eleuteria), a criminally underseen film and quite possibly the best Filipino film of 2010, the titular character is, in a sense, shooed of by her parents, particularly her mother, to Germany to marry one an aging, rich German and eventually rescue her family from the mounds of debts that they have incurred. It’s not exactly a circa-2000s scenario where Filipinas are still traded as mail-order brides (in the film, a woman actually arranges the marriages) as a possible gateway to a better life but in a sense, it embodies the ills and the heartaches that form the core of the Filipino Diaspora.

Teria’s cousin, who has been to Germany and has married a rich German, willingly flaunts the comforts of her new found life, even sporting a ridiculously accented English. The promises of a better life abroad can be gleamed through her brightly colored clothes, her seemingly endless romance with Germany and her expensive shoes, one of which she lends to Teria.

It’s as simple as shedding off the worn, discarded clothes that reek of poverty and donning shinier, new ones that bear the stamp of a progressive and forward-looking fortune. Amidst the backdrop of an unmistakably third-world coastal town, we witness the signals of Teria’s journey from her hometown to making her first steps out into the wild blue yonder.

The Great Filipino Dream 

Teria isn’t exactly going to be working as a domestic helper in Germany, although the woman who arranges these marriages give the, for the lack of a better word, unfortunate looking ladies a chance to catch a droplet of The Great Filipino Dream by working as helpers in the aforementioned country. It’s an opportunity laid out before their very eyes and it’s up to them whether to seize it or turn it down.

In many ways, Teria’s plight mirrors the hopes and dreams of every Filipino who has sought out a better life by working overseas. Seeing the opportunities brought about by the economic boom in the Middle East during the 70s, the Philippine government has since sent millions of Filipinos to work in oil companies, construction sites, hotels and hospitals and tend to the needs of the ruling class and rake in dollar remittances in return.

In their February 2011 issue, global affairs magazine Monocle has looked into the story of our Overseas Filipino Workers as one of the pumps that keep the heart of the Philippine economy going. Writer Liv Lewitschnik observes the astounding feats of our OFWs and the lengths that the government goes through to ensure their welfare and protection.

“Today, one in nine Filipinos works abroad, where they can earn salaries five or six times higher than they can at home. During 2010 alone, 53, 532 people left the Philippines while those nine milion already settled across 180 countries sent 17bn euros home to their relatives. Only India, China and Mexico receive more remittances than the Philippines. At 12 per cent of the GDP, it is a source of income the government is more than happy to see coming in,” wrote Lewitschnik.

OFW remittances has long been a core element of the Philippine economy. Just February this year, a healthy surge of 6.2% growth in overseas remittances has posited a positive gain for the economy, bolstering the confidence of local and foreign investors.

A long running plight

It’s a story that has been written so many times in national publications yet it perfectly reflects the attention that the OFWs warrant; an alarm call for the government to actually do something to preserve the brilliance of Filipino minds that has been slowly trickling away since the brain drain. Although the government has taken measures to pamper OFWs by giving them privileges, the increase in the number of people going abroad still reflects the tired attitude of the rest of the nation.

Like Eleuteria’s long and obstacle-ridden walk to the port, where her journey is yet to begin, Filipino overseas workers ultimately leave a lasting proof of our kind of bravery, withstanding challenges to give their families, and eventually themselves, a better future to look at.  

This article was originally published in the OFW Special Section of The Philippine STAR.