Spectacle in the Dark

Nonfiction by | March 18, 2024

It’s June and I sit inside a 7-11 that is below an old house located between old buildings that line Claveria, one of the oldest streets in Davao. This 7-11 branch is small, so it had to maximize space inside to make way for some tables and benches. While waiting for my grilled four-cheese sandwich, a guy sat beside me; I realized that it was impossible to have someone sit across from you – all four tables are positioned facing the street.  There were more seats outside, but I chose to bask in the cold of the AC, having walked a kilometer under the midday sun. Just across the next block facing the spot in 7-11 where I am sitting, is the Lawaan Theater and behind me are the Odeon and Eagle theaters, run-down and crumbling. The guy sitting next to me on the same bench moved to the adjacent table when it was vacated. The grilled cheese sandwich took longer than I expected.

Shake Rattle and Roll

It’s December 1990 and Papa took me to see Shake Rattle and Roll Part 2. It was my first memory of going to the movies. Even though we lived that time in the slum area (called Barrio Pogi) directly in front of the cinema complex. Entering a different world for two hours is just a walk across. SRR 2 was sort of an upgrade from the horror komiks that I read for 50 cents from Pogi’s suking tindahan. The monsters seemed more real and scarier in the dark, larger than life. The old standalone cinemas of my childhood were really dark, made more overwhelming by the only light emanating from the silver screen. The darkness was vivid and the memory of it was. I even remember sitting along the aisle.

The episodic Shake Rattle and Roll horror film series began in 1981. It took 9 years for Part 2 to happen, but the 90s made up for its absence in the 80s as it became an annual staple during the Metro Manila Film Festival, a festival that, although named after the country’s capital region, happens throughout the entire Philippines, or at least in cities where there are theaters.1 SRR 2’s first episode is about a ghostly possession, where Eric Quizon’s character succumbs to the evil spirit of a mad doctor played by Eddie Guttierez. After wearing the doctor’s ring, the husband becomes murderous and torments his wife, played by Janice de Belen. The episode features a flashback scene that shocked me when I saw it again as an adult. In it, Gutierrez’s mad doctor performs a forced abortion to a young schoolgirl, played by the late Isabel Granada. Papa covered my eyes during the scene, but I managed to peek a split-second and remember seeing blood dripping onto the white basin. Rewatching it, I was amazed at how nerve-wracking the scene was – aside from the abortion scene, there was copious bloodshed when the doctor blew his brains out and when Quizon cut off his finger – and even more amazed that I was actually let in. I guess the rating would have been PG 13, which meant kids can go with an accompanying adult. 

Godzilla vs.?

It’s July 2023 and I just watched two Godzilla movies back-to-back. The Japanese ones. Godzilla vs. King Ghidora and Godzilla vs. Biollante. I watched them to conjure up a memory. I wanted for a particular scene to match a certain image and unlock a more vivid childhood memory of me watching it alone inside the Lawaan Theater. I later learned that the name alludes to the province of Davao, then an undivided Region 11, being a logging haven. Davao also became a stronghold during the Japanese occupation, and many Japanese migrated to Davao to engage in abaca business even before the war.

I watched King Ghidora first because I am certain that it came after SRR 2 but then if foreign films often get screened late in the provinces, there was a chance that the 1989 film with Biollante might be the one that I saw. If it was King Ghidora, I might have seen it in 1992 when I was eight. The faint image I had in my head was Godzilla in a city with buildings around him. But isn’t this scene a given in any Godzilla film, as he is wont to wreak havoc in the city at some point?

In the mid-90s, we moved from the downtown area to a suburban village, closer to the cement factory where Papa once worked. I got a Godzilla toy from Papa, and grew fond of it, the memory of watching the Godzilla movie fading away. When I saw (larger-than) life-sized Godzilla lording it over a building in Shinjuku in 2017, two months after Papa died, I couldn’t summon the memory to life, more preoccupied by the need to record the moment on Instagram. Of course, I would later learn of Godzilla as an anti-imperialist cautionary tale amidst remnants of Japanese occupation in the city kept alive by tourism. And I would later be involved in organizing a film festival that started as a collection of Davao-made horror short films that express the urban anxieties of living in post-EJK of Duterte’s Davao.

There is a bias for things from the past that comes with age and nostalgia that when our memories of it become hazy, we try to salvage it from oblivion and obsolescence. But a certain ‘spirit of the times’ decides which ones are worth remembering, Annie Ernaux says. Like reviving a certain grandeur and feeling of awe from the crudeness of visual effects in monster movies of our childhood. Even with the spectacle of CGI, some of us harp on the pre-digital effort of make-believe. From the aswangs in SRR 2 with its boar-like fake fangs that ate its own kind in a clever body-swapping narrative to the giant kaijus that exude menace even when they are sloppy. They were my spectacle, and I followed it into the dark.

Despite its present shabby structure, the old Lawaan theater still stands. It was turned into a headquarters of a Hindu religious group though I haven’t really figured out how the building would still have inhabitants. Prominent in what used to be its marquee’s place is a streamer of then-congressional candidate and civil society leader Mags Maglana who dared to go against the reigning Paolo Duterte during the last elections. On one side, part of the Odeon-Eagle complex has been demolished and part of it is now a Victory praise and worship center. Amidst the rising towers that are now threatening to swallow downtown, the detritus of my childhood adventures, memories etched in the dark, may have found their own light.

[1] I am not sure if throughout its history the MMFF happened simultaneously all over the country. I imagine carrying the reels outside Manila then would have been more laborious and time-consuming.

Jay Rosas is a film programmer, critic, organizer, and filmmaker based in Davao City. Recently, he was selected as one of the Southeast Asian fellows for the Arts Equator Fellowship.