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Ghosts haunt two families in Wisconsin native Xia Magnus' chilling 'Sanzaru'

Ghosts haunt two families in Wisconsin native Xia Magnus' chilling 'Sanzaru'

Sanzaru

Aina Dumlao plays an in-home caregiver for an elderly woman with dementia who discovers things are not what they seem in "Sanzaru."

“Sanzaru” is a Japanese character that represents the “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys. In “Sanzaru,” the debut horror feature by Wisconsin native Xan Magnus (who grew up in Madison), the term serves as a metaphor for the dark secrets that a family tries to bury, secrets that won’t stay hidden.

Subdued and haunting, with terrific performances and very effective sound design, “Sanzaru” shows you don’t need jump scares or elaborate visual effects to make a solid horror movie. The UW Cinematheque screening series is presenting the film for free this week. Email info@cinema.wisc.edu and put “SANZARU” in the subject line for a screening link.

Aina Dumlao plays Evelyn, a Filipino-American woman working as a live-in nurse for an elderly Texas woman named Dena (Jayne Taini) living with dementia and other health issues. Evelyn exudes care and patience as she goes through the daily routines of caring for Dena — feeding her, changing her clothes, helping her in the bathroom — and Dena is evidently grateful for her aid and companionship. It’s the sort of bond between caregiver and patient that we rarely see in movies, and the emotional heart of the film, with both actresses infusing their roles with dignity and compassion.

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Dena has a tenuous grip on the real world. In one instant, she’s together enough to help Evelyn with a particularly tricky crossword puzzle clue (“CONSONANCE”). Then in the next instant, she thinks Evelyn is her daughter.

Also living in the house is Amos (Jon Viktor Corpuz), Evelyn’s troubled teenage nephew, and Dena’s adult son Clem (Justin Arnold), who lives in a trailer on the property and occasionally helps fix some of the old house’s chronic problems, like an untrustworthy power generator. Clem at first seems like a fearsome figure, but gradually reveals himself to be a lonely veteran of Afghanistan whose most serious wounds are on the inside.

Through the house’s ancient intercom, she can hear Dena babbling, talking to people only she can hear. At first. But one night, Evelyn thinks she hears another voice on the intercom, whispering in Filipino. It sounds like her mother, who died the year before.

“Sanzaru” is a ghost story in which both families are haunted by their own spirits and their own hidden traumas. Magnus beautifully builds tension in the first hour of the film, particularly using the groaning sounds of the old house, and the babble of unseen voices, to get under our skin.

After all that build-up, it’s a little underwhelming when the spirits start manifesting themselves, partially because of the film’s modest budget, but also because the visuals can’t live up to what the audience’s imagination. And the ending of the 87-minute film rushes a little to tie up all of its various loose ends, shortchanging the emotional payoff somewhat. But this is still a distinctive and evocative debut feature that promises great things.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.