Monday, June 11, 2012

THE ROAD (2011)

Filipino director, Yam Laranas, is not someone I am overly familiar with.  In fact before “The Road” I had only seen one of his previous films, the horror film “Sigaw” (which he remade himself in English under the title “The Echo”).  Although I enjoyed the film, it wasn’t special enough for me to anticipate further releases from its director.  My anticipation for Laranas’s latest came about after it played at a recent horror film festival to stellar reviews.  All of the horror websites I regularly frequent raved about the film and about how scary and intense it was, which made it instantly added to my “must see” list.

“The Road” is actually a clever little horror film.  The narrative is told in a non-linear fashion and is split into three distinct parts.  Each part is separated by a decade in time (going backwards) as we are witness to the odd happenings and going-on’s of a dilapidated house that exists on a mysterious road somewhere in the Philippines.  What makes “The Road” so clever is that each different segment represents different sub-genres of the horror genre, while at the same time fleshing out a much bigger story that encompasses all of the parts.

The first part, set in 2008, is a supernatural / ghost story where three teenagers, who are out for a late-night joyride in one of their parent’s cars, stumble upon the hidden titular road where they appear to get stuck in some sort of supernatural phenomenon.  The teenagers realize that no matter how hard they try, they are not able to leave the road and the group starts to panic when they notice that they are continually driving past the exact same landmarks.  Things go from bad to worse when they are menaced by a car that appears to have no driver.  Once they stop the car and try to go it on foot, matters continue to worsen as the group is then haunted by two deformed-looking ghosts intent on causing harm to all three.

The second part, set in 1998, is more in the vein of recent “torture porn” (for want of a better term) films.  In this segment, two sisters, who are driving along the same stretch of road, are victims to their car breaking down.  Upon investigation they realize that the radiator is in need of water and the girls begin searching for some.  Early in their search, a friendly and shy stranger happens by and invites them to his nearby place to get the water they require.  During the entire journey, the stranger does not utter a single word, but upon reaching his house it is soon revealed that he is not the nice guy he appears to be.

The final and arguably best part of the film, which is set in 1988, is a psychological horror story as it looks at the life of a young boy (who lives at the house on the road) and the violent incidents he regularly witnesses between his mother and father.  The boy lives a very sad life as not only is he an unwilling witness to the horrors of his parent’s marriage, but he is regularly abused by his mother and is never allowed to go outside.  This section of the film looks at just how much isolation and abuse somebody can take before their mind ultimately snaps.  To go into any more detail about this section of the film would be a crime in itself.

As well as these three parts, there is also a wraparound storyline which is about a highly decorated cop who is investigating the disappearance of two young girls who went missing twelve years ago on that same stretch of road.

Why I continue to review films that work better the less you know about them going in, I’ll never understand, but it is hard to go into too much detail with “The Road” without ruining what makes it special.  It is interesting to note that the majority of the marketing for “The Road” (ie. the poster and the trailer) revolves around the first part of the film, which is the part I found the least successful of the three.  Do not get me wrong, it is certainly creepy, but I felt that this segment suffered from pacing issues causing it to feel longer than it actually was.  I must also question some of the editing here which made Laramas’s storytelling ability to appear at times a little deficient, as it became hard to distinguish exactly what was going on during certain moments.  Aside from all of this, this segment has the creepiest image of the entire film which is a shot of one of the ghosts running behind two of the teenagers.  The shot is done in slow motion which just adds to its creep factor, with the majority of the shot the ghost being slightly out of focus.  Instead of attacking the youths in this moment, the ghost actually runs past them screaming (as if it is being chased by someone itself) which just sent chills down my spine.

The second segment doesn’t have any of the problems its predecessor had however the level of visceral horror is toned down as an emotional depth is added to the film.  While I described this section of the film earlier as “torture porn” this isn’t really the case because while there is torture, Laramas is smart enough to know that he doesn’t have to dwell on the violence to make it impactful, and as a result the majority of the physical abuse is performed off-screen.  The drama of this section comes from the two sisters as they feel the pain the other one is going through even though they cannot see it.  The two girls are separated by a wall, but they are able to hear each other’s screams, and when the stranger leaves them alone for a bit, the two share a painful but beautiful conversation, where we can feel just how much love they have for one another.  The level of acting in this segment is also an improvement on the first (not that it was bad), with the two actresses playing the sisters being particularly impressive.  Very early on they grab you with the reality of their performance, and you have no doubt that these two are actually family.  It starts with a normal everyday conversation they are having in the car about school and the like, and when their day takes a turn for the worse, that love is never lost.  There is a real sadness and feeling of melancholy that permeates this entire segment of the film.

For me though, the standout sequence was the final one where the film almost becomes a drama with very dark and murderous overtones as it looks at the effects on a child that a loveless and abusive marriage can have.  The abuse of the child himself and his forced isolation from the world also play a huge part of this section, as it suddenly becomes all about the mind of the boy and how much he can witness and be put through before he snaps and his view of the world is forever distorted.  Yam Laranas does not put a foot wrong in this section, all of the performers are stellar (especially from the young boy), but it is the amazing visual style that stands out here.  Laranas actually comes from a cinematography background (and performs the duties himself on “The Road”) so it should come as no surprise that the film looks great throughout but in this segment coupled with the amazing production design of the now alive and flourishing house, it goes to a whole other level.  His shot choices and compositions are expert and I was constantly reminded of the work from South Korean director Kim Ji-Woon (especially his “A Tale Of Two Sisters”).  I mentioned earlier that the content of this part is best unspoken about, but know that it is absolutely stellar and that the heart and emotional crux of the film comes from here.  The depth of emotion on display here is outstanding and the level of sadness portrayed is heartbreaking but everything that happens here effects the rest of the film (and actually improves the quality of the previous segments).

The only other problem I had with “The Road” is an eleventh hour “twist” that I felt was too rushed and muddled certain previous scenes.  Perhaps “twist” is the wrong word because it does make sense, but the reveal of it doesn’t seem to have been worked out as well as the rest of the film.

Overall, while it didn’t quite live up to the huge expectations I had going in, I did really enjoy Yam Laranas’s latest foray into horror with “The Road”, and I am also happy to say that it left enough of an impression that I will indeed now be looking forward to future films from this visually gifted director.

3.5 Stars.

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