Saturday, March 15, 2014

Gerardo de Leon: Two vampire films

(Belatedly, on the occasion of Gerry de Leon's yearlong centennial, an old appreciation of one of his two best vampire films being screened at the CCP)

Some notes on Gerardo De Leon's Kulay Dugo ang Gabi (aka The Blood Drinkers) and Ibulong Mo sa Hangin (aka Blood of the Vampires)

As noted by Mark Holcomb in his
Senses of Cinema article; the Gerardo De Leon known to us today had two faces: as director of some of Philippine cinema's greatest films (El Filibusterismo (The Heretic, 1962), The Moises Padilla Story (1961), Daigdig ng Mga Api (The World of the Oppressed, 1965)) and as director of a handful of fine B-pictures (Terror is a Man (1959), Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968)). In 1964 and 1966 respectively, De Leon made two films: Kulay Dugo ang Gabi (Blood is the Color of Night) and Ibulong Mo sa Hangin (Whisper to the Wind).*

The earlier film has a remarkable credit sequence, with a shot of a coffin shaking behind a spinning wagon wheel, shadows flickering over ornate carvings (presumably the coffin is traveling at speed, carried by the rocking carriage). The words Kulay Dugo ang Gabi swing into view as the camera pulls back; no mere optically printed titles these, they're cutouts on red and white paper, and they give the titles a startling 3-D look. Cut to a closeup of the letters, and of blood pouring down, obscuring them--you can tell every effort was made and inventive trick used, everything except actual cash for standard Hollywood-style credits.


Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
The film's startling 3-D style titles

The film's introductory sequence is, if anything, even more extraordinary. We see a gate; it swivels open. A horse carriage carrying a coffin drives straight out of Murnau's Nosferatu and through the gates; a tailfinned sedan glides smoothly behind (this juxtaposition of gothic trappings and modern technology occurs repeatedly throughout the film). Through mist-shrouded grounds a tall figure in black, his voluptuous companion, an older but still handsome woman, a hunchback in blackface, and a dwarf exit car and carriage to carry the coffin into an old manor (all this without dialogue, although early on a priest gives a little speech about the evil of vampires). The tall figure is Dr. Marco (Ronald Remy); Tanya (Celia Rodriguez) is his companion-assistant, the hunchback (Paquito Diaz) and dwarf his henchmen. The coffin contains his great love Katrina, a strikingly beautiful woman in an unfortunate blonde wig (Amalia Fuentes, the "Elizabeth Taylor" of the Philippines--she doesn't have Taylor's unearthly serenity, but does possess an intriguing Spanish flavor); the elderly woman is Katrina's mother, Marisa (Mary Walter). After early efforts at a revival involving an IV tube and what looks like heavy radio equipment (De Leon cuts to a closeup of Fuentes; when she wakes the screen flares up red, when she falls back asleep the screen is flooded with cool blue), Marco declares, "all she needs is her sister's heart." Marisa had earlier in life left Cherito, the other of her twin daughters (Fuentes sans wig), in the care of a pair of peasants; now she must make a hard decision: allow Marco to sacrifice Cherito to save Katrina, or protect Cherito and let Katrina die.

It's an unforgettable mix of the pious and profane, of science fiction and the supernatural, of the cinematically sublime and of unabashed cheese. Anything to do with Cherito is deadly dull exposition marked by the florid dialogue and curiously archaic delivery characteristic of De Leon's films--so appropriate in his larger-than-life historical epics but a drag on his contemporary dramas (strangely enough in this gothic genre piece it fits). Anything to do with Dr. Marco is perversely sensual, from his gleaming dome of a head (Remy standing tall and still resembles an ivory phallus sheathed in black) to his oversexed and obviously infatuated assistant Tanya, who slinks around in diaphanous, carefully backlit gowns that hide little of her knockout figure. If you can ignore Paquito Diaz and his horrifying (not in a good way) makeup, or the jawdropping rubber bat-on-a-stick they occasionally shake at the camera, the film's finest moments are decidedly dark and evil.


Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Celia Rodgriguez (from the neck up, unfortunately) as Tanya, in one of De Leon's striking visual compositions

Remy's Dr. Marco is the heart of this low-budget darkness; his heroic profile and clean pate recalls Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz in Coppola's Apocalypse Now, if Coppola had somehow managed to snare the Brando that played Paul in Last Tango in Paris (Was Dr. Marco what Coppola had in mind for Brando? I wonder…). Coppola did his best with the Brando he had, hitting the actor's huge head sideways with orange light and hiding his considerable bloat with shadows, but the most he managed to do was make Brando seem secretive, mysterious; Remy's Dr. Marco radiates potency, and a genuine sense of danger. He's an intriguing mix of Remy's natural physical charisma and De Leon's unmatched ability to project his protagonists onscreen as larger-than-life figures. De Leon shoots Remy as if he were a battleship, his huge forehead looming at the camera like a prow; at one point he peers down on Katrina's prone figure, and a pair of black shades wrap around his eyes, giving him the look of a punk executioner; when he whips the shades off the eyes are dark and passionate--you can believe that men bristle at the sight of him, their manhood threatened, and that women offer up their necks just for a chance to be nuzzled by those full lips. He's vampire sensuality personified, perhaps the most compelling incarnation of the undead since, oh, Christopher Lee.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Ronald Remy in full gothic punk regalia, as Dr. Marco

And he can be unsettlingly slippery. At one point, erstwhile protagonist Victor (the blandly handsome Eddie Fernandez) confronts Dr. Marco with a gun; Marco waves a hand slowly against the weapon as if dismissing it as inconsequential, then vanishes. He proceeds to walk in on Victor from the left or right side of the screen, popping up from behind when least expected and fading away like a bad memory (one that's sure to come back). Victor looks understandably bewildered; it's not Dr. Marco he's fighting but Dr. De Leon himself (the man is an M.D., by the way), playing with the film frame and the space around Victor as if it were some kind of M.C. Escher construct he could fold and unfold at will. Fernandez finds himself not just outfought but thoroughly outclassed.

The film is full of baroque, even outrageous touches (an explanation for vampirism and wooden stakes involving the vampirus bacillus (borrowed from Richard Matheson, perhaps?); a suggestion of vampiric fellatio). But perhaps the strangest sequence in the whole film is the moment when Dr. Marco and Katrina are saved by, yes, the power of prayer. The moody black-and-white cinematography gives way to a flood of (somewhat faded), Technicolor (to indicate a return to normalcy), and the two lovers walk through what looks like a botanical garden gone wild, all lush greenery and tropical blooms. It's a strange vision to insert in the middle of a vampire movie--I submit one of the strangest to insert in any vampire movie--but De Leon not only has the audacity to do it, he even has the audacity to work it into his scheme of morality. Dr. Marco may be saved, but he has little of the apparatus of faith to insure that he remains saved; like a reformed drug addict fresh out of rehab when the least mishap occurs he falls back on what he knows will work: the darker reaches of science and medicine.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Celia Rodriguez, knowing exactly what's at stake

The DVD extras include a series of soundless outtakes, one of which I wished had made it to the final cut: Dr. Marco bites Tanya, turning her, and the lighting changes color from blue (the numbing shock of being punctured) to red (pain, and the warmth of draining blood) to green (a nauseous reaction to what's happening to her). Holcomb wonders if the film didn't influence Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary; if true, I wouldn't be surprised--Maddin's talented enough to recognize a master worth ripping off. All in all a terrifically interesting little number, perhaps even a minor classic if it weren't for that damned rubber bat.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Ibulong Mo sa Hangin's cheesy poster

Ibulong Mo sa Hangin (Whisper to the Wind) is probably more difficult to appreciate, even if it doesn't have that hilarious rubber bat. There's no tall forbidding figure like Dr. Marco to draw your eye or give the film a massive jolt of malevolence (not to mention sexually perverse charisma); instead the protagonist is an entire family, its antagonist the encroaching corruption that comes with wealth and power.

Interesting too to compare the two films' treatment of vampirism. In Kulay Dugo ang Gabi vampirism is an empowering, erotically energizing condition; you only need to look at Remy's Dr. Marco--a phallic symbol on legs--to realize this. In Ibulong Mo sa Hangin, vampirism is a true curse, a disease passed on from one generation to the next--not so much genetically (hemophilia comes to mind) as sexually, or in this case, through the erotic act of bloodsucking. Don Enrique Escudero (Johnny Monteiro) has shut his wife Dona Escudero (Mary Walter) up in a dungeon deep below their bedroom for years (talk about love's captive) because she's become a vampire, and he forbids his daughter Leonore (Amalia Fuentes, who was in Kulay Dugo ang Gabi) from marrying out of fear that she'll turn into a vampire too (strange that he has no objection to son Eduardo (Eddie Garcia) marrying his girlfriend Christina (Rosario del Pilar)--does Don Enrique think inherited vampirism a sex-linked trait?). Don Enrique is content to keep the status quo, chaining his wife and whipping her by night, allowing her to rest in her coffin by day; it's when he suffers a near-fatal heart attack that he realizes things cannot go on as they always have done. Meanwhile, Eduardo is furious at his father's orders to have Villa Escudero (their ancestral mansion) burnt down after his death, while Leonore pines for her untouchable love Daniel (Romeo Vasquez).

You can see right off that what interests De Leon is not the thrills he can eke out of the premise (vampires popping out of nowhere) but the opportunity to portray in close detail the family's attempts to retain their humanity in the face of the curse--an altogether more ambitious, more complex challenge. Vampirism as a metaphor for syphilis is at least as old as Bram Stoker's classic novel, but with Ibulong Mo sa Hangin we have a demonstration of syphilis' spread within a family, driven by repressed incestuous feelings, and the cost such a curse exacts on each and every soul.

The horror here is richer, fuller--you feel it not so much from the actual amount of blood spilled onscreen, but through the reactions of various characters towards all the mayhem. The first sight of Eduardo's mother in a coffin isn't half as affecting as Eduardo's response to it, which is to run up the dungeon stairs to his room; the camera retreats from the shut door (and the muffled sounds of sobbing within) as if in respect for the man's torment. Later, seeing the late matriarch up and snarling isn't half as frightening as Eduardo's reply to her snarls--he pulls the crucifix off his neck, to allow his beloved mother to embrace him. Eduardo turning is a shocking moment, but better yet is what happens when he turns Christina, marries her (in a scene where he practically admits to the family that he was her rapist), then in their marriage bed informs her that he is her lord and life. Christina, helpless before the authority vested in Eduardo by both Church and society, does what any decent woman married to a vampire would do: offer up her neck in voluptuous surrender.

Eduardo commits many of the film's atrocities (whatever he did to his wife, he does worse to his beautiful sister Leonore), and there is the suggestion that the curse doesn’t so much transform Eduardo as it does release certain appetites already roiling within him (his greedy impatience to be master and controller of Villa Escudero is a strong clue). But we don't fear him the way we did Remy's Dr. Marco; we are disgusted but tempering and complicating that disgust is a strong strain of pity--De Leon makes it clear that Eduardo is as much a victim (of the curse, of his own inner demons) as are his own victims in turn, a fatalistic cycle of guilt and sin passed from generation to generation that only Catholics (and perhaps Buddhists) can truly appreciate. It's a delicate balancing act, this teetering between pathos and perversion, but Garcia (a consummate actor and occasional filmmaker who has done everything from action (Hukom .45 (Judge .45, 1990)) to comedy (May Lamok sa Loob ng Kulambo (There's a Mosquito Inside the Net, 1984)) to drama (Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1972)) to gay roles (Brocka's Tubog sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold, 1972)) does it with brave ease.

Garcia's performance doesn't occur in a vacuum; Johnny Monteiro spends much of the film clutching his chest and gasping, bowed but not quite broken, and his pained posture hints at the cost of keeping his burden secret; on the other hand one can't help but notice a marked eagerness in Don Enrique to use the whip (a De Leon trademark, to indicate sadism in a character) on his vampiric wife. Mary Walter as Dona Escudero is not so much a horrifying ghoul as she is a horrifyingly pathetic one; her gauntness, emphasized by hollowed cheeks and an emaciated figure, suggest a hunger made monstrous by years of captivity and suffering. Amalia Fuentes is moving (if somewhat one-note in comparison) as the innocent Leonore, Romeo Vasquez impressive as the righteous, relentless Daniel; as Eduardo's wife Christina, Rosario Del Pilar exhibits an unsettling appetite for complete submission (and in fact throughout much of her career Ms. Del Pilar has been game enough to play villainesses not averse to showing off a bit of skin).

The film unfortunately is not in black and white, which would have helped the period production design hide its deficiencies, and I miss the sudden switches to pure red or blue De Leon used with such effectiveness in Dugo ang Kulay ng Gabi. But here De Leon has the great cinematographer Mike Accion working for him, and with Accion he is still able to bathe key moments in blood red, and fashion Welleslike off-balance compositions that catch the eye. In one scene Don Enrique confesses to a priest, and the priest's head looms before the camera, sweaty and sidelit, while the infirm Don Enrique is glimpsed from below and behind the head, eyes pleading (the image suggests the overpowering authority of the Catholic Church, and the Don's helplessness before it). In other scenes De Leon immerses you in the action: the camera perched, for example, at the dungeon entrance while Dona Escudero climbs out of her coffin and runs snarling up the stairs to bare her fangs in your face (all done in deep crimson); Daniel brandishing a pitchfork, the tines of the fork practically raking the lens as he threatens Eduardo. De Leon even reprises the brilliant confrontation between Dr. Marco and his hapless nemesis in Dugo ang Kulay ng Gabi, only here pitting ghost against vampire; the play between frame and mis-en-scene is, if anything, even more brilliant. In Dugo such moments stand out in marked contrast to the flow of the story, while in Ibulong these moments are thoroughly integrated. If in Dugo ang Kulay ng Gabi De Leon uses his considerable visual style to energize a rather thin vampire story, with Ibulong Mo sa Hangin the style is one of several elements that put forth De Leon's overriding themes, of corruption and familial decline.

One scene where camera and story work as one on the viewer's sensibilities is when Don Enrique immolates his wife at a pyre. Dona Escudero's face is glimpsed through a tangle of twigs; closeup of her hand while Don Enrique gently, tenderly presses a rosary to its palm; cut to her serenely sleeping profile as flames like curtains gradually draw together, bringing her life to a close. De Leon's camera returns to Don Enrique's care-lined face, and as he draws a ragged breath we realize that, despite all the whippings, the years when he kept his wife chained and shut in a dark hole, Don Enrique still cares for her and mourns her passing. A beautiful, moving sequence that reveals the film for what it really is--not a cheap grade-B horror flick, but a tragedy writ large on the passing of a family, made on a budget that would barely finance a Universal horror picture.

(Both films are available on Amazon and Netflix)

*At least I think those are the films' titles. IMDB and Netflix list the Ronald Remy vampire film as Kulay Dugo ang Gabi (The Blood Drinkers, 1966), while the Eddie Garcia vampire film is Dugo ng Vampira (Blood of the Vampires, 1971). Either Holcomb is wrong, or IMDb and Netflix are wrong (IMDb once listed Mike De Leon as married (?!) and Netflix still lists Yam Laranas as the director of Biyaheng Langit (Paradise Express), despite my repeated attempts at correction), or I'm confusing the two films for two completely different other films (perfectly possible). Until I can get confirmation either way I'm going with Holcomb's assertions, and my assertion that these are the films Holcomb is talking about…

This post is part of Nathaniel R's Vampire Blog-a-thon

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

The Bloodsucking Blogs: Flickhead has capsules on five favored vampire flicks; Gallery of the Absurd imagines Interview with the Antoinette; House of Sternberg posts original short fiction The Starving; Certifiably Creative offers up Theater Des Vampires; No More Marriages on Pittsburgh as the star of Innocent Blood; Eddie on Film views Fright Night as the top 80s vampire flick; Forward to Yesterday gets political w/ Guy Maddin's Dracula; Silly Hats Only on George Romero's Martin; As Little As Possible loves Dracula: Dead and Loving It; Modern Fabulousity pays tribute to Klaus Kinski as Nosferatu; Low Resolution stays up late From Dusk Till Dawn; Stale Popcorn sings a love song for (sexy) vampires; goatdog on the dwindling House of Dracula at Universal; Cinemathematics on vampire imagery in Shadow of a Doubt; Burbanked Blame the screenwriter: blood sucking edition

...And Still More Undead: Richard Gibson goes contemporary: Martin and The Addiction; When I Look Deep... pits DrĂ¡cula against Dracula; Pfangirl on a "bloody awesome trio" of lady bloodsuckers; QTA loves the ladies. And so do the ladies in Vampyros Lesbos; Cinema Fromage 'yeah baby, Dracula in 70s London;' zoom-in requests a DVD fix of The Addiction; Stinky Lulu loves Ketty Lester in Blacula; Way of Words on women: from victims to vampire slayers; Music is My Boyfriend offers tunes for the blog-a-thon; Pen15 Club "When Hilary Duff attacks;" My New Plaid Pants finds Paxton ‘finger lickin’ good’ in Near Dark; Nicks Flick Picks on Coppola's Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Being Boring on the homo-cautionary Interview… Culture Snob resurrects and old look at Nosferatu; The Horror Blog 'fesses up to some anti-vampire prejudice

The Vampires Are Everywhere! Tuwa's Shanty on Martin & Nosferatu; Catherine Cantieri the giant sucking sound of 1992's Dracula; The Boob Tubers asks the eternal question: Spike or Angel? novaslim says a "vuck you" to Grace Jones in Vamp; European Films on Frostbite, a Swedish horror comedy; popbytes recommends Christopher Lee in Hammer's Dracula series; Glitterati points out the most unbelievably cast vampire…ever; 100 Films the monster mashup: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein;Peter Nellhaus on Brides of Dracula; Bright Lights After Dark 'Browning and the Slow Club' (Dracula); Tim Lucas declares his half dozen favorite vampire flicks; Film Vituperatum Ninjas and Vampires --uncanny similarities! Film of The Year 'That's Why The Lady is a Vamp' All About My Movies Angelina Jolie IS a Vampire; Critic After Dark two vampire movies from The Philippines; Agence Eureka a vampire gallery; Cinevistaramascope finds Herzog's Nosferatu superior to Murnau's; Auteur Lust obsesses on Persona: 'The Vampire's In Us;' Bitter Cinema a treasure trove of YouTube vampire trailers; Cutting Room remembers his first time...w/ Bram Stokers Dracula; Watts With Words; 'Suck Me' on homoerotic vampires; Jurgen Fauth's Muckworld a 60 second tribute to Kinski as Nosferatu.

8 comments:

burnedout firechild said...

wow...(brief pause due to speechles-ness)... thank you for posting this

andyhorbal said...

Great post! Both of these films sound just delightful and I'm going to watch them as a double-feature (probably) next week!

Noel Vera said...

Sure thing firechild.

Hope you enjoy em, Andy. And whether you do or don't, I'd love to hear your thoughts, either in your blog or mine.

Patrick said...

Gerry De Leon is in good company with Lamberto Avellana, Eddie Romero, and Cirio Santiago (though his local work is still dubious for praise) in making some of the best Filipino films while at the same time churning out some strangely fine crafted B-movies for American film companies.

I think you can blame the title confusions to the people promoting the film in the US in its original release, trying to convey as much sensationalism as possible.

andyhorbal said...

Oh absolutely! Whatever I think of them I can think of a hundred interesting ways to spin a description of my experience...

Bob said...

Noel --

I promised I'd read your vampire post after I recovered from the U.S. election, and I have -- though it took me until the date of another blogathon to do it!

This Dr. Marco sounds like a real cool cat for all us bald and balding guys to emulate.

Anyhow, just wanted to say great stuff. I've read most of your last several posts and I'm impressed with what you're doing. I might have mentiont this before, but though Southern California has a huge number of Filipino-Americans living here, Filipino cinema remains mostly unknown even to the first and second generation Filipino-Americans that I know.

We uber film geeks, on the other hand, can sometimes at least throw around Lino Brocka's name...even if we haven't seen any of his films.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks. If you check my post (permanently linked on my front page) on Filipino films on DVD, you can get a few of those Brocka films. Not his best, but those, hopefully, are coming out next year...

Anonymous said...

If you're looking for a new vampire series check out ETERNAL VIGILANCE by Gabrielle S. Faust! :)

TopOfBlogs [Valid Atom 1.0] blogville.us BlogCatalog http://globeofblogs.com/buttons/globe_blogs.gif