Friday, November 07, 2014

Manananggal in Manila (Monster in Manila, Mario O'Hara, 1997)

Penultimate entry in my series on Filipino horror films--an old old article about a neglected (possibly justly so, though I love it to bits) little frightener:

Melancholy In Manila

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 horror film by Mario O'Hara in which all but the last ten minutes of the movie are terrific--the catch being that those ten 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. I'm talking the generation of Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Celso Ad. Castillo, and Mike De Leon and yes, 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.

O'Hara was forced to adopt the same strategy 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 (the manananggal--a creature often female who sprouts giant bat wings, her upper body tearing free of the lower to seek blood, or unborn fetuses), not show it. A wing flashing over the camera lens, a fleeting shadow, a sudden disappearance--the film works as a crack thriller at this no-budget level (it helps that, despite having only two days to cut the footage, the editing is remarkably precise). You feel the kind of chills Jacques Tournier use to deliver in Cat People, except Tournier was always in my book a touch too tasteful. O'Hara has never even bothered trying to be tasteful; he suggests horror (he doesn't have the money to do anything else), but with the taint of obscenity. You feel there's nothing he wouldn't show, if he felt it needed showing; even that crutch is taken from you.

O'Hara cunningly uses the fact that he had no money for extras to give us a rare view of Metro Manila. This is the city after hours, all silent bars and empty discos, a city where most 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 go abroad and hunt their prey.

Spielberg was forced to shoot around his faulty robot shark, but when push came to shove, Universal released the extra funds to allow his twenty-foot monster to make a belated appearance. When push comes to shove in Manananggal O'Hara is forced to pull away the curtain and reveal the cardboard cut-out that had been terrifying the audience up to that point. The sight is pathetic: Alma Concepcion with a Wicked Witch Of The West fake chin and wings made from trash bags. At one point something blue and vaguely batlike flutters across the night sky.

Why? We can only speculate that the producers wanted to give the audience its money's worth: a monster, no matter how silly-looking. Concepcion's Imee Marcos chin is presumably a concession to the cliché that a monster has to look ugly to be terrifying.

But O'Hara already had the audience in his thrall! The moment 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 properly. When the creature sticks out its tongue, the pinkish member recalls the garter snake 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 had applied their prosthetics themselves). 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--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 Peque Gallaga's bigger budgeted The Magic Temple. The reason is simple, really: Temple has great production value, beautiful photography and about fifteen minutes of very expensive--and fairly impressive--special effects. Manananggal has almost no production value, subdued (though distinctly cinematic) photography and totally wretched special effects. Temple packs so much effects into its frame there's not much room left for heart; Manananggal has heart and not much room for anything else.ctually 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), a pregnant young girl (Angelika) abandoned by her boyfriend (Eric Fructoso).

Concepcion is surprisingly effective, considering that she never showed much acting ability in her previous roles--O'Hara enhances her performance by keeping the camera mostly at a distance and draping her in plenty of fetching underwear. The real surprise is Angelika: she stood out in the otherwise trashy Nights Of Serafina; Manananggal is only her second feature and 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 faithless lover--play like understated gems. The film has something few horror flicks have: a fragile melancholy mood, the faintest hint of tenderness, the taint of human emotion.

That tenderness should be effective preparation for the horrors to come--which, unfortunately, never quite arrive. 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 in the rooftops; the comic interlude makes an abrupt left turn into the Twilight Zone, and leaves you with a faint sense of foreboding.

The last scene takes place on a rooftop, between Angelika and 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  new meaning: it's a happy ending, all right, just not the one you expect. You're probably not listening, though--there's an 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 murmurs: "I'm not evil, I'm liberated. And I want you to be liberated, too." Evil isn't always out-and-out horrifying; sometimes it can be subtly, seductively reasonable. Manananggal gives you a taste--if brief 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. It shouldn't be too expensive to fix: 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 are actually quite good--Gerry De Leon's Terror Is A Man is a 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 efforts--pito-pito (seven-seven) movies, nicknamed after the herbal tea, an effective diuretic--because they'll be made with seven days' shooting schedule and seven days postproduction (this movie reportedly isn't one of them, though for all the support it got it might as well have been). Fourteen days! God created the world in half that time, but he had divine powers; besides, he also 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 film's 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 SaBanga (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) but is 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 1/12/97

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