Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Aswang - review

DVD Director: Wrye Martin / Barry Poltermann

Release Date: 1994

Contains spoilers

The Aswang is an unusual form of vampire, hailing from the Philippines, and this is one of the few films made about such a creature (another being the film also entitled Aswang two years earlier but, as far as I am aware, never released with English dubbing or subtitles). I shall look into this particularly nasty creature later in the review, but suffice it to say in this film the aswang primarily feeds on unborn children, using a long, proboscis like tongue to enter the pregnant mother.

The film begins in a solicitor’s office where Katrina (Tina Ona Paukstelis) is signing the rights to her unborn child to Peter Null (Norman Moses) and his ‘wife’.

Seven months later he is driving Katrina to his family estate, where she is to pose as his wife, Janine, until the baby is born. He has told her that his family has not met Janine but he will never receive his inheritance if he has no heir. At the home they meet his mother Olive (Flora Coker) and their maid, who came from the Philippines where Peter grew up, Cupid (Mildred Nierras). He also has a sister, Claire (Jamie Jacob Anderson), but she lives in a cabin behind the house and Katrina is told to avoid her as she is ‘touched’.

That night at dinner Olive, who is in a wheelchair and needs oxygen, has what can be best described as a funny turn. Rather than help her mistress, Cupid listens to Katrina’s belly and says, in her native language, that it is only a couple of days and it is nearly ripe. During dinner Katrina tries to refuse a drink but is told that it is only apple cider, as the night goes on she gets steadily more and more drunk – a little confusing to me, though I believe that in America apple cider is none alcoholic generally, an alien notion to us Brits.

That night Katrina dreams, strange and disturbing visions fill her head. The camera pulls from the dream and we see Peter with his head buried between her legs. In the morning he announces to his mother that it is a girl.

During this we have seen a man with his dog in the woods. He has found several cocoons, each containing what appears to be a desiccated foetus. The next day he appears near the manor house. Peter is incensed but Katrina invites the man to dinner. He is Dr Harper (John Kishline). After dinner he looks at some of the paintings and spots one with a demonic creature above a hut, its long tongue entering the building. He gets back to his cabin and finds the picture in a book, it is a depiction of an aswang, the inscription tells us that they suck the life out of unborn children, but some of the unborn survive to become aswang themselves. He realises he hasn’t seen the dog, finds it hung and dead and then is struck and strangled by a long tongue. Later we see his blood being fed upon, with the tongue beneath the skin of his arm, and him being cocooned.

In the night Katrina wakens to find a long tongue probing across the bed she pulls at it and a window shuts, hanging Olive from the window. Unfortunately, here, the film falls back on staple horror clichés. Katrina escapes the house and, rather than runs, goes to Clare’s cabin. Clare attacks her with a chainsaw, in a rather pathetic attempt on Katrina’s life who easily dispatches her with a hoe. She then realises that Clare had posed as Peter’s wife in the solicitors. We have the obligatory escape, picked up by sheriff, returned to house scene – though the sheriff later realises something really is wrong, returns and is quickly killed.

The clichés are countermanded by the two main performers, Katrina does seem terrified as she is chased around the estate and Peter seems entirely psychotic, especially as he paces around singing “she’ll be coming round the mountain” or begins screaming about the fact that America has laws, and he has bought the baby, ignoring of course the laws regarding infanticide. We also realise that Katrina is unnaturally strong and resilient, how else, when chained, could she chop her own hand off with a hand-axe in order to escape and then manage not to bleed to death until the finale.

All that said, the film is effective. Whilst most of the cast have been in this one film and many of the performances are low grade, and the script falls back on horror cliché, not to mention the special effects which, quite frankly, are terrible, the film delivers. It is a shame about the effects, especially the tongue which, with some budget, might have been done in an animatronic sense (or perhaps even some digital wizardry). Unfortunately it looks like a painted piece of tubing – as the main point of the film this is disappointing.

Yet, as I said the film does deliver. There is a palpable sense of tension, helped greatly by a very moody soundtrack. The taboo nature of the vampire’s food-source helps also, causing the viewer to cringe. If only the more interesting and conspiratorial aspects of the early part of the film had not been abandoned for run of the mill shlock horror later.

The aswang itself is not necessarily accurate to the Philippine myth. Firstly the aswang is a collective name and there are different types. Some, however, are vampiric, and some of these do have long tongues with which to feed and like small children as a preferred food source, though not necessarily always unborn children. These parts of the film fit pretty much in with some of the myth but the vampiric aswang is also depicted as a shape-shifter. It was probably for the best that this part of the myth was avoided given the budget. It is also common for the vampiric aswang to take the form of young women, not something the film acknowledges. For more on the aswang click here.

When settling on a score I was torn between the fact that the film is clichéd in places, has some very poor acting and terrible effects and the opposing factor that this is a fairly unique movie (certainly in western cinema) that is genuinely disturbing, leaving the viewer uncomfortable in places for all the right reasons. In the end I settled for 5 out of 10, an average score.

The imdb page is here.

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