A down on his luck military man named Clem Regan (Justin Arnold) returns home to live with his elderly mother after getting injured in battle. Things take a turn for the better as sparks fly between himself and his mother’s beautiful nurse, Evelyn (Aina Dumlao). No, this is not the plot for an upcoming Nicholas Sparks film. It’s one of many subplots in Xia Magnus’s thriller, SANZARU, and let me tell you, it’s quite a ride.
SANZARU predominantly follows Evelyn, who is balancing her work as a caregiver for Dena Regan (Jayne Taini), who is losing her battle with dementia, and taking care of her nephew Amos (Jon Viktor Corpuz), who has his own set of struggles, including getting expelled from school and a family secret no one wants to face.
Of course, their family secret is nothing on the one the Regans have been hiding for years. But that won’t be revealed until the last few moments of the film. SANZARU is the definition of a slow burn. Much of the film focuses on a bleak day to day life of caring for someone with dementia, which, in and of itself, is a devastating horror show.
A warning to any horror fans who are sensitive to flashing light, SANZARU primarily uses bright lights as a device to signify the supernatural. Scenes of tension in the movie are broken up by a bright light and a soft voice speaking another language. It’s at once confusing and jarring, as the voice is often begging for attention, desperately trying to warn someone, though it will be quite a while before we find out who or why.
Aside from the detached voices, much of the film is set firmly in reality. Evelyn must come to terms with the fact that she is now the primary caregiver for angsty teenager Amos. Clem tries to move past his trauma and start his life over, without leaning on his family. Amos works his body to exhaustion in an effort to process the way his family has passed him around, rather than just face the truth of his biological parentage.
However, the underlying current at the Regan house is nothing short of malicious. Dena is constantly putting herself into danger, getting up alone at night, wandering the property, looking for something that made no sense to Evelyn or Clem. She even goes so far as to accuse Amos of stealing from her, though refuses to admit why it’s so important.
Of course, this is all written off as a side effect of her dementia, which, to be fair, plays. But this is a thriller, and so we all know there’s a lot more going on than that. Much is said about the blood thinners Dena must take, which ends up being foreshadowing for more than one member of the Regan house. There aren’t really jump scares in SANZARU, though the frequent injuries and sometimes bloody breakdowns of Dena are jarring enough.
One area where SANZARU excels is in making seemingly monotonous and innocuous tasks, such as going to the post office, ooze with a sense of dread and foreboding. The fear in the film is very atmospheric and subtle, albeit unrelenting. It’s one of those movies that seem slow, tip-toeing right up to the line of boring, before all of a sudden the other shoe drops, and all bets are off.
For me, the last twenty minutes of the movie changed everything. What started off as a slow-burn, suddenly heats up to a boil, with a nefarious child pornography scheme revealed in time as Evelyn discovers it. Perhaps, in rewatching, clues could be discovered earlier on in the film. But viewing it for the first time, it unfolds so quickly it almost didn’t feel real.
I’d also be remiss not to mention the form a certain evil presence takes, walking menacingly through the Regan house, a glowing, red-figure with its dick out, not unlike that unforgettable blue man in 2009 film Watchmen.
SANZARU asks, how far would you go to bury a dark family secret? It also posits that maybe you can escape the legal consequences for your actions, but you can’t outrun karma. And you can’t hide from the dead.
It’s certainly not your typical haunted house thriller, which is what I had originally anticipated, judging by the short plot summary. It is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. However, for those who can appreciate nuances in horror – the idea that, sometimes, if not most times, the true monsters are human – SANZARU will find its audience.
Magnus does a great job of showcasing the everyday horrors that, thankfully, many of us will never have to face. He highlights traumatic themes, such as family drama and debilitating illness, showing that real life can be just as scary as any haunted house flick, if not more so. Mind you, many in the Trump era are already familiar with that concept. However, it can be refreshing, in a world where massive blockbusters like Avengers reign supreme, to see a picture so focused on the daily horrors of life. SANZARU could fit alongside many A24 classics of late.
SANZARU is not a big-budget thriller. It’s not going to have you jumping out of your seat, screaming at the screen. But, it will sit with you. It will creep into your mind like an earwig, slowly working its way to the forefront, long after you finish watching it. So, what would you do to protect your family — and could you handle the consequences?