The Mysterious Curse of the Manila Film Center
Haunted infrastructure is often believed to bear a tragic past and the Manila Film Center is no exception. Located in Manila near the Cultural Center of the Philippines, it was supposed to be the centerpiece of the Manila International Film Festival, the Asian equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival in France.
Then disaster struck.
Manila Film Center: Delusions
It started with a dream and that dream was to make Manila the cultural center of the East, a city that could compete with France and its Cannes Film Festival.
In 1981, First Lady Imelda Marcos wanted her ambition realized. And, at that time, whatever she wanted, she got. Like when she wanted a spectacular theater to host the Miss Universe Pageant 1974. The Folk Arts Theater, designed by National Artist for Architecture Leandro Locsin, was completed in a record 77 days.
For Imelda, the Philippines was in a strategic position to be an international marketplace for films. It made sense to have a Manila International Film Festival.
“It is both East and West, right and left, rich and poor. We are neither here nor there,” she said in a press conference before the festival.
Manila International Film Festival’s pièce de résistance was going to be the Film Center, designed by Froilan Hong and conceptualized by Ramon M. Ignacio, former senior technology officer at the Technical Resource Center. The inspiration for the building was the Parthenon in Athens, a temple to honor the goddess Athena.
There was a grand plan for the building, but it was eventually redesigned to house only an auditorium, a film lab, and film archives. For the latter's design, the team requested the assistance of experts from UNESCO, who gladly lent their help in 1981.
With three months to go before the scheduled January event and a budget of $25 million (supposedly allocated for a new wing of the PGH), it was predictably a disaster waiting to happen. Nevertheless, around 4,000 laborers were hired and they rotated among three shifts across 24 hours.
With a more sensible time frame, the grand lobby would need six weeks. For the center, 1,000 workers finished it in 72 hours.
Manila Film Center: Entombed
On November 17, 1981, at around 3 a.m., scaffolding on the fourth floor collapsed and workers were trapped in the quick-drying cement. The problem started when quick-drying cement was poured on each floor without waiting for the layers to dry. Due to the rush and the endless hours of working, too much was poured, resulting in the disaster.
Nena Benigno, former public relations officer for The Experimental Cinema of the Philippines and the Manila International Film Festival, saw the immediate aftermath of the accident. Benigno was also the daughter of former press secretary and columnist, Teddy Benigno, who was then working for Agence France Presse. Teddy wanted to write a story about it and he told Nena that she should rush to the site.
“From a distance I could see people in stretchers being carried out, frozen in cement. When I got there, they were still digging out people; [the cement] was not completely hard. And there was a guy that they were trying [to] keep from going into shock,” she said in an interview.
“Half of his body was buried. He was alive, but half buried. I don’t know what it was, but to keep him awake, alert, not to go into a coma or shock, they kept him singing Christmas songs. I was watching this,” she added.
For fear that the accident would cause a scandal, there was a media blackout. Responders were only allowed access to the site nine hours after the incident. By that time, at least 168 workers already died or were buried in the cement, which already hardened.
Jackhammers were employed hours later. There was a gruesome view of bodies sticking out of the pavement. The exposed parts had to be tapered off and built over. The rule was they had to meet the deadline, no matter what happened.
It was Betty Benitez, wife of assistant minister Jose Conrado Benitez, who apparently gave this order to and continue construction as if nothing had happened. The hauntings and strange happenings began that day.
Manila Film Center: Haunted
According to rumors, a fortune-teller allegedly told first daughter Imee Marcos that she would die if she stepped foot in the building. Whether or not this was true, no effort was spared to “cleanse” the place. There were exorcism rites, pagan rites, Catholic rites, and Chinese rites. Officers were given anting-antings or amulets to ward off evil spirits.
On the morning of the opening, January 18, as early as 5 a.m. several Igorots performed another ritual, telling any lingering spirit that they must cross over to the afterlife. Pigs and chickens were killed for sacrifice and those attending the ritual, including the anxious Imee, needed to consume them.
Benigno remembered Imee saying that she asked Via Mare to cater, but that the Igorots could eat the dead animals.
Despite these efforts, those preparing for the festival had their share of strange experiences. The usherettes who came from exclusive girls' schools started smelling something odd backstage. Almost all of them felt something cold blowing on their skin. Their skin tingled at a strange presence.
According to other stories, the deceased workers showed themselves to their colleagues or even to the guests.
A few months later, Benitez died in a freak car accident. Many alleged that it was the victims taking revenge. A medium who was sent to Manila Film Center supposedly claimed that the spirits said, “Betty is with us.”
When the date of the festival finally arrived, the accident seemed forgotten. The cement was allegedly not completely dry. It didn't matter; international press raved about the event.
The New York Times called it “All-Out Spectacular” and went on to narrate a non-stop party for more than 300 guests, including George Hamilton, Peter Ustinov, Priscilla Presley, Jeremy Irons, and Brooke Shields.
Imelda threw parties at Malacañang, where guests were treated to $100 bottles of Champagne. There was another party at Fort Santiago where the first lady was literally dazzling in diamond earrings, bracelets, and necklace. For the opening night itself, she was dressed in a black and emerald green terno, which was decorated with several layers of peacock feathers from India.
Unbeknownst to the visitors, the wet cement was staining the hems of their clothes and the bottoms of their shoes. They were also stepping on the remains of hundreds of Filipino workers who were entombed in a cursed building.
Manila Film Center: Aftermath
The Manila Film Center showed films from 39 countries, including Norway, New Zealand, India, Mexico, Egypt, Hungary, and Argentina. India’s 36 Chowrighee Lane won Best Picture; Lumila Gurchenko and Bruno Lawrence were named Best Actress and Actor, respectively. Goran Markovic of Yugoslavia won Best Director for Majstori, Majstori!
Despite this success, a curse seemingly hung in the building and the festival itself. Moving forward, it suffered a financial setback. The $5 million subsidy allotted for the festival was disapproved by then Prime Minister Cesar Virata.
So that the center could survive, Imelda created an agency that would later be the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board. As stated in Presidential Decree 1986, the board allowed films that were close to soft porn to be shown in the center. The law also exempted all films to be shown during the festival from censorship, opening wide the doors for pornography. Droves of men were said to have lined up, almost destroying the doors for films like Virgin Forest.
However, earnings from these films were not enough to pay for all the debts incurred. After the Marcoses were thrown out, Rustan’s took back all of its paintings and furniture.
When the 1990 earthquake happened, the center was abandoned after it was declared unstable. It was rehabilitated for P300 million and leased in December 2001 to Amazing Philippines Theater producers of The Amazing Show.
In the late '90s, there was gossip that one of the performers of the show was murdered and her body dumped on the steps. The ghost of the performer reportedly joined the ghosts that started haunting the area decades earlier.
The Amazing Show’s lease expired in 2009 and for a time, the Philippine Senate considered moving there, but this never happened.
In November 2012, the Amazing Philippines Theater regained its lease, but another series of unexplainable accidents occurred. On February 19, 2013, a three-hour fire caused damage, amounting to P1.2 million, to the building
The building continues to be a source of inspiration for horror writers and a destination for ghost hunters. For some, it was a reminder of a glorious time when Filipino films took center stage. For others, it is a symbol of the Marcos dictatorship. But as it stands, the ghosts of Manila Film Center continue to live.