Of all the Filipino superstitious beliefs that has to lend inspiration for a new horror film, it has to be one as sexy as “usog” or the local equivalent of the evil eye hex. Well, sukob and pagpag were already taken so why not take a chance on a curse caused by a malignant stare?
I was not sure if I wanted to see Pwera Usog especially when it was billed as the misadventures of privileged, bratty millennials pursued by a malevolent spirit after enjoying mindless cruelty on a helpless person. You know from the start some of them will be killed violently except for the protagonist who will learn a valuable life lesson after a harrowing experience.
The title alone is awry and it was kind if embarrassing to tell the ticket lady “Pwera Usog, Miss.” I wondered if I had to wet my thumb with saliva and touch it to her forehead to ward off hexes.
There were only a handful of people in the theater, mostly women with their girl friends, because no one wants to go on a date night and tell her friends beau took her to watch a film called Pwera Usog (ano ‘daw ‘yun?).
But should you commit time and money to this film, know that this new Regal Entertainment demon child is as silly as her siblings but really makes you jump out of your skin. It will also not leave you with the dreadful aftereffects—no covering of mirrors in your house for days and leaving the lights on at night.
Jean Cordero (Sofia Andres), the headstrong daughter of a businessman, stages elaborate—and often offensive pranks— with similarly rich and bored friends Val (Cherise Castro) and Bobby (Albie Casino) and broadcasts these on social media.
Devastated from being constantly reprimanded by her father, she calls up her level-headed ex-boyfriend Sherwin (Joseph Marco) to take the three of them on an out-of-town trip to blow off some steam.
During a stopover at an abandoned building, Jean and Sherwin encounter a crazed beggar woman whom Jean decided to play a cruel prank on with Val and Bobby.
As expected, the prank goes horribly wrong and they end up being pursued by an evil spirit who causes them to suffer various illnesses.
In their new quest to shake off their tormentor, they come across a mother and son tandem of faith healers who tell them they are victims of an evil eye hex.
As Jean and Sherwin look for answers to their predicament, they are sucked into an enduring battle between a Spanish era witch and three generations of faith healers. With their cosmopolitan sensibilities, they learn to embrace old superstition and mysticism.
Pwera Usog sells in the way that it contains all the elements essential in Pinoy horror such as local superstition, grim mood setting, jump scares—of which there are plenty—and false scares but does not leave a long-lasting feeling of dread.
It employs plenty of emotional relief—intended or unintended—in between scares to refresh the mood and divert attention to other themes like local lore and personal evils.
As Jean and Sherwin seek the help of Aling Minda (Aiko Melendez) and her adoptive son Quintin (Kiko Estrada), they are ushered into the world of the manggagamot—their rites and their magic, their strengths and weakness, their death and immortality.
Now, whether the manggagamot rites used in the film were authentic I really had no way of telling but some of these such as monitoring the presence of spirits in a bottle containing an egg and dispatching oneself to the spirit world really pique the interest and lure one to research more on the lives of these local shamans who battle evil using crude tools and incantations.
The film takes a step further what we already know about “usog” by exaggerating the ill-effects of the hex. Under normal circumstances, a person suffering from “usog” is said to experience malaise, restlessness, fever, etc.
Director Jason Paul Laxamana gave this affliction a more visceral treatment through induction of anxiety, heavy excretion of bodily fluids, and even excision to create a visual representation of the soul draining quality of a strong case of “usog.”
Even the cures employed are exaggerated. A jug-full of saliva, anyone?
Intentional or not, Pwera Usog also reflects several horrors of life such as hubris (excessive pride), emptiness of being, hypocrisy, and indifference. As the witch sucks the life force out of her victims, Jean and her friends draw their self-worth from likes and views of their social media posts.
While Jean stages a public show of purported kindness, Minda and Quintin act out of kindness and never ask for payment for their services. And as Bobby refuses to acknowledge harm they’re committed to “that beggar girl,” the vengeful ghost also had no qualms in exacting retribution.
Pwera Usog takes you through a rollercoaster of emotions. You will be annoyed at the atonal whining by rich kids with inflated egos, scared shitless the next, and pensive in the end.