Folklore, mythology, and fairy tales share a lot in common with horror, namely in how monsters or creatures can be representative of humans’ darker nature, and also in how the fantastical contains a morality lesson within. Such is the case with Adolfo Alix Jr.’s Mystery of the Night, a slow-burn fable set in a 1900s Spanish-ruled Philippine village—a period when aristocracy and clergymen tried to cover up their misdeeds, and their corruption begets inconceivable horrors.
An adaptation of Rody Vera’s stage play Ang Unang Aswang, Alix Jr. uses a theatrical, shadow puppet style title sequence to introduce some of the folkloric elements of the film. The colonized village sits adjacent to an enchanted forest, where those who enter rarely come back alive. If they do, they’re irrevocably changed, as the forest is protected by animalistic spirits. When a village woman is raped and left pregnant and raving mad, the clergymen attempt to silence her forever by dragging her into the forest. She dies in childbirth, and the forest spirits raise the child, Maria, as their own. It’s only in womanhood that the child encounters another villager, leading to heartbreak, betrayal, and revenge.
The premise shares a lot in common with Tarzan or even The Jungle Book, but this fairy tale is a far cry from Disney offerings. The corruptive nature of the upper class in control of the village grows further out of touch with the old world surrounding them, driving a wedge that only widens as the narrative progresses. It’s represented in the birth of a classic Filipino figure in folklore, one that Alix Jr. takes great care and precision to tell.
Which is to say, those looking for more traditional horror should look elsewhere. Alix Jr. is unhurried in his detailing of Maria’s life, from an infant reared on the milk of a forest spirit to a woman coming to terms with her sexuality. Played by Solenn Heussaff, Maria takes after her animalistic adoptive parents. She never speaks and has a primal way about her, but she relays a depth of emotion through body language. The closest she comes to seeming like a normal human is when town leader Domingo (Benjamin Alves) enters the forest in search of answers, an encounter that becomes the catalyst for the gruesome, blood-soaked final act.
Mystery of the Night pays its respects to its stage play roots, but Alix Jr. combines a variety of genres and implements multiple techniques to convey a heady, meditative fable comprised of two contrasting worlds: the tyrannical yet prim village against the carnal, sometimes sensual forest dwellers. The dreamlike quality of this unfurling tale culminates in an old-school, practical effects-driven nightmare. It’s a richly rendered universe, despite being made on what’s likely a minuscule budget. The choice to have the animalistic spirits represented as otherworldly native women was a smart one, too, further grounding Maria’s story in empathy.
Folklore and mythological monsters often arise from a need to have an outlet for humanity’s repulsive side. That’s the case here; there’s no tidy conclusion and no happy outcome for these characters. This fairy tale bides its time until it unleashes a gnarly, gore-filled finale. That it takes a long time to get to the actual horror elements might be a turnoff for some, but for those looking for something wholly unique, Mystery of the Night has a lot to offer. It’s a captivating origin story of a Filipino mythical creature relayed with style, poignancy, and a lot on its mind.
Movie Score 3.5/5