With Jerrold Tarrog‘s re-envisioning of Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’ classic Aswang opening later this week, it pays to look back at the early 90’s original.
Despite being nearly two decades old, Gallaga and Reyes’ tale of the supernatural proves that true horror is not dulled by time.
At the onset of Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes‘s genre-defining work, Aswang, it is clear that the so-called creature of the night is real. The moment the film shows Alma Moreno in her black dress and shawl, only the ill-advised will not be convinced of her moonlighting activities.
She walks ominously, pacing back and forth like an animal following its prey, and fixes her stare on people that strike her fancy. She transforms into a cat, snake or bird and appears in suspicious places. Despite her strangeness to the surroundings, she rarely raises the doubt of the townspeople because of her pleasing appearance. Such a literary device works well in the film, and its writers, Pen Medina and Jerry Lopez Sineneng, tease the audience by playing with stereotypes and breaking them. Rarely does the movie pander to its viewers by resorting to cheap schlock gimmicks; on the contrary, it takes its time before finally revealing its fangs of brilliance.
Gallaga and Reyes are aware that the key to pulling off a horror movie is the establishment of its story, and they succeed in doing so by weaving a pair of carefully developed plots. Joey Marquez‘s cameo at the beginning, in which he plays the aswang’s first victim, lured by her mysterious and sexual beauty, forms the first plot, one that reinforces the belief of the folks in Talisay that the aswang is by no means a figment of their imagination.
The second concerns Catlyn (Aiza Seguerra), her nanny, Veron (Manilyn Reynes), and her driver, Dudoy (Berting Labra). They arrive at Catlyn’s house and witness a bloody robbery and murder. Catlyn’s mother is killed and the kid sees the faces of the criminals. Afraid that their identities will be revealed to the police, the thugs come after them but the three manage to escape and hide in the town where Dudoy’s sister lives, in Talisay where, incidentally, the aswang is notoriously making her comeback. Unburdened by the confines of an instructive morality tale, the film allows its two plots to meet and its two villains, the aswang borne out of myth and the aswang borne out of a corrupt society, to pay for their wrongdoings.
Like a prized wine kept in the cellar, Aswang tastes exquisitely almost twenty years later. It sure looks dated, but that’s more a sign of strength than of weakness. It foregoes the typical too-stupid-to-live characters that permeate recent episodes of Shake Rattle and Roll and instead strikes a balance between horror and comedy.
Sometimes this proclivity to overdo cracks and one-liners thwarts the suspense, disabling the nicely built thrill to achieve its full force, but that’s a minor concern. Aiza Seguerra, at an age when she reached her peak as a gifted child actor, is adorable; delivering her smart lines cunningly with a perfect mix of charm and acuity. She provides comic entertainment, but when it’s time to do serious drama, she can easily break into tears. Manilyn Reynes screams gratingly, but that’s part of her job. Interestingly, the great Berting Labra does a Karl Malden circa A Streetcar Named Desire and delivers a hefty monologue against the aswang. The monster obviously pays no heed because she devours him several sequences later. Also worthy of note is Lilia Cuntapay‘s bit role as Alma Moreno‘s old self, stealing the scene in those short minutes she appears.
Don Escudero‘s production design helps a lot to make Aswang a good-looking fright piece. He has given the creature a face, a house, and a pair of wings, as well as some little details that make her existence credible. These elements allow the film’s suspension of disbelief to endure. When the aswang shows her real face, she looks more fascinating than fearsome. There’s a feeling of curiosity upon discovering how the filmmakers have chosen to interpret the myth.
Moreover, the camera work by Joe Tutanes is impressive, prohibiting any room for sloppy shots and wasted angles. For instance, the short sequence of Alma Moreno peeping through the roof and slipping her tongue into the hole to eat Janice de Belen’s baby goes down in local cinema’s history as one of its most memorable moments.
Film critic Pio de Castro III believes that the film owes its success to Gallaga’s “third eye,” and that “eye” is never shut from start to finish. Aswang does not confound—it confronts, and it has the skill to dissolve its shortcomings and let its surprises stand out. From Richard Somes‘s Yanggaw (2008) to John Torres‘s Mapang-akit (2011), Aswang‘s influence is slowly but surely creeping back in.
Editor’s Note: Although film critic Richard Bolisay doesn’t have time for facebook, he makes up for it with his own fan page. Blame his fans. Or better yet, read his blog at Lilok Pelikula for a healthy serving of film, with a slice of music and literature for dessert.