Director Dan Villegas has been successful at carving out his legacy as a rom-com master, churning out critical and commercial hits like English Only, Please, Always Be My Maybe, and How To Be Yours. The great thing about his movies is that, despite being part of a genre that’s notorious for fluff, copouts, and studio-pleasing fare, he’s managed to create plausible, poignant stories that tug at the heartstrings. But when you’re known for breaking hearts or making them flutter, could it be just as easy to strike fear into them?
Ilawod, Villegas’ first foray into horror, is unlike any of his signature popcorn flicks. Here, he’s traded in the candlelit dinner dates and witty banter for looming dread and impending tragedy. It’s not the most perfect harbinger of terror, the story unfolding in a quick pace that easily leaves its central characters behind. But it’s creepy where it counts, and sometimes when it comes to horror, that could be enough.
It tells the story of reporter Dennis (Ian Veneracion), whose work allows him to cover the supernatural, a beat he pioneered in his publication but is quickly getting sick of. He’d rather leverage his career to cover the events in Malacañang, which everyone knows has unexplainable demons and monsters and beasts of its own. While covering a possible possession in the province, he attracts the attention of the titular Ilawod, a river spirit that feeds on the soul of its hosts, provoking malevolent thoughts and actions with its unsuspecting victims. The Ilawod becomes interested in Dennis’ young son (Harvey Bautista), preying on his growing pains to elicit disturbing behavior. His wife and daughter (Iza Calzado and Xyriel Manabat) aren’t spared as well, each having their own horrific encounters with the restless entity.
The film works more as a somber family drama than it does an all-out scare-fest. Seeing this seemingly average Filipino family unravel as a supernatural intruder tears them apart is painful, but in a good way. The real horror lies in the unsaid, of the familial issues brewing beneath their everyday façade. Dennis has a case of career insecurity against his wife, while Iza Calzado’s character seems to feel some longing for her husband, who never appears content with what he has right in front of him. The kids, well, they’ve got their own coming of age issues to deal with, and the Ilawod, played to perfection by the young Therese Malvar (with on-point eyebrows, mind you) is only happy to expose these weaknesses.
The scare tactics used aren't very traditional, Villegas opting for mood over spectacle. The script, penned by award winning speculative fiction writer Yvette Tan, is sensitive, much like the rest of her published literature. She uses our country’s rich folklore to imbue the mundane with the macabre. The high-rise condominium where Dennis lives with his family becomes a cage from which they can’t escape—the Ilawod taking permanent residence in the blue waters of its swimming pool. There are themes here, however, that are interesting to say the least, yet weren’t fully explored. The Ilawod’s unsettling sexuality was touched on, but it was never quite pushed far enough for it to leave a mark. There was also an unnecessary lack of retribution that felt unjust and uncalled for. Or maybe that was the point. Horror movies, fans would attest, don’t always deserve happy endings anyway. If that’s what you go into the theater expecting, you should’ve just gone out and seen one of Dan’s rom-coms instead.