Friday, November 07, 2014

Halimaw sa Banga (Monster in a Jar, Mario O'Hara, 1986)

Finally, one of my favorite Filipino horrors, and one of my most indefensible picks (more on that in the article): a classic, though some will wonder why--

Horror in a bottle

For the record: Mario O'Hara's Halimaw sa Banga (Monster in a Jar, 1986), second half of an ominbus horror film, was awarded 3rd Best Picture in the Metro Manila Film Festival--a controversial decision.

Controversial because the judges had not awarded a first and second best picture--Juror Tingting Cojuangco declared that "No one of the seven entries deserved these awards." Reading from a prepared statement, she added that the entries "failed to reinforce and inculcate positive Filipino values by portraying negative stereotypes, imitating foreign films, and perpetuating commercially-oriented movies."

Which goes to show even our best and brightest can occasionally fall prey to less-than-enlightened sentiments. The statement seems to take off from the rather quaint idea that Art is Good For You, and should Celebrate Humanity (Imelda Marcos similarly tried to argue that Filipino classics like Insiang and Manila By Night, by their very negativity, should be banned from the big screen).  

The jurors also betray a deplorable ignorance of indigenous culture--a lack of awareness that the script was based on Filipino lower mythology, the eponymous jar on Ifugao burial practices (they reportedly suspected that the story was lifted from an episode of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories).

More, it suggests a rather pitiable fixation on Hollywood production values as the standards by which to judge a film, plus a tendency to quickly condemn all local films that fall short of those standards. 

Production designer/scriptwriter Frank Rivera: "We spent five thousand pesos ($250) on the creature effects. We spent three thousand pesos ($150) on the banga (jar)." He added: "The creature was made of bits of fur, bits of this, bits of that, pasted on Maritess Guiterrez."

The film was both low-budget and state-of-the-art for the industry at the time; the jurors seem unable to entertain the notion that perhaps the filmmakers were working with strictly limited resources, and rather than look at these pictures as failed attempts to ape Spielberg (a somewhat overrated director in my book, who nowadays depends on multimilliondollar funding the way an addict depends on his crack pipe) they should be considered minor triumphs in no-budget production design and special effects. 

Am I being an apologist? Let me put it this way: if international film audiences today are sophisticated enough to enjoy the bargain-basement ingenuity of Larry Cohen; if they can appreciate the aesthetics and courage found in a John Cassavetes or Charles Burnett; if they can applaud the late genre works of a Gerardo de Leon, their tastes developed to the point of granting an award or two to Brillante Mendoza, Raya Martin, John Torres and Lav Diaz, then perhaps our own jurors could have shown some generosity of spirit to the films presented that December, 1986.

Actually, I wouldn't have gone into such a long and involved introductory argument if I didn't think there was something in Halimaw to admire in the first place. Though the story involves local myths it also borrows its premise not from Spielberg but from an older and to my mind far superior popular storytelling act: the Brothers Grimm. Brave heroine (Lotlot de Leon as Toni); wicked stepmother (Liza Lorena as Margarita); loving but absent father (O'Hara himself as Abe); loving but deceased mother (Nora Aunor in the offscreen but crucial role of Regina)--Halimaw is really an updated Grimm tale, its simple narrative of desperate women and their faithless husbands/lovers evoking that oldest of wars, the war between sexes, the struggle echoing down amongst the lower classes (housemaid with her houseboy) and younger generations (Toni with her boyfriend Duke (Ronnel Victor))

Before Wicked, before Disney's emetic Malificent and similar attempts at redefining fairy-tale villains there was Margarita; as played by Lorena she's magnificent--a sensuous, powerful, intelligent woman lawyer whose only real flaw is her inability to attract her man. O'Hara's script (co-written with Rivera) doesn't excuse her or fully endorse what she stands for--she's clearly a bad 'un--but doesn't keep her at arm's length either. We understand her plight (her husband is hopelessly in love with her late sister) the same time we resent her response (she hires detectives to follow her husband, then sues him for concubinage; worse, she takes her resentment out on Toni, somehow blaming the daughter for the sins of the father)

Well...we shouldn't resent her response--when you think about it a lawsuit is actually a reasonable alternative (there's no divorce in the Philippines)--but Lorena plays her as such a needy manipulative grasper you can't help but draw back, same time you note the smolder in her eyes (she's attractive and repulsive both).

Margarita also recalls Cersei, George R. R. Martin's evil queen in his Song of Ice and Fire series (adapted by HBO into Game of Thrones). Think about it: both are beautiful women trapped in a loveless marriage; both face an impossible competitor who will never age, never disappoint, never fade in the man's memory; both are driven to act by their monstrous hatred, their jealousy, their sense of aggrieved righteousness. 

(Might also add that Margarita's dabbling in archeology is possibly a sly dig at Manuel Elizalde, at the Filipino upper class' infatuation with and occasional exploitation of prehistorical Filipino artifacts--another reason for Ms. Cojuangco to be hostile, perhaps?)

In a rare move O'Hara directs himself. His Abe is sullen, inert; he plainly doesn't want to deal with his wife and his unresponsiveness is galling because when pulled out of himself--when, say, he's with his mistress (Marilyn Villamayor who, bit of mischievous casting here, is Nora Aunor's niece)--the virility on display seems meant to complement Margarita's ripe sexuality perfectly (all things being equal you might say they were made for each other)

When Abe is with Toni the difference is even more marked: he's carefree, even happy. There's an effortless affection here alien to Margarita's intensely sophisticated (and not a little claustrophobic) mindset, and that hurts too--her husband is capable of feelings she can't understand, much less share. O'Hara's is the simpler role but he gives Abe texture, a mix of likeable and unlikeable details that keeps the man interesting; he gives Lorena's Margarita a fully molded human being to play against, as opposed to the classic cardboard cut-out of a philandering husband. 

O'Hara with his miniscule budget manages to give the film a look, from the enchanted Aladdin cave where the banga is found, to nightmare flashbacks of the demon being crucified with iron spikes to a huge rock, to the eerie blue glow surrounding the halimaw as she frees herself a spike at a time. He contrives clever variations on the attacks: a clawed hand creeping out of the jar, a snarling head, sometimes both; the victim on occasion will oblige by poking his head in, or crouch behind the jar only to stand and find himself confronted. O'Hara in effect plays on the basic terror of huge vases: that you can never know what's in them till you step up and take a look.

The film builds to a nifty climax, all hell breaking loose and Toni and Margarita running for their lives. Suddenly the noise and lurid red glow die away and we're plunged into near-total darkness; Margarita steps away from Toni and in the most elegantly casual voice starts describing her entire relationship with Abe and his daughter up to that point. It's a bonkers moment, unsettling because it's so sudden, so very unexpected.

Baffled expression on Toni's face. Her tentative query: "Auntie? Why--?"

At which point the effects should have taken over. The film is a terrific little gem until the film's ambitions overtake its painfully modest means; you can only imagine what O'Hara really had in mind, as opposed to what's actually on the big screen--the war between sexes and among classes and across generations spilling over into a war across the heavens, among the angels and their fallen brethren (onscreen we have an overworked fog machine pouring out smoke; cheap firecrackers throwing off sparks; crude energy beams crackling out of the eyes and mouths of demons). Just when the film is supposed to take off it falls flat on its face; all that's left is a ghost, a whisper of the apocalyptic fantasy O'Hara intended for us to see.

O'Hara would come back to this topic in more detail with his equally ambitious (and equally underfunded) Manananggal in Manila (Monster in Manila, 1997); he would focus on the subject of war--between the sexes, between Church and State, between upper class and lower, elder and younger, Spaniard and Filipino--in his screenplay Hocloban, an award-winning, full-blown horror-fantasy of a historical epic, O'Hara's magnificently demented take on La Loba Negra. Possibly never to be realized with his untimely passing, alas. 

Meanwhile we have this--small-scaled but huge of heart, often awkward yet occasionally inventive, heroically written and acted and directed till the bottom drops out of the production budget--a crackpot testament to the power of Filipino ingenuity and imagination, despite hopeless odds. And (in my book anyway) a wonderful film. 

First published in Businessworld, 10.30.14

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