Short on story but long on style, “Violator” is an atmospheric, quasi-apocalyptic supernatural chiller about strange happenings that take place in Manila while a typhoon bears down on the city. Although the pieces don’t all fit together and many viewers will likely find it too much of a head-scratcher, there’s still much to admire in the debut feature of film critic-turned filmmaker Eduardo “Dodo” Dayao. “Violator” has already notched impressive festival mileage and can expect plenty more invitations to genre events and fantasy-themed sidebars.
A much more dreamy and artsy fantasy-horror-thriller than what’s generally produced by Filipino filmmakers, the pic consists of two very distinct halves. For the first three-quarters of an hour, there’s nothing remotely resembling a plot. The rest of the film takes place in a lonely police station where demonic forces may or may not be manifesting. A few characters and themes from the preceding material filter through to the police station, but not with sufficient scripting sophistication to bring everything together and deliver a knockout punch. Still, the film is always absorbing and manages to send a fair quota of shivers up the spine.
Despite the absence of a traditional story for such a lengthy opening stretch, Dayao keeps willing viewers on their toes with an arresting procession of weird and unsettling sequences. The first of these involves Benito Alano (Joel C. Lamangan), a high-ranking cop with a fearsome reputation. Told by his doctor (Chubby Isungga) that he has six months to live, Benito “sees” his late wife (Elizabeth Oropesa) and talks to her as if nothing had happened. Next up are Jazz (Red Concepcion) and Gel (Reji Hidalgo), office employees taking a cigarette break on a rooftop. After some small talk regarding their company’s future and the typhoon that’s fast approaching, Gel disrobes and calmly throws herself to the street below.
The accumulation of disturbing snapshots continues with a pregnant teacher being confronted in a classroom by a corpse with a pig’s head. On the outskirts of town, Oscar (Charles Aaron Salazar) reunites with his old friend Byron (Ren Aguila) before they both set themselves on fire. Lukas Manabat (Anthony Falcon), a cop, visits his girlfriend, Millie (Julia Enriquez), who badgers him to set a wedding date. Later on, Lukas meets up with fellow officers including Gilberto Pring (Victor Neri, returning to acting after a five-year hiatus). Amid hazy discussions of shady past activities, the group executes Aster (Ghibo Bacolod), a drug pusher. Woven through these sequences and the rest of the film is grainy VHS footage of a religious cult committing mass suicide in a fancy Manila mansion.
At the halfway point the typhoon strikes Manila, leaving Lukas stranded at Precinct 13 with Pring and the terminally ill Benito. Added to the mix are Vic (Andy Bais), a repairman, and Gabriel Ragas (RK Bagatsing), a young man involved in a hit-and-run accident. Introduced much later in proceedings than he probably should have been is Nathan Winston Payumo (Timothy Mabalot), a cheeky young punk in a holding cell. As rain continues to lash down and the characters in Precinct 13 start to see ghostly visions of the religious cult’s creepy-looking leader, Lupe Alipyo (Ronnie Martinez), the question arises as to whether Nathan is possessed by a demon.
Preferring to orchestrate a mounting sense of dread than go for jump scares, Dayao maintains intrigue but can’t find the killer connections to make scary sense of it all. There are hints here and there, especially when Vic’s deceased daughter, Sherilyn (Chloe Carpio), suddenly appears, that some form of divine or possibly demonic retribution is being visited upon those trapped inside the police station. But just as a big reveal seems to be in the offing, the film stops abruptly, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions.
Though slightly disappointing in a narrative sense, “Violator” is stylishly packaged and solidly performed. Lamangan, a veteran director (“Blue Moon,” 2007) and actor who’s appeared in everything from Lino Brocka’s “Macho Dancer” (1988) to Mel Chionglo’s “Twilight Dancers” (2006), is spot-on as the weary cop who’s seen and done it all. Mabalot lights things up as the cocky cell occupant who seems to know everyone’s dark secrets. Bais, a musical theater performer who appears infrequently on screen, is riveting as the handyman whose deep-seated guilt over past sins comes to the fore on the stormy night.
The d.p. team of Gym Lumbera and Albert Banzon turns in first-class work, their steady camera, precise framing and color-desaturated imagery turning every grimy wall and drop of water into something potentially menacing. The crunching score by Marcushiro Nada and Ace Cada rounds out an impressive technical package.