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.
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