Mystery of the Night
It’s difficult, and possibly unfair, to separate Filipino director Adolfo Boringa Alix, Jr.’s Mystery of the Night from the ideas it’s representing. The film uses folkloric techniques to tell a story about love, betrayal, and the insidious nature of colonization by undercutting expectations and shifting away from the Western idiom toward something indigenous.
As such, complaints about broad performances, repetitive segments, and a bleak, stilted tone seem to miss the point of the devices that the film is deliberately employing. Nevertheless, by using the tropes of horror and invasion films, combined with a kind of spooky-creatures-in-woods theme common to just about every culture, the movie comes across as flawed and frustrating rather than impactful.
Based on a play by Rody Vera, Mystery of the Night maintains many of its stage trappings. Despite its wilderness and urban locations, the film still feels very constrained. Its lack of scope, both narratively and geographically, makes the movie feel like it overstays its welcome, and works against the strange and compelling elements that ideally would have elevated it into something quite fantastic.
The story follows two generations of a ruling family who must enter the woods and bring back a trophy from the hunt. During the father’s time period, a pregnant woman is banished because her child is the result of an assault tied to members of the church. Her daughter is raised by inhabitants of the forest, shapeshifting demons who transform between animal and old crone.
When the son, now grown, enters the forest, he succumbs to the charms of this wild woman, only to find tragedy befall as his own hypocrisy is exposed. Things turn very strange as the human form is unmasked into a demonic spirit out for vengeance.
Reminiscent of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s dreamlike (or, uncharitably, sleepy) exercises such as Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Alix’s take feels even more clumsily paced, jerking between horror and romance in a way that lacks anything approaching subtlety. The film has a sense of unnecessary lingering, with shots that go on and on and awkward (presumably amateur) performances that are allowed to play out monotonously.
Under stronger guidance using the tools and techniques of genre cinema, this story might have better captured the evil hypocrisy of colonization. Instead, we get a creepy yet unconvincing creature feature that works best in clips rather than the whole.
The flaws of Mystery of the Night are so frustrating that the film feels unenjoyable despite providing hints of a decent work that could be made from its story.