‘Banal’ review: New wave of Philippine horror genre

Inspired by true events, APT Entertainment’s Banal brings a new take on Philippine horror genre.

In Banal (english title: Holy), a group of teenagers out for a summer vacation, finds themselves lost in the dense forest of Mt. Awanggan, a mystical mountain that is said to grant wishes to anyone who reaches its peak. Burdened and driven by conflicting motivations, the poor crew draws several complications along their journey. The film deals about issues that most young people have such as ‘adulting’ struggles, existential crisis, family baggage, and various millennial dilemmas that life has to offer. Given the weight of these emotional overtures mixed with a myriad of supernatural experiences happening around them, Banal takes a different stance from run-of-the-mill horror flicks.

Despite being warned not to pursue their foolish adventure, these stubborn teenagers manage to pull some strings to get past obstacles, only to uncover all the horrors that they were warned about. As a cautionary tale of reckless curiosity, this film shows that karma is a powerful thing that the younger audiences must keep into mind.

(L-R): Taki Saito, Bianca Umali, Miguel Tanfelix, Andrea Brillantes and Kim Last in ‘Banal.’

Banal benefits from a cast of budding young actors that represent Gen-Z, with each actor perfectly matching their archetypes – there’s the good girl, the posh one, the “conyo” rich friend, the leading lady, and the boy pining over the leading lady. Bianca Umali competently plays the religious daughter who would risk everything for the promised miracle while Miguel Tanfelix renders an effective portrayal of the quiet hero. It’s nice to see a film deviating from the obligatory love angle, the script allowing its actors to excel without the need of a cheesy showmance.

Kim Micheal Last does his best in a thankless role of being an eye candy. Andrea Brillantes shows improvement in her performances, making the average viewer admire her efforts. While Taki adds the much needed personality and color to the story.

Despite lacking a directorial credit, Banal is actually quite a pleasant surprise. There’s more to it than your standard jump scares. Ripe with coming-of-age sensibilities, the film serves insights on effectively dealing with stress and pressure, and hashing out differences among friends and religious beliefs.

The cinematography is also shot beautifully, with each frame replete with details. The camera movement functions well as if it’s weary for something frightful to happen. The use of CGI is passable notwithstanding the potential for improvement.

The choice of shooting location is indeed perfect. It’s almost believable that they manage to shoot everything in a real haunted forest. One of the most terrifying scenes is the part where the characters enter a dark cave. It is scary enough to give an unusual experience in a local horror film. It doesn’t go for cheap scares and shock but it goes for lasting shivers – the ones that the viewers would remember if ever they get lost in the woods or the next time they set foot on a mountain.

Suffice to say, Banal proves to be an effective Filipino horror film. Despite some of its narrative lapses, it achieves its goal to terrify and unsettle audiences. This is a worthy addition to the twisted new era of the local horror genre.

4 out of 5 stars
Produced by APT Entertainment, ‘Banal’ stars Bianca Umali, Miguel Tanfelix, Andrea Brillantes, Taki, and Kim Last.  It is produced by APT Entertainment. 100 minutes. R-13.

‘Brightburn: Son of Evil’ review: Intriguing concept, missed opportunity

Brightburn’s apparent lack of empathy for its lead character turns its intriguing concept into a gimmick.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s an overpowered, bloodthirsty alien kid!

Do note that Brightburn does not belong in the DCEU universe nor is this about the alternate evil version of Superman in the comics. The character names are different but I wouldn’t be surprised if Warner Bros. claims to have a cut in the profits due to the glaring plot similarities. In Brightburn, a childless couple, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman), finds a baby inside a space capsule that crashed outside their farm. They raise the child as their own and calls him Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) who develops a familiar array of superpowers. But instead of sharing mankind’s positive values, he displays an alarming lack of morality. This inversion of the beloved Superman tale is a killer premise to begin with, it’s a subversive take on the superhero horror genre. Only if the film sustained its imagination throughout.

The thing is, Brightburn lacks empathy for its main character to fully work. The film sets up with a montage of home videos of Brandon growing up in a loving home, and on the eve of his twelfth birthday, he begins hearing sinister voices urging him to “take the world.” With the film not fleshing out his actual growth as a child, we have to assume that Brandon is a perfectly normal kid who turns into a burgeoning psychopath overnight. Subtly reinforced by her mom who keeps saying that he’s “special,” he uses this as a defense mechanism for his superiority complex and penchant for violence. There’s a hint of internal turmoil in his behavior but it’s not enough to sympathize with his drastic descent to wickedness.

Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) uses his powers to terrorize the folks of Brightburn, Kansas.

Brightburn wastes no time in taking a full turn to horror territory as Brandon tries out his powers against anyone who rubs him the wrong way. Horror fans who enjoy diabolical stuff should be delighted to witness a kid delivering audaciously grisly kills, including one memorable car crash scene. While gore can be a vital instrument for terror, the film uses it to pad a thin narrative, eventually bypassing significant themes that could have been conveyed along the way. As a result, the story becomes predictable while here I am wondering why Banks’ character is stuck on the denial stage for the most part. She’s supposed to have motherly instinct yet she’s too oblivious to see that the thing she loves becomes a thing to fear.

Tori (Elizabeth Banks) believes in the inner goodness of her son in ‘Brightburn.’

There isn’t much hope to be mined here. Brightburn is a movie that shows no signs of redemption in the same way that Brandon shows no signs of remorse. Don’t get me wrong, the recent Pet Sematary likewise commits to its nihilistic themes yet that one properly fleshes out its characters’ motivations so the sympathy element is never lost. Another movie that features a disturbed kid is Carrie which understands its character’s madness as a byproduct of domestic violence and bullying. In Brightburn, however, everything happens in a flick of a switch. It’s too preoccupied to scare the heck out of you by playing worst case scenarios and running wild with it. Actually, if we’re talking about evil superhero origins, 2012’s Chronicle did it better.

What lifts Brightburn above the ground is its strong and committed performances from the three principal cast plus David Yarovesky’s compelling direction as he deftly mixes horror tropes with superhero iconography. In one scene shown in the trailer, a driver turns his malfunctioning headlights on and off only to reveal something scary – the sight of a sinister Brandon levitating above ground in his DIY superhero attire. There are several unsettling imagery like this that will make you feel glad that superheroes don’t exist.

Kyle (David Denman) calls out his son for absentmindedly chewing a fork in ‘Brightburn.’

The resulting tension and terror however is not enough to overshadow the story’s apparent lack of character development. As an genre mashup, Brightburn is a bold and fascinating experiment that barely rises above the gimmick. The lead quickly turns into an adolescent version of Michael Myers (with superpowers) who’s out for a killing spree.

There’s a depressing conclusion here on the two opposing forces of nature vs. nurture: Parental bond stands weak against inherent monstrosity and despite the best efforts of decent parents, psychopathic children are simply incurable. It’s not exactly the type of insight that you would like to take home with you, especially if its a byproduct of a weak script.

2.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by David Yarovesky, written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, ‘Brightburn’ stars Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Matt Jones and Meredith Hagner. 90 minutes. R-13.