Friday, November 28, 2008

Darna and the Tree Monster (Philippines, 1965)

Darna and the Tree Monster (aka Darna At Ang Babaing Tuod) is the fifth feature film based on Filipino comic book kingpin Mars Ravelo's Wonder Woman-inspired heroine Darna, and the only one of those films to star Eva Montes in the title role. The role would next go to Gina Pareno for another one-shot performance before being defined for the screen once-and-for-all by Filipino box office queen Vilma Santos in a run that would last through four films made between 1973 and 1979.

I must say that Montes got kind of a raw deal in terms of this being her one pass at playing Darna, because Darna and the Tree Monster, despite being adapted directly from a storyline in the original comic, is a Darna movie that has very little Darna in it. Instead, its running time is comprised largely of the type of overwrought, hand-wringing melodrama, fraught with intense religious overtones, that Filipino audiences apparently just can't get enough of, with a sudden abundance of superhero vs. monster action crammed into its final twenty minutes as if as an afterthought.

The story concerns a desperate woman who, unable to conceive, makes a pact with Satan in order that she may have a child. Old Scratch -- represented by a python who appears before the woman amid much thunder and lightning -- is happy to comply, but the daughter he blesses the woman with is soon revealed to be a bad seed. Indeed, in her teen years, Lucila (Gina Alonzo) proves to be the shame of her parents' existence, constantly listening to American rock and roll music, smoking, getting in catfights, and driving boys to temptation with her lascivious dancing. Finally, it seems that the unruly girl has begun to settle down, but on her wedding day her debt to the devil comes due, and she begins to periodically transform into a shambling tree monster -- which would make her a sort of were-tree, as it were.

After a brief and very welcome narrative digression in which we see Darna rescuing a woman from a man in a shabby gorilla suit, Darna's alter ego Narda (Coney Angeles), upon hearing a radio broadcast about Lucila's leafy depredations, transforms into our heroine and flies off to save the day, ultimately delivering comeuppance to the beast with a well placed head-butt. This was the last of the Darna films to feature a different, much younger actress in the role of Darna's alter ego, and future films would feature their lead actress playing both Narda and Darna, despite the comic's depiction of the adolescent Narda as simply being a vessel through which the adult Darna makes her appearance on Earth.

One aspect of Darna's alter ego that might strike Westerners as novel is that, unlike the urban professionals and reclusive millionaires who comprise the civilian guises of most American-style superheroes, Narda is a poor girl who, like many in the Philippines, lives in a small rural village. Just as with the humble origins provided most superhero types in Indian cinema, this allows an audience overwhelmingly made up of those from the less moneyed classes easier access to the fantasies of escape and transformation that such heroes provide. These early screen incarnations of Darna also gain a sort of everywoman appeal by virtue, at least in the case of Montes and Santos, of the less than Amazonian physical stature of the actresses who played her, and the fact that, despite the character's traditionally scanty attire, there doesn't seem to have been much of an attempt to sexualize her. More recent screen versions of Darna have favored lead actresses more on the bodacious side, but here the character seems to have a tomboyish kid sister quality that I imagine enabled her to appeal equally to audience members of both sexes.

The majority of cult cinema fans will probably find Darna and the Tree Monster most noteworthy for being an early directing effort by Cirio H. Santiago. Santiago's father, Ciriaco Santiago, was the founder of Premiere Productions, the company that produced the film, a fact which I'm sure had everything to do with Santiago junior being involved in it. Cirio's career would, of course, go on to include such landmarks of cinematic cooperation between the United States and the Philippines as T.N.T. Jackson, Vampire Hookers, Future Hunters and lots of movies with the word "Fist" in the title, and would see the director/producer working with Roger Corman on an impressive array of trash action pictures.

It's difficult for me to offer any type of real "critique" of Darna and the Tree Monster, mainly due to the dire condition of the version I watched -- typical of those few Filipino films of this vintage that are available for viewing at all -- and its lack of English subtitles. I will say, however, that the film, like quite a few homegrown Filipino movies before it, did manage to creep me out with its oppressively heavy Catholic imagery. Suffice it to say that this is a country where you don't mess with Jesus, and if you do, don't expect yourself to be considered worthy of anything less than the harshest of possible retributions. Still, the final moments of the film, which come complete with a barely mobile tree monster reminiscent at once of From Hell It Came and The Wizard of Oz and some wonderfully crude flying effects, packed in more psychotronic thrills than a lot of other films that seemed on the surface to be more promising. And, despite its preponderance of talk-heavy melodrama, there was enough of a weird aura about it to keep my attention fixed throughout.

Mostly I'm just glad whenever I have the opportunity to see a film like this, because there are so many others from its place and time that have since been lost. That I was also allowed by way of it to experience one of the most celebrated characters in its country's popular culture made that opportunity seem doubly rare.

Expect more on Darna in the coming weeks.


Wise Kwai said...

Looks and sounds like fun. A Darna movie was featured at this year's Pusan International Film Festival, though I don't know which one. There is also an Indonesian Darna, apparently the same character.

Anonymous said...

I can't bring myself to read this. Am too afraid that a new obsession will be born.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Sounds great to me. Personally, I'd probably have fun with the heavy catholicism - one of the bloodiest weird mythologies I know.

Todd said...

Wise Kwai, I found a page with some cast info and screencaps from the Indonesian Darna movie, Darna Ajaib here. There are also numerous clips from it on Youtube, most of which weren't very interesting, but this one has some awesome special effects at just about the one minute mark. I must say though, that the Indonesian version of Darna wears her debt to Wonder Woman on her sleeve to a much greater extent than the Pinoy one.

It looks like the Filipino Darna movie that played at PIFF was 1994's Darna, Ang Pagbabalik, which starred Anjanette Abayari, one of those actresses to portray Darna in more recent years who I referred to in my post as being more on the, um, bodacious side.

Memsaab: Perhaps your caution is warranted. I wouldn't exactly call Darna addictive, but she does grow on you.

House: You're right. That stuff make Lovecraft look like Mother Goose.

Anonymous said...

Cool! Looking forward to more Darna. :D

Todd said...

I'll be delving into some of the Vilma Santos Darna movies in the next few weeks. My lovely wife has graciously agreed to provide rough translation for at least one of them, so, at least in one case, my review won't be the typical "der, der, der -- ooh, pretty colors -- der, der, etc...."

Anonymous said...

Hi there. I just admired how you appreciate our DARNA heroine. I don't know if you also know that there is another Darna movie with Vilma Santos on it -- I read here that you only refer to the following Darna movies that starred Santos:
- Lipad, Darna, Lipad
- Darna and the Giants
- Darna Vs. The Planet Women

There is one Darna movie with Santos, that's Darna at Ding, this starred Santos with the Philippines boy wonder Niño Mulach, and like Lipad, Darna, Lipad this also features three episodes. You might want to check on that too.

Also I'd like to ask where you got your copy of Darna and the Giants -- I have been looking for a copy and couldn't find one. Let me know if you also find a copy of the Lipad,Darna, Lipad.

Art ---

Todd said...

Glad you're enjoying the reviews. I'll be reviewing Darna et Ding in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, a copy of Lipad, Darna, Lipad still eludes me.

shonokin said...

I don't know how you find most of this stuff! But, it's just been announced that a new DVD has been released of this movie. No subs afaik though.

Todd said...

Cool. Subtitles or no, I'm sure the quality will be better than the horrible, gray market DVD-R of it that I have. Thanks for the tip, Shonokin.