Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Santigwar – review

Director: Joven Tan

Release date: 2019

Contains spoilers

The Filipino folklore of the aswang is often given a comparative association with the vampire, but we should remember that aswang is both used as the genus of a specific folkloric creature and also as a generic term meaning monster.

In this film the term aswang is used, but the main hunter (the Santigwar) also says that these are specifically kamadlang. This isn’t a term I had come across before, and a google left me none the wiser (feel free to educate me on the term in the comments especially if I have taken the name out of context). Be that as it may we have a group of creatures that can shapeshift (though they take on a drooling monstrous form and we do not see other typical aswang shapeshifting), cast magic it appears, and eat human flesh (and virgin flesh specifically for power).

conducting ritual

It begins with an old woman, Nana Rosa (Lui Manansala) – who we later discover is the queen of her aswang clan – ritualistically chanting. Nearby is a young man, whom she bites at one point. In a house that has charms hung at the windows, two young girls (Hasmin (played older by Alexa Ilacad) and Lea (played older by Michelle Vito)) have a box. Their father (Dan Fernandez) stops them from playing with it; it is a Santigwar box, containing weapons to fight evil.


They have their evening meal but something is out there and we see something dropped into a pitcher of water to contaminate it. Mother, Siony (Mary Jean Lastimosa), drinks some water and starts to choke, and in a really interesting moment we see her in a mirror and it appears she is being ridden – tying somewhat into being hagridden. When she dies her face seems transformed, twisted – later we hear that she was a daughter of Nana Rosa but abandoned the clan when she fell in love with a human Santigwar and this killing is for revenge. Again later, we learn that after this dad packed the younger Lea off for her safety, whilst he and Hasmin sought to find and kill Nana Rosa.

Jay and Benny

Cut ten years forward and a group of lads are in a diner, they are Aldrin (Marlo Mortel), Carlo (Marco Gallo), Jay (Paulo Angeles) and Benny (Keann Johnson). They are waiting for Aldrin’s girlfriend Ara (Pam Gonzales) as they are going out to her family’s place in the country – though the studious Benny (well, he wears glasses) has to be persuaded to come. As they travel there, there is some not so gentle ribbing of Benny for being a virgin… strange that Ara is the one who brings it up in the first place…

Aubrey Miles as Ynes

So, as they drive they have a near-miss-collision with Hasmin and her dad, almost running them down (albeit unconvincingly) – the latter now seeming rather infirm and during the incident Hasmin picks up the scent of Ara, and later discovers that the region where Ara's family lives is desolate following an epidemic. At the house there is a sister and cousin, Melai (Michelle Liggayu) and Sabel (Emie Conjurado), as well as Ara’s mother Ynes (Aubrey Miles), who seems very interested in Benny – even cooking him a special part of the evening meal. Of course, there won’t be any Mrs Robinson action, as they need him to remain a virgin. But you can guess that the lady aswangs will split the guys up in a divide and conquer routine, keeping them busy until Nana Rosa decides its time for them to die…

Hasmin prepares her weapon

And here it goes wrong… beyond paper thin characterisation there just isn’t enough done with the hunting section. There is little atmosphere and, although there is a death, no real peril as we don’t overly care for the characters. As the aswang hunt the guys, Hasmin is hunting the aswang – she again pretended to be nearly run over (by the slowest moving vehicle ever) in order to warn Benny to leave – strangely he took no notice of her... I mean “leave this place” portents whispered by a strange girl you’ve nearly run over twice in the day surely must hold gravitas?


The aswang, when transformed, have weak eyesight but strong senses of smell and hearing. Hasmin has a green water that masks someone’s scent and boils in the bottle when an aswang is near. She kills by knife (with another liquid poured on it, type unexplained) and, with her first kill, takes time to salt and burn the corpse – otherwise they can come back… This rule is not religiously followed thereafter, and I don’t know why, as Benny took the time to bury a friend whilst being hunted by a family of aswang.


This one suffers for the lack of character development, atmosphere and, quite frankly, balls out violence. It might have been a fair action/gore horror had the filmmakers gone that way – but they didn’t. I can’t help but feel that mum and dad’s origin story would have been a more interesting film also. The creature makeup is just that, makeup, and they look like unfrightening drooling things rather than creatures of terror. 3 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

On Demand @ Amazon US

On Demand @ Amazon UK


Khaia said...

Like you, I've never heard of the Filipino term "kamadlang" either, but the description you give seems to match that of the Hindu "rakshasa" better than the European vampire.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Khaia, the aswang generally are so varied - these ones would (as you point out) fit pretty well into a rakshasa type or even a general flesh eating creature - others are more blood drinking (famously, some aswang types suck amniotic fluid and the foetus from pregnant women).

In some respects it depends on how wide (past the Slavic folklore/European literature vampire template) you cast your net. Bane, in her Encyclopaedia of Vampire Mythology has an entry for rakshasa and Summers mentions them in the Vampire, his Kith and Kin

Glad you stopped by and many thanks for the comment