By Noel Vera
Bilanggo sa Dilim
Directed by Mike de Leon
Directed by William Wyler
Mike de Leon’s Bilanggo sa Dilim is currently available for streaming on his Casa Grande website and on Facebook.
JOHN FOWLES’ debut novel The Collector has been adapted several times for theater, stage, and big screen, most notably by William Wyler, later by Mike de Leon for a 1986 feature — Bilanggo sa Dilim (Prisoner in the Dark), shot on video.
Comparing the two productions can be instructive: Wyler’s is a smoothly made Hollywood production with a fairly gripping finale; De Leon’s feels more subdued, understated, unnervingly autobiographical.
Wyler’s film enjoys the benefits of Hollywood: exteriors shot at a genuine English manor, interiors in elaborately constructed sets including what’s supposed to be a vast underground chapel — a basement where Freddie (Terence Stamp) plans to hold Miranda (Samantha Eggar) captive in relative comfort if not luxury.
De Leon’s Eddie (Joel Torre) also has a large but less antiquated house — a faintly Spanish casa — with a far more spare look, in which he plans to imprison his Miranda (here called Marissa [Cherie Gil]). I’m reminded of the Bates Motel, where Hitchcock recreated the antiseptic whiteness of an American motor court and spattered it with gore; the feeling of desecration is startling, almost shocking. De Leon’s camera glides through the house’s deadpan walls and you can almost sense the secrets they’re not telling.
In The Collector, Maurice Jarre’s symphonic score (occasionally borrowing from his work for Lawrence) mickeymouses the action (stalking music for when Freddie stalks Miranda, suspense music for when Miranda attempts escape) in a way that’s often unintentionally hilarious; later Wyler drops the score and just gives us gasps and grunts as captor and captive struggle for control which is much better — but you still have to sit through that appalling first half. De Leon chooses a minimalist approach — mostly an ominous synthesizer thrum and the occasional dark chord — and achieves more with less (if anything, I’d say much of the atmosphere is provided by Jun Lantonio’s music).
Wyler and De Leon differ the most visually, Wyler’s standard studio style if anything blander than usual, mostly master shots from a medium distance. This stands him in good stead when he suddenly departs from formula — the occasional low-angle of Stamp glaring out from a darkened corner, or the climactic struggle in rain, partly shot handheld, at ground level. But there’s a world of difference between Wyler’s idea of claustrophobic and De Leon’s — the blank walls punctuated by heavy doors, the giant closeups of faces gazing at the camera lens, the pair of hands bound tight with rope. Enigmatic dream sequences — where De Leon experiments with color filters and visible video grain (did he see Antonioni’s The Mystery of Oberwald?) — hew closer to the spirit of Fowles’ novel (with its share of nocturnal visions) than Wyler’s more straightforward adaptation.
De Leon’s most radical revisions can be found in the character of Eddie (“Freddie” with a consonant excised). Where Freddie (Frederick in the novel) is a butterfly collector — collecting beauty, as Miranda once accused him of doing, by killing it — Eddie is a photographer, a more harmless-sounding occupation till we remember that Mark Lewis in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is also a photographer/filmmaker/psychopath/voyeur. Where Freddie is an anonymous bank teller who suddenly wins a lottery (giving him the means to buy his mansion), Eddie is already rich, with money left to him by his dead father and mysteriously missing mother (“Can we please not talk about her?” he at one point asks). Can rich folk be as socially awkward or alienated as Eddie? Can rich folk act as predators towards their so-called “social inferiors”? Yes (speaking from personal experience — more easily than the middle or lower classes) and absolutely yes. Here I believe De Leon actually improves on Fowles; if the history of the Philippines tells us anything (as De Leon suggests here, more explicitly in his latest feature Citizen Jake) powerful political families are the metastasizing cancer of society, and De Leon does not seem to exclude himself in that blanket condemnation.
Towards the end of Wyler’s film, Freddie declares: “I made a mistake” and muses that he should have aimed lower, perhaps picked someone closer to his class level. De Leon’s Eddie is the smarter specimen; instead of overreaching, he starts with more malleable material in the form of Margie (Rio Locsin), a college student who works part time as a prostitute. Fowles’ novel is told from two points of view: first Frederick’s, then Miranda’s, ending with Frederick’s; Wyler’s film does away with that structure, alas (it was Fowles’ most interesting conceit, building empathy for both predator and prey). De Leon not only restores the sense of two voices in violent opposition (Eddie’s and Marissa’s) he adds a third voice, Margie’s — Marissa finds her note folded up, hidden away in a corner of her jewelry box, and reads her story.
We don’t get much of Locsin’s Margie; she’s onscreen for brief minutes at most. But she’s a crucial piece missing, I think, in Fowles’ overall design — where he has a working-class predator kidnapping a middle-class intellectual (father’s a doctor, but with no real money) here we have a working-class victim in the hands of an upper-class predator, and it’s a piteous sight: she’s willing, then terrified, then submissive, then ultimately resigned; at one point she speculates that perhaps Lito (the name Eddie gives her) might be the answer to her prayers. Imagine a girl so poor she entertains the idea of life with a budding serial killer as a viable alternative…
De Leon’s film differs from Wyler’s differs again from Fowles’ novel in the finale (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen or read all three!). One might accuse him of actually softening Fowles’ chilling conclusion, to which I have two responses: 1.) Marissa’s/Miranda’s assault on Eddie/Frederick is logically the end of the situation; I don’t quite buy Miranda’s failure to finish Freddie off (maybe it’s the times — with today’s collectors one feels one should fight back viciously and ruthlessly), neither do I think pneumonia a fitting or convincing end to such a vital heroine; and, 2.) if, as I suggest, Eddie’s character is semi-autobiographical, then I suspect De Leon (after all the revisions to make the action more logical) has opted for a not more logical but more appropriate fate for Eddie: death. He has a death wish, I submit; he wants nothing more than peace — to be bothered no more. Marissa accuses Eddie of being the real prisoner, of being captive to his desires; if the final fadeout means what I think it means, then Eddie is finally free — a small measure of comfort the filmmaker grants this most uncomfortable (and possibly personal) of his characters.
Throughout the film we see reflections, recordings, remembrances of various characters. Marissa’s face we see in newspaper photos and magazine covers, the multiplicity of images suggesting her pervasive presence in society; by way of contrast, Margie, a social nobody, exists only in Eddie’s lenses and haunted memories — a life easily erased, if it wasn’t for her hidden note. Eddie’s mother is an even more enigmatic figure — when we finally see her it’s in a dream sequence where she strokes Eddie’s head as it lays across her lap; the camera pans up and there’s an empty space where her own head should be.
Towards the end of the film, we see Eddie touching his own image on a video screen. What is that — a moment of self-absorption, or a moment of self-accusation? De Leon isn’t saying; he leaves the image on the screen for us to look at and ponder.