Hell hath no fury like a feral woman scorned in Adolfo Alix Jr.’s beautiful but baffling revenge horror film.
A while back, I came up with a phrase for a certain kind of movie, cinéma déroutant, or “bewildering cinema.” This term can be applied to any film or TV show that is so strange, so inexplicable, that you’re better off not trying to figure it out. Just sit back, enjoy the imagery, and accept what’s happening as going over your head, not to be comprehended. Adolfo Alix Jr.’s Mystery of the Night is one of those movies. An inscrutable mix of folk tale, allegory, and revenge thriller, it’s a slow burn that makes a hard right turn into brutal, almost over the top violence near the end.
Mystery of the Night is steeped in Filipino folklore, which is one reason why it may be a bit incomprehensible for American audiences. It’s also set in a period of history that may be unfamiliar to many Americans, the Spanish occupation of the Philippines islands in the early 20th century. All of this works together to create a thoroughly unique look and feel to the movie, even if you may not be entirely sure what’s going on much of time.
Village mayor Anselmo is ordered by the local priest to force a mentally disturbed, heavily pregnant woman into a nearby forest. The priest claims the woman is carrying the Devil’s child, when it’s more likely that it’s his child, and the product of a rape. His godly duty allowing him to mistreat and leave a sick woman for dead, Anselmo completes his unsavory task, though a soldier accompanying him on the journey is killed. Wracked with guilt over the dead soldier and haunted by his ghost, Anselmo eventually commits suicide.
Many years later, Anselmo’s now adult son, Domingo (Benjamin Alves), travels into those same woods, as a sort of test of bravery to maintain his family’s standing in the town. He encounters a strange, feral woman that he decides to name Maria (Solenn Heussaff), and has a passionate encounter with her. Domingo figures out that Maria is the daughter of the “crazy woman” abandoned in the woods, and the fact that it was his father’s fault she ended up there either doesn’t occur to him, or doesn’t bother him.
It sounds pretty straightforward, and yet Mystery of the Night is so dedicated to its own completely original brand of weirdness that it’s impressive.
Maria, raised by a trio of strange animal spirits that take the form of human women who communicate by grunting or howling, doesn’t speak, doesn’t wear clothes, and moves around in a discomfiting crouch, almost like a crab. She quickly learns what lust is after meeting Domingo, however, and heartbreak when he leaves her, and jealousy when she discovers that he’s married, and rage when he rejects her. We all know how these things go, except, in this case, Maria turns into a literal monster, driven by one purpose: tormenting Domingo not just for his faithlessness, but for the misery his family caused her and her mother.
It sounds pretty straightforward, and yet Mystery of the Night is so dedicated to its own completely original brand of weirdness that it’s impressive. On the other hand, similar to Brazil’s Sick, Sick, Sick (also screening at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival) it’s the frustrating kind of horror movie that tries very hard to hide the fact that it’s a horror movie until the last few minutes. Here, nothing that happens during the first hour and a half indicates that the gruesome climax will involve piles of eviscerated intestines and winged creatures snacking on dead fetuses. It’s ultimately so jarring that’s it’s like falling asleep in the middle of watching one movie, and waking up in the middle of a decidedly different one.
It also plays into the deeply unpleasant, mostly retired (thank god) stereotype of a woman being raped, and then deciding in the middle of it that she’s enjoying it. One can assume that Maria is ultimately recreating her own conception, but the fact that after having sex once with Domingo she’s essentially tamed, following him around and even clinging to his leg at one point, is disheartening, particularly in a movie that seeks to explore the world-shaking depth of female anger.
Mystery of the Night is, up to that point, certainly a visually arresting movie, with an a cappella soundtrack by co-star Radha giving everything a suitably eerie, melancholy tone. Heussaff’s physicality as Maria is remarkable, particularly given that she’s nude the entire time. Beautiful at first, her sorrow and rage twist her face into something monstrous, and that’s even before she literally transforms into an inhuman creature. I’m not quite sure the trio of animal spirit “mothers” served much of a purpose, but the actresses give it their all, playing human versions of boars and wolves with a level of seriousness that keeps it from looking too silly. On the “civilized” side of things, the men are arrogant duds (as seems typical in these situations, Domingo is hardly worth the anguish Maria experiences), and the women much more kind and passive than the men deserve. That they ultimately suffer more than the men do in the end is all too appropriate.