Eerie (Philippines, 2019)

Star Cinema’s Eerie, directed by Mikhail Red, is, no doubt, quite an addition to Filipino horror. It delivers what one expects from the genre reasonably well – scares, darkness, ghosts. But it suffers a little too much from its emphasis on scare tactics. These excesses mean that its addition to the genre constitutes nothing more than just another addition.

The film, however, has a very interesting premise. Its protagonist, Pat (Bea Alonso), is a Guidance Counselor for an all-girls’ Catholic school who spends her nights talking with Eri (Gillian Vicencio), the ghost of someone who took her life in the school’s restroom years ago. Pat’s days are divided between these nightly sessions with Eri, and her daily interactions as a counselor during the day. These encounters involve not just her sessions with the students, but also intersect with other people in the school, including with the nun-teachers. This brings her chosen method of dealing with juvenile problem into conflict with the catholic schools’ traditionalist discipline.

This conflict is established in the opening scene. On a night of the school retreat, a student dies in the restroom where Eri died years ago. A day after the incident, a contrast is presented between how the school nun-teachers handle the situation by imposing regulations and how Pat tries to emphatically understand the root cause.

On the night that same day, is when we first see the seemingly regular session between Pat and Eri. In this sequence, Pat mildly confronts Eri about the incident. Eri quickly admits her involvement and tells Pat that she did not mean to kill. This very sequence seems to provide a fresh approach to ghost stories in horror cinema in that we are uncharacteristically introduced to the ghost early on and establish empathy with it.

Unfortunately, this is where the freshness stops. The premise mentioned earlier – the counselor-counselee relationship between Pat and Eri – suggests the amateur-detective trope of Ring (1997). But the film is too busy filling in mandatory scares. What gets in the way of the film unfolding in a more interesting direction is this rigidness of style. It subscribes to a brand of horror that employs cheap tricks for jump scares rather than building up unrest and actualizing eeriness.

For a horror film, Eerie is quite a comfortable thing to watch. We’ve already been given notice that Eri haunts at the furthermost cubicle in the restroom where she took her life. We know that our hands are being held as we watch. I even heard giggles in the screening that I attended – evidence to the level of comfort that the film was able to deliver. This comfort is most disappointing as Eerie fails to deliver what its title promises.

There’s also a bit of confusion on where the film stands in regards with its own debate: between the orthodox disciplinary approach and Pat’s counseling approach. This debate is underscored in the confrontation between Pat and Sor Alice (Charo Santos) after Pat stops one nun from striking a student with a paddle in the middle of a class. This debate develops in the exploratory scenes that consider the connection between the disciplinary methods of the catholic school and the troubles Pat hears from her counseling clients, whether dead or alive.

The result is quite unsurprising with the limit to Pat’s micromanagement of students exposed by Eri in the denouement. This is where the film forgets its own debate to arrive at a conservative Manichean turn. Efforts to break established notions through Pat crumble as Pat is forced to face “evil.” Instead, the final confrontation becomes an excuse for more jump scares and screams.

Eerie confirms my suspicion that contemporary horror films bear conservative ideas despite doing something which seems new. But the conservativism here is not reflected in the “message.” Eerie tries to deliver a certain message about non-conservative affection and sexuality through its conscious depiction of the struggles of its characters. But this effort plays so subtly, perhaps too subtly, within the film that it is easily exacerbated by its cynicism, as demonstrated in its conclusion.

I want to go back to the scene where Eerie shows a lot of promise – Pat sitting across from, and naively trying to empathize with, a ghost. It is in this scene where every sort of possibilities lie, either a breakthrough in the genre or in storytelling, making the scene the film’s sole strength. But like its conclusion, this strength was left floating in the air, as a spectre exorcised even with its own capacity to haunt. If there’s anything remotely eerie about Eerie, it is its very incapacity to be eerie.

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