Monday, March 25, 2024

Sa init ng apoy (1980)

... aka: Hellfire
... aka: In the Heat of the Fire

Directed by:
Romy V. Suzara

Young newlyweds Laura and Emiliano Cruz (Lorna Tolentino, Rudy Fernandez) decide to spend their honeymoon in Baguio aka "The Summer Capital of the Philippines." After striking out finding a hotel in the city due to busy Holy Week festivities, the two get a flat tire while driving through the country and stumble upon an old, fogbound, seemingly abandoned home called Casa Morteja. There are both "For Sale" and "Room for Rent" signs out front, so the couple decide this would be as good a place as any. After meeting old, peculiar-acting caretaker Pedro (George Estregan - CRAZY), they should have decided otherwise. The caretaker likes sitting near the fireplace despite the sweltering hot summer temperatures outside yet keeps the home pitch dark otherwise. Though the home has electricity, he never uses it because he claims his eyes are sensitive to bright light. Not only that, but he has no set price on renting a room there and lets the couple decide all of that on their own. Not that it matters any. After they go to look at their surprisingly clean room, the old man has seemingly vanished into thin air and can't be found again. Regardless of that strange introduction, the two decide to stay there for what they hope will be a romantic, relaxing next ten days.

Long before their trip, Laura had been plagued by terrible recurring nightmares of someone trying to strangle her to death in the shower. These caused her to regularly wake up a sweaty, shrieking mess with blood on her hands, presumably from clawing at her own neck trying to remove the hands that were strangling her in the dream. Somehow, she and her psychiatrist determined that if she goes to bed after midnight, she doesn't have the dreams, so she tries to force herself to stay up late every single night. After just one day in the home, Laura starts behaving even more peculiarly than usual. She seems completely familiar with the home despite never having set foot inside it before, keeps seeing a shrouded figure lurking around outside and is drenched with blood while showering but then the blood disappears when she tries to show her husband.

Emil hunts down an orange-haired former classmate of his, Tony Fuentes (Joey Padilla), and his wife Vina (Janice Jurado), who put him in contact with Zacarias (Dick Israel - MAGIC OF THE UNIVERSE), who self identifies as "the best fortune-teller in Baguio." He later reads Laura's tarot cards, which spell death in her near future, so he and Tony decide to help their friend out.

The men pay a visit to Vina's grandfather (Paquito Salcedo), who's been around long enough to remember the entire long, sordid and blood-soaked history of the home. The original owners - Ignacio and Sylvina Morteja - were both found dead in the attic covered in bite marks (supposedly from a dog) and with their hearts ripped from their chests. When the dead couple's adult son, Silvestre, inherited it, a grim fate also befell him and his family when they tried to move in. The wife went crazy and had to be locked up (a skeleton found hidden inside a closet is said to have been her) and both Silvestre and their young daughter, Editha, also reputedly died. But, of course, these are only local legends and, as is usually the case, a detail or two may not be so accurate. These events also explain why the home has remained unsold and vacant all these years later.

As Emil and his buddies try to get to the bottom of things, glutton-for-punishment Laura stays behind by herself to be repeatedly terrorized. Invisible forces bust her mirror and then throw her on the bed and spin her around. She's entranced and starts sleepwalking, seeming particularly interested in going into another small building on the property. One the plot's dumbest points is why the couple insist on even staying there in the first place when it's merely a temporary, week-long vacation rental and they could just pack their bags and leave at any time! It isn't until the night before their scheduled trip back home that Laura finally goes to her husband and asks to leave. Her reasoning? Well, because it was so weird she knew that a key was in a drawer their first day there. With all of the other freaky shit that's been going on, that's what she's weirded out about the most?!

The other character of interest is a nameless old woman (Estrella Kuenzler) who's lurking around everywhere and seems to be stalking the couple. She repeatedly tries to give them a package but keeps getting rejected. When she finally gives up and just leaves it in their jeep, they find a piece of bamboo and a small doll arm made out of ivory inside.

While watchable and not bad overall, this falls just shy of being solidly good thanks to some truly dumb and / or muddy plot points and poor pacing. For some reason, this is dragged out for nearly two hours and there's definitely stuff that could have wound up on the cutting room floor without losing anything of value in the process. The worst bit by far is a bunch of dissolve shots of the couple making out by the fireplace that goes on for three minutes just so the corny love theme song, "Apoy" ("Fire"), can be played in its entirety. There's also quite a bit of travelogue footage thrown in, though at least it's nice to look at.

During the final half hour, this throws a lot of what came before right out the window and opts to go the standard Exorcist route with our female lead becoming possessed, turning green, laughing in a maniacal deep voice, saying crude sexual things (though nowhere near as crude and vulgar as its inspiration or most of the other knock offs!) and puking up green slime. Oh yeah, and she also shoots the same stuff out of her nipples (!), which I suppose is at least something a little different. This also tosses some Omen into the mix with a demon / ghost Doberman prowling the property, which chews out a guy's throat and traps the protagonists on the property when they finally do decide to try to leave.

The two major highlights here are the fantastic supporting performance from Estregan, who's really creepy in his enigmatic role though he unfortunately disappears from the entire last act, and the cinematography from Ernesto Dela Paz, who does an especially great job shooting and lighting the indoor night scenes, which all look really dark but have nice pops and slivers of color a la Bava.

Stars Fernandez (who apparently was popular in his home country at the time but gives a wooden, dopey performance here) and Tolentino (who's much better) would marry in real life just a few years later and stayed married until his death in 2008. The director (who passed away in 2022) has over sixty films to his credit, including a couple of other genre films: Anak ng asuang (1973), which involves a female vampire and appears to be a missing film, and the cheap-looking, digitally-shot Sigaw sa hatinggabi / "Scream at Midnight" (2014).

After its initial theatrical release in its home country, this pretty much vanished (I can't even find evidence of an older VHS or VCD release) until a heavily-damaged 35mm print turned up. It was then digitally restored by ABS-CBN (who have done a commendable job) and given a limited theatrical re-release in its home country in 2018. Amazon, Apple TV and a few other websites now offer this for rent. 

Seeing how film elements from many older Filipino genre movies are probably gone forever, another discovery like this getting a second lease on life through restoration is always reason to celebrate, regardless of the outcome. This one has enough good things working in its favor to merit a look.

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