Sunday, June 05, 2011

Manananggal in Manila (1997)

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

Mario O’Hara’s Manananggal in Manila (Monster in Manila) takes its cue from Roman Polanski who has mined domestic paranoia for dread in films like Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). Terry (Angelika dela Cruz), who is living in a condominium building with her sister (Aiza Seguerra), is pregnant. Unfortunately, the father of her baby has abandoned her. Beatriz (Alma Concepcion), a model, has moved in next door and starts to befriend her. Right after Beatriz's move, mysterious deaths are reported, with the bodies of the victims disemboweled, giving rise to conclusions that a manananggal (a monster that looks like an ordinary woman except that the upper part of her body separates from the lower part when it hunts for its prey) is responsible for the several murders.

Manananggal in Manila is essentially two separate movies melded into one out of convenience and commercial viability. The first one’s the attempt to update Peque Gallaga’s Manananggal episode in the first Shake, Rattle and Roll (1984). This is where O’Hara stumbles. Given the meager budget and the time constraints O’Hara has to work with, the film ultimately suffers, bearing all the evidence of its lack of ample financing. The wings of the manananggal are obviously assembled from plastic. The animated sequences (where the winged monster flies into the sky against the full moon and the parting scene where an ominous full moon slowly appears in the night) are pathetically executed. Sometimes, O’Hara does away with special effects by communicating terror through editing, nuanced and resourceful cinematography, or inventive sound effects.

The other film is far more interesting. O’Hara, more than just depicting evil through a monster sourced from myths and ghost stories, explores the nuances of that evil. Concepcion, sans the prosthetics she dons in the film’s climactic scenes, inhabits the role with astounding ease. There’s urgency in her attempts to seduce Terry to befriend her, to ease her out of the comfort of living the life of a single mother who consciously fantasizes about a boyfriend who cares about her instead of simply accepting the fact the he has left her, and finally, to slowly be liberated from the clutches of morality and be angry and vengeful, making her the proper vessel for herself. The film is most successful when it aspires for this kind of internal dread, more introspective and conceptual rather than the cheap scares and unintended humor of low-rent visual effects.

O’Hara’s Manila fronts a facade of normalcy. However, underneath the concrete of its many high-rise residential towers and the cautious demeanours of its denizens lies an unspoken fear, a shared understanding that the supernatural exists alongside ordinary problems. It is a city that bears the same haunted quality of Dario Argento’s Freiburg, New York City and Rome in Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980), and The Mother of Tears (2007), respectively. The city becomes an apt dwelling place for the evil monster, who other than its look and its craving for human innards and babies has been transformed from a random mythological monster into an embodiment of evil, which is not necessarily defined by violent and destructive acts but by characteristics that are more human in nature, such as greed, lust and guiltless vindictiveness.

Manananggal in Manila is low-budget, high-concept horror. At first glance and especially with its crude and laughable special effects, the film seems to be nothing more than a hodgepodge of incongruent elements struggling to make logical sense. It is easily dismissible as nothing more than an attempt by its producers to rake in the most profit out of the littlest of capital. However, there is certainly something more to the film than its numerous glaringly bad parts. Unfortunately, the patience and persistence to see through the mess are traits that are rarely found in moviegoers fed with the seamless but empty spectacles Hollywood provides.

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