‘Dementia’ Review: Phantoms in paradise
Perci Intalan opens Dementia with majestic shots of what seems to be a perfectly picturesque island. Slowly, he reveals the subtle wickedness of his pristine setting. Jagged rocks line the isle’s white-sand beaches. Tumultuous waves batter its treacherous coasts. Trees, with branches that have been rendered twisted by cruel winds, dot its rolling fields.
Things are not always what they seem. More often than not, there are shadows behind every pretty picture. This is the horror of Intalan’s debut feature.
Dementia is obsessed with contrasts. The film consistently contorts expectations, delivering an experience that is clearly beyond the cheap shocks and thrills that are traditionally dealt by its more plebeian counterparts.
Intalan is deliberate and precise in his presentation. There are no attempts to rush as he relishes revealing the many monsters that linger in paradise.
As a result, Dementia has a lot of breathing space, a lot of protracted moments for thought and pondering. This is clearly a thinking man’s horror film.
Phantoms and damsels in distress
The story, whose concept also involved Jun Lana, is a mix of genre tropes and novel ideas. Dementia-afflicted Mara (Nora Aunor) is brought back to Batanes by her closest kin Eleina (Bing Loyzaga) in an effort to cure her of her debilitating disease.
Included in Mara’s homebound entourage is Eleina’s husband, Rommel (Yul Servo), and daughter, Rachel (Jasmine Curtis-Smith). Eleina’s plan seems to have worked as Mara’s memories slowly return, however, with horrific repercussions.
The plot does not stray far from the beaten path most horror films take. Its characters are molded from stereotypes. Eleina is the patient and doting parent. Rommel is her counterpart, impatient and annoying. Rachel, a city slicker whose utmost desire is to be spirited away from the boring island she was dragged onto against her will, is the film’s predictable damsel in distress.
The film’s primary phantom, a ghost (Chynna Ortaleza) garbed in a white wedding gown, haunts in the dark, with her alabaster frame eerily contrasting the film’s many greys and blacks.
Intalan intelligently embraces the plot’s conventions, acknowledging that the key to contemporary horror is not reinvention but refinery. Thus, he innovates elsewhere. Sure, there are narrative surprises here and there, but the film’s heart does not lie in its plot per se but in its telling.
Dementia is a deftly designed and produced picture. The images cinematographer Mackie Galvez creates complement the film’s exploration of the fearsome unknown. The music that scorer Von de Guzman concocts adds both cacophony and order to the already imposing feast.
Nora Aunor, From prop to asset
Intalan ingeniously uses Aunor here. For most of the film, Aunor does nothing, mostly mumbling gibberish and staring blankly into space, true to her character’s famous affliction. Intalan manages her presence throughout the entire film, reserving her gifts until they are truly needed. She is mostly seen in the shadows, silhouetted by her house’s forgotten furnishings.
Near the end of the film, Intalan unleashes Aunor’s powers. In its climactic scene, Intalan suddenly makes use of a rare extreme close-up, on Aunor’s evocative eyes, trembling and pregnant with decades’ worth of memories breaking free from their cages.
The film’s prolonged subtlety, even in its utility of Aunor, pays off.
A certain lack of evil
For all its technical mastery, Dementia seems to lack one ingredient that could make it truly scary. Its explorations are grounded not by humanity’s capacity to abandon morality, but by disease. Mara’s condition is clearly medical. From the film’s lengthy revelatory flashbacks, it seems that her phantom’s motivations for murder are medical too.
It lacks evil. Its characters lack moral discord, since they are pushed to actions, no matter how horrific, by physical deficiencies, not by an inherent capacity to commit atrocities. Simply put, Dementia does not seem to want to dig deeper. It seems to forgo exploring humanity’s frailty, how far we all are from being created in the image of a good and perfect god.
Thankfully, Dementia does not stop with the conclusion of Mara’s reunion with her island. In a swift act of genius, Lana and Intalan reveal something about Mara’s personality, in another flashback that is set in a hospital just a few months before their arrival in the island. The scene seems harmless and unneeded, but its effects are actually foreshadowed, by Rommel’s disdain with Mara.
By gifting Mara with this twist, Lana and Intalan have laced Aunor’s character with a clear sliver of mischief, an inherent capacity for malice. There are in fact two phantoms in paradise. – Rappler.com
Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas’ 'Tirad Pass.' Since then, he’s been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.