the definition of ambivalence? Your brand-new Mercedes Benz
driving off the edge of a cliff with your mother-in-law inside,
screaming. Or, in this case, starting 1997 with a film by Mario
OHara in which all but the last 10 minutes of the movie
are terrific - the catch being that those 10 or so minutes are
awful beyond words.
it worse is that OHara is possibly the best director who
ever worked in the 70s Golden Age of Philippine Cinema.
Yes, Im talking about the generation of Lino Brocka, Ishmael
Bernal, Celso Ad. Castillo, and Mike De Leon and yes, I stand
firm on my statement: the best, living or dead.
its worse than frustrating, its tragic - particularly
when you realize OHara achieves so much with so little.
The budget of the film was something like six million pesos
- about two million short of an average film without special
effects. Editing took two days - "rush job" isnt
the word for it - and the rest of post-production took the remainder
of the Christmas holidays.
is that OHara was forced to adopt the same strategy that
Steven Spielberg used in "Jaws," when he found his
mechanical shark all but useless: for most of the movie, OHara
could only suggest the monster, not show it. A wing flashing
over the camera lens, a fleeting shadow, a sudden disappearance
- the film works as a crackling good thriller at this no-budget
level (it helps that, despite having only two days to cut the
footage, the films editing is remarkably precise).
You feel the kind of chills that Jacques Tournier used to deliver
in films like "The Cat People," except that Tournier
was always too tasteful for his own good. His films had a civilized
air, a point that it wouldnt cross - in horror this is
a failing, not a virtue. OHara has never even bothered
to be tasteful; he suggests horror, but his horror has the unmistakable
taint of obscenity. You feel there is nothing he wouldnt
show, if he felt it needed showing; even that crutch of security
is taken away from you.
cunningly uses the fact that he had no money for extras to give
us a novel view of Metro Manila. This is the city after hours,
all silent bars and empty discos: a city where most of the patrons
have given up and gone home, where waiters smoke cigarettes
while waiting for those who are left, and those who are left
look tired and bleak and lonely. You can believe this is the
hour of vampires and worse, when nameless things feel free to
go abroad and hunt their prey.
cunningly uses the fact
that he had no money for extras
to give us a novel view of
Metro Manila. This is the city
after hours, all silent bars and
empty discos: a city where most
of the patrons have given up and
gone home... You can believe
this is the hour of vampires
and worse, when nameless things
feel free to go abroad
and hunt their prey.
was forced to shoot around his faulty robot shark, but when
push came to shove, Universal studio gave the extra funds to
allow his 20-foot monster a belated climactic appearance. When
push comes to shove in "Manananggal," OHara
is forced to pull away the curtain and reveal the cardboard
cut-out shape that had been terrifying the audience up to that
point. The sight is pathetic; OHara doesnt have
a creature to show, just Alma Concepcion with a Wicked Witch
Of The West fake chin and wings made out of what looks like
black plastic trash bags. At one point, some blue horror that
looks vaguely batlike is pushed across the screen.
can only speculate that the producers wanted to give the "audience"
- whatever they mean - its moneys worth: that is, a monster,
no matter how silly-looking. And Concepcions Imee Marcos
chin is presumably a concession to the cliché they would
like to foster (for some insane reason), that a monster has
to look ugly to be terrifying.
already had the audience in his spell! The moment the Alma Concepcions
manananggal shows, you can hear the collective sigh of
disappointment in the theater, like a deflating dirigible -
they have seen the ultimate horror, and it cant even flap
its wings properly. When it sticks out its tongue, the pinkish
member resembles something that crawled out of Jim Carreys
mouth in "The Mask."
The others fare hardly better, due to poor makeup (the corpses
look as if they helped apply it themselves) and careless prosthetics.
At one point Angelika thrashes about, her mouth lined with whats
meant to look like vomit but instead looks like green paint;
Tonton Gutierrez turns into a pig-man whose appearance has the
flavor of a fairy-tale turned nightmare - a flavor thats
ruined because the pig-mans jaws have to move, and theyre
comically out of synch with Guiterrezs dialogue.
criminally perverse to prefer a slapdash film like this to the
bigger budgeted "The Magic Temple;" the reason is
simple, really. "Temple" has great production values,
beautiful photography and about 15 minutes of very expensive
- and fairly impressive - special effects. "Manananggal"
has almost no production values, subdued (though distinctly
cinematic) photography and totally wretched special effects.
But "Temple" packs so much production and effects
into the film theres not much room left for heart; "Manananggal"
has heart and not much room for anything else.
isnt about some monster eating peoples entrails,
its about a woman scorned - two women scorned: a 19th
century mistress (Alma Concepcion) abandoned by her husband
(Tonton Gutierrez) and a pregnant young girl (Angelika) abandoned
by her boyfriend (Eric Fructoso).
isnt always out-and-out
frightening; sometimes it can
be subtly, seductively reasonable.
"Manananggal" gives you
a taste - brief, though, and highly
flawed - of that seductiveness.
is surprisingly effective, considering that she never showed
much acting ability in her previous film roles - OHara
enhances her role by keeping the camera mostly at a distance
and draping her in plenty of fetching underwear. The real surprise
of the movie is Angelika. She stood out in the otherwise trashy
"Nights Of Serafina;" "Manananggal" is only
her second movie role ever and here she gives an extraordinarily
unaffected performance as the young girl (thanks in no small
part to OHara, an extraordinary actor himself). Quiet
little scenes - admitting to Concepcion that her child has no
legal father, confronting Fructoso, her former boyfriend - play
as understated gems in OHaras hands. He gives the
film something few horror flicks have: a fragile melancholy
mood, the faintest hint of tenderness.
should be effective preparation for the horrors to come - which,
unfortunately, never happens. Nevertheless, OHara deftly
strews omens: people are dying all over the city; the word "manananggal"
is in tabloid headlines and on everyones lips (you can
spot Jessica Zafras book "Manananggal Terrorizes
Manila" in one scene). A manananggal wannabe (delightful
cameo by Bella Flores) is found prancing on the rooftops; the
comic interlude makes an abrupt and effective left into the
Twilight Zone, leaving you with faint forebodings.
scene takes place on a rooftop, between Angelika and Eric Fructoso,
and its brilliant (OHara, also an excellent scriptwriter,
reportedly added it to the script by Floy Quintos). You listen
to what should be a happy ending, but ambiguities pile upon
ambiguities, and the scene takes on a new meaning: its
a happy ending, all right, just not the one you expect. Except
that youre probably not listening - youre staring
at the embarrassment of a moon being pushed across the sky like
an Ed Wood paper plate.
exchange takes place between Angelika and Alma Concepcion, who
tells her: "Im not evil; Im liberated. And
I want you to be liberated, too." Evil isnt always
out-and-out frightening; sometimes it can be subtly, seductively
reasonable. "Manananggal" gives you a taste - brief,
though, and highly flawed - of that seductiveness.
it could be better; I can see the movie that might have been
so bad I can taste it. If OHara had been given a bigger
budget, or allowed to cheat throughout the film - suggesting
instead of showing, building on what he so brilliantly set up
- the result might have been a minor horror masterpiece. As
it is, it wouldnt be too expensive: some recutting, some
scenes reshot sans prosthetics or special effects (have someone
fix the jaw on that damn pigs head, and off with Almas
chin!). Ten minutes of footage changed, tops - and the new and
improved product can be sold overseas. Im not kidding;
horror is a dependable staple, and directors like Cirio Santiago,
Eddie Romero and the great Gerry De Leon have done horror movies
that made money abroad ("Who Is Cirio Santiago?" in
fact, is the question to the Jeopardy answer "The Filipino
director with the most films distributed internationally").
Some of them are actually good - Gerry De Leons "Terror
Is A Man" is a small classic.
like wishing for the moon - the real moon, I mean. Regal isnt
going to do any such thing - its biggest concern at the moment
is cutting costs. "Mother" Lily Monteverde has announced
a slew of quickie films - "pito-pito" (seven-seven),
after the herbal tea, an effective diuretic - because theyll
be made with seven days shooting schedule and seven days
post-production (this movie reportedly isnt one of them,
though for all the support it got it might as well have been).
Fourteen days! God made the world in half that time, but he
had divine powers; besides, he had the seventh day off.
OHara himself? Hopefully the film makes money and gives
him enough credibility to do something else, fast - "Sisa,"
maybe, with Nora Aunor (hes responsible for some of Aunors
finest performances). I actually think Filipino screening habits
might help - if they come in and watch the ending first, the
movie can only improve, immeasurably.
just the waste - OHara makes so few films: from flawed
but interesting ("The Fatima Buen Story," "Halimaw
Sa Banga" (Monster In A Jar), "Johnny Tinoso And The
Proud Beauty") to brilliant ("Bagong Hari" (The
New King), "Condemned," "Bulaklak Sa City Jail"
(Flowers Of The City Jail)) to truly great ("Tatlong Taong
Walang Diyos" (Three Years Without God)). Hes won
so many of the "right" battles - the fights to retain
artistic integrity (though not entirely in this film) - but
hes so infuriatingly nonchalant about winning the "wrong"
ones - the fights to fund his film projects, to become commercially
viable, to stay active as a director. When is the son of a bitch
going to learn?
Manila Chronicle, January 12, 1997.
The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review
Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
Click here to order.