When I first heard of the title, it called to my mind a classic 1949 American drama film which won for Olivia de Havilland a best actress award. Its story about a rich but homely heiress and her handsome but poor suitor was remade in Filipino as "Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal" starring Maricel Soriano as the heiress Adela. However, the trailers soon made it clear that this new film was of the horror genre and had nothing to do with the first, but it was interesting that Maricel Soriano was also starring in it.
Guia (Janella Salvador) was a young woman who grew up under the care of her strict, old-fashioned aunt Luna (Maricel Soriano). As Guia's 18th birthday approached on the coming Good Friday, a malevolent ghost, appearing as an elderly woman dressed in black,made herself felt in their old house, wreaking terror to ensure the delivery of a promised offering. Meanwhile, Guia's limited world view was being changed by her friend in school Renz (McCoy de Leon) and the surprise homecoming of her mother (Sunshine Cruz).
It was not really a surprise that Luna, with her dark dowdy long dresses, severe braided hairstyle and shelves full of herbal medicine, was a sort of local folk sorcerer called "mambabarang" (a Filipino brand of voodoo), and a powerful one at that. In an early scene, after their landlady Yolly (Lotlot Bustamante) threatened eviction for delayed rent payment, Luna whispered incantations while manipulating a doll to cause the poor woman's death.
Maricel Soriano's last dramatic role in a feature film was at least eight years ago in the Jun Lana film "Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow" (2011) which won her the Best Actress award in the Metro Manila Filmfest that year. Since then, she only had occasional film projects in the past few years, all in silly comedies like "Momzillas" (2013), "Girl, Boy, Bakla, Tomboy" (2013) and "My 2 Mommies" (2018).
This new film brings her back to a serious lead role, but this one is rather heavily stylized in over-the-top horror mannerisms in terms of acting style and line delivery. Every time Luna appeared on screen, her presence always had to be accompanied by eerie music to emphasize her evil. I felt Soriano did not really need all these in-your-face embellishments to establish her intimidating presence.
Janella Salvador played the title character Guia, who was indeed an heiress, but her inheritance was not exactly monetary in nature. Her fresh beauty still shone through even in those scenes where she was supposed to be a plain mousy girl with an old maid's wardrobe. It was odd that only McCoy de Leon's character Renz who noticed her at all. Story-wise, if the evil spirit Mamalarang wanted Guia to join her coven, it was not clear why the girl was being scared off, instead of being enticed in.
After a long absence from the silver screen, Sunshine Cruz is back in a second film this year after "Malamaya." Here she played Guia's absentee mother Carmen who suddenly came home to claim her daughter, running counter to Luna's plans. Unfortunately for Cruz, it was her character who had the most questionable, and even downright wrong, decisions. Also, despite the fact that she was away from the country for all those years, yet it seemed so easy for her to locate old Apo Digos (Dido dela Paz) for help.
The best scenes for me were those showing Luna's ability to bilocate, which were well-executed to create viewer confusion. The production design of Luna's secret room was also commendable, meticulously filled with all sorts of creepy sorcery paraphernalia from wall to wall. It was good to see the future Darna Jane de Leon as the young Luna, depicting why and how she embraced the powers of sorcery.
Director Frasco Mortiz's major highlights were those grisly scenes of remote-control sorcery showing the victims' excruciating ordeal of being ripped limb from limb which left their bodies in a distorted mess. The editing, visual effects, sound effects and musical score all came together well in these scenes, but for me, watching them evoked pain more than fear. Also, the face of the evil Mamalarang (Naya Amores) was shown close-up too early in the film, right in the opening sequence. Her scare factor diminished with her multiple subsequent appearances.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."