Legendary director Mario O'Hara takes a stab at the horror genre in Manananggal In Manila and almost gets it right. But the last 10 minutes takes the cake in no-budget special effects. Critic Noel Vera watches in horror.


What is 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 O’Hara 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.

What makes it worse is that O’Hara is possibly the best director who ever worked in the ’70s Golden Age of Philippine Cinema. Yes, I’m 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.

Actually, it’s worse than frustrating, it’s tragic - particularly when you realize O’Hara 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" isn’t the word for it - and the rest of post-production took the remainder of the Christmas holidays.

The result is that O’Hara 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, O’Hara 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 film’s 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 wouldn’t cross - in horror this is a failing, not a virtue. O’Hara 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 wouldn’t show, if he felt it needed showing; even that crutch of security is taken away from you.

O’Hara 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.

O’Hara 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.

Spielberg 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," O’Hara 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; O’Hara doesn’t 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.

Why? We can only speculate that the producers wanted to give the "audience" - whatever they mean - its money’s worth: that is, a monster, no matter how silly-looking. And Concepcion’s 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.

But O’Hara already had the audience in his spell! The moment the Alma Concepcion’s 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 can’t even flap its wings properly. When it sticks out its tongue, the pinkish member resembles something that crawled out of Jim Carrey’s 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 what’s 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 that’s ruined because the pig-man’s jaws have to move, and they’re comically out of synch with Guiterrez’s dialogue.

It seems 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 there’s not much room left for heart; "Manananggal" has heart and not much room for anything else.

The movie isn’t about some monster eating people’s entrails, it’s 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).

Evil isn’t 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.

Alma Concepcion is surprisingly effective, considering that she never showed much acting ability in her previous film roles - O’Hara 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 O’Hara, 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 O’Hara’s hands. He gives the film something few horror flicks have: a fragile melancholy mood, the faintest hint of tenderness.

That tenderness should be effective preparation for the horrors to come - which, unfortunately, never happens. Nevertheless, O’Hara deftly strews omens: people are dying all over the city; the word "manananggal" is in tabloid headlines and on everyone’s lips (you can spot Jessica Zafra’s 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.

The last scene takes place on a rooftop, between Angelika and Eric Fructoso, and it’s brilliant (O’Hara, 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: it’s a happy ending, all right, just not the one you expect. Except that you’re probably not listening - you’re staring at the embarrassment of a moon being pushed across the sky like an Ed Wood paper plate.

The key exchange takes place between Angelika and Alma Concepcion, who tells her: "I’m not evil; I’m liberated. And I want you to be liberated, too." Evil isn’t 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.

I wish it could be better; I can see the movie that might have been so bad I can taste it. If O’Hara 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 wouldn’t be too expensive: some recutting, some scenes reshot sans prosthetics or special effects (have someone fix the jaw on that damn pig’s head, and off with Alma’s chin!). Ten minutes of footage changed, tops - and the new and improved product can be sold overseas. I’m 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 Leon’s "Terror Is A Man" is a small classic.

But it’s like wishing for the moon - the real moon, I mean. Regal isn’t 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 they’ll be made with seven days’ shooting schedule and seven days post-production (this movie reportedly isn’t 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.

As for O’Hara himself? Hopefully the film makes money and gives him enough credibility to do something else, fast - "Sisa," maybe, with Nora Aunor (he’s responsible for some of Aunor’s 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.

It’s just the waste - O’Hara 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)). He’s won so many of the "right" battles - the fights to retain artistic integrity (though not entirely in this film) - but he’s 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?

Note: Manila Chronicle, January 12, 1997. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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July 10, 2007

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