If you’re a fan of director Erik Matti’s bold filmography, you might leave the theater after watching Seklusyon a tad bit disappointed. All the stylistic elements for successful genre cinema are in place: the promise of unapologetic violence, the beautiful production design, and the in-your-face attitude that only a handful are still capable of conveying on the silver screen.
Matti can be considered one of the vanguards of local cinema. He has successfully garnered commercial and critical success on more than one occasion, proving that he has got a lot of ammo left in that smoking gun of his. Evil, in Matti’s discerning eyes, takes on both the human and supernatural form. And although there is much to celebrate in his latest, the religious psychological horror flick commits the deadliest of sins—the storytelling isn’t sound.
Set in 1947, it tells the story of four deacons (Ronnie Alonte, Dominic Roque, John Vic De Guzman, and JR Versales) compelled to perform the titular ritual. The church requires them to be inside a confined space for seven days, where they must steel their faith against the temptations of the devil. Meanwhile, Anghela (Rhed Bustamante), a young girl believed to be a prophet of God is being investigated by Padre Ricardo (Neil Ryan Sese) for falsities in her practice of healing the wounded and weary. Anghela has a guardian, the mysterious Madre Cecilia (Phoebe Walker), an attractive nun with vague intentions. Things take a turn for the hellish when both Anghela and Cecilia take refuge in the very place where the fledgling priests reside, stirring the already-tense pot by amplifying the personal demons of these priests-to-be.
The clear star here is Rhed Bustamante. The nuances in her acting as her seemingly harmless saintliness exposes the fears of the men that surround her are impressive to say the least. She aptly represents the dichotomy that often mires religion itself. Good and evil. Innocent and malevolent. Light and dark. One simply can’t exist without the other.
Seklusyon’s setup is ripe for horror in the form of existential dread. Fasting, solitude, and a creepy little girl are the perfect ingredients to rattle any mouse trapped inside a claustrophobic cage. Imagine your most shameful secrets being unearthed, taking shape, then being force-fed down your throat. This metaphysical conflict is one of the most interesting aspects of the film, yet it isn’t fully-fleshed out or exploited in order to add to the narrative. By the time the eventual climax hits its crescendo and moviegoers find out who (or what) Anghela really is, the movies’s fulcrum loses its steam.
Audiences are never really allowed to sympathize with the protagonists, save for Ronnie Alonte’s Miguel, whose backstory is the only one allowed to shine in the course of the film’s running time. Alonte has a magnetic onscreen presence, but the shortage of dialogue doesn’t give him any chance to captivate even more, the character’s motivations left to be guessed through simple gestures and facial reactions. The film relies heavily on atmosphere to draw out terror, there are no jump-scares or cheap thrills here. What the movie wants you to feel is unease. To recognize the cyclical nature of evil and how it is perpetuated both in culture and society. Real horror. The only problem is, the parallel storylines and unexplainable plot holes can get so muddled that viewers might be too confused to actually be scared. That in itself is pretty disturbing.