Carmina Villaroel returns to horror with “Sunod”—her first in the genre since Yam Laranas’ “The Road” eight years ago. This time, with director Carlo Ledesma and writer Anton Santamaria, she is able to plumb the depths of a mother desperate to save her daughter from spiritual (and bodily) harm.
Villaroel plays Olivia, a loving mother whose daughter Anelle (Krystal Brimner) has a heart defect that has resulted in long stays at the hospital. Her savings dwindling, she practically strong-arms her way into a call-center job aimed at young graduates in a spooky old building with a history. The oldest person in her batch of new hires, she makes friends with Mimi (Kate Alejandrino), and impresses her team leader (JC Santos). There’s a stern executive (Mylene Dizon) also hovering about, literally looking down at them from an upper level. With the odd hours of her job and caring for her daughter at the hospital, an exhausted Olivia one night encounters a young girl in one of the unoccupied floors of her office building, and after being nice to her, unintentionally sets into motion a series of events that set off the main engine of our plot. In other words, instead of hijinks, horrors ensue.
Ledesma’s first feature-length film since “The Tunnel,” a found-footage horror he shot in Australia in 2011, “Sunod” kicks off with a table-setting dream sequence, an eerie vision that encapsulates Olivia’s fears when the story begins. That stylish tension is maintained through the rest of the film, an achievement thanks to Ledesma’s direction, some clever sound design and Mycko David’s cinematography. There’s room to breathe, certainly, especially in scenes between Olivia and her daughter, establishing their rapport, and between Olivia and Mimi, who becomes her confidante.
Eschewing fake-out shock-scares for a creeping atmosphere of dread, Ledesma allows the fear to build in the audience; it helps to establish the locale, the building itself a supporting character, all creepy shadows and art deco furnishing, a structure seemingly out of time. Sequences build to a crescendo that is admirably already heightened, then throws in one or two more twists into the works. Horror fans might be able to spot setups, but for most audiences it should still come as a surprise. Though even if you know what’s coming, it’s anchored by Villaroel and co.’s strong performances.
It helps that Villaroel’s public persona as a doting mom isn’t too far a stretch, but the fear and anxiety she brings to her scenes is impressive, and her maternal love shines through. Brimner especially has a lot of heavy lifting to do, for reasons that should remain mysterious. Let’s just say she is up to the task.A threat to family strikes closest to audiences, and “Sunod” gets to exploit that by building on those fears with a mystery that continues to unravel until the end.