Rites of May, The (1976)

Quite a strong debut feature from De Leon as he explores the genre of horror in a disquieting atmospheric way while using the story of loss, fateful connection and religious rites to make implicit links with the trauma caused by the toxic political patriarchy. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #2,595

Dir. Mike De Leon
1976 | Philippines | Drama/Horror | 107 min | 1.85:1 | Tagalog
NC16 (passed clean) for nudity and some violence

Cast: Charo Santos-Concio, Tommy Abuel, Mona Lisa
Plot: During a return to his provincial home, a young man gets involved with a woman who is ultimately possessed by her sister’s spirit, paving the way to revealing the painful truth about her unsolved disappearance.
Source: Carlotta Films

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Truth & Trauma; Religious Rites; Hauntings
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Screener (as part of Asian Film Archive’s Mike De Leon retrospective)
Spoilers: No

For more info on the Mike De Leon retrospective in Singapore: 

Even if Mike De Leon were to admit that his first feature was simply an exercise to make a commercial genre movie, in this case, horror, it is in hindsight a tale about the Philippines’ historical trauma, a veiled attempt to make consequential the distress and chronic anxieties as felt by the common people and as caused by the toxic political patriarchy. 

Jun (Tommy Abuel) is a professional photographer who visits his hometown in order to document the religious rites practised by the locals. 

He encounters a mysterious young woman, Teresa (Charo Santos-Concio in her acting debut, who would later star in De Leon’s Will Your Heart Beat Faster? (1980) and Kisapmata (1981), as well as Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left (2016)), who pulls him into a fateful connection related to the death of her older sister. 

“If the dead’s wishes aren’t granted, they’ll never find peace.”

With its disquieting rural setting and scenes that rely on the ‘haunted house’ trope, The Rites of May doesn’t really deviate much from horror conventions, though it is also not entirely accurate to reduce it to just horror. 

It is an atmospheric work for sure, but the fear of an evil entity lurking outside the frame is almost always supplanted by De Leon’s focus on frayed relationships between family members. Jun is estranged from his wheelchair-bound father, while Teresa can’t communicate well with her mother who dotes on her late sister more. 

Like Ann Hui’s debut feature, The Secret (1979), which also has elements of horror, The Rites of May uses the death of a person to spark a quest for personal truth, as hidden secrets reveal themselves in shocking ways. 

Grade: B+

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