Sunday, April 19, 2009

Darna and the Giants (Philippines, 1974)

Darna and the Giants is the eighth film in the Darna series and the second to star Filipino screen icon Vilma Santos in the title role. Just as in the previously reviewed Darna vs. the Planet Women, the story centers around a flying saucer load of alien invaders who just happen to choose as their first target of conquest the small rural village in the Philippines where Darna's alter ego Narda lives along with her little brother Ding and their Grandmother.

This is the film that provided my first introduction to the screen exploits of Darna, coming to my attention by way of the 2003 Filipino comedy Crying Ladies. One of the running jokes in that latter film involved one of the main characters -- a washed-up aspiring actress by the name of Aling Doray, played by Hilda Koronel -- who was constantly crowing about her star turn alongside Vilma Santos in Darna and the Giants. The payoff to this gag occurs toward the end of the film, when we finally get to see a snippet of Darna and the Giants playing on television, and learn that Aling's role consisted solely of her being unceremoniously stomped upon by one of the film's titular giants. While undeniably funny, I'm sure that this business was even more so to the movie's Filipino audience, to whom both Darna, Vilma Santos and even Darna and the Giants would be cozily familiar cultural touchstones. Never content to be on the "out" side of a pop cultural in-joke, this reference -- along with the immediately apparent Z movie charms evident in those brief clips from the film shown in Crying Ladies -- propelled me on a mission to track Darna and the Giants down.

Now that I have seen the film -- twice, in fact -- I can appreciate even more just how ignominious poor Aling's turn in Darna and the Giants really was. Because an awful lot of people get stomped upon in it. So many, in fact, that you'd think that, by its end, the ground for miles around Darna's village would be covered with a thick paste formed from those anonymous masses of humanity unfortunate enough to have found themselves under the giants' trundling heels. And no matter how silly that may sound, be forewarned that Darna and the Giants, unlike so many cinematic superhero larks of its day, is no tongue-in-cheek affair. Indeed, much low-rent-gore-infused carnage and melodramatic tearing of hair comes in the wake of the giants' rampage. It's no laughing matter, despite the fact that the forced-perspective effects used to bring these rampages to life are so reminiscent of those "I'm crushing your head" sketches from Kids in the Hall.

The aliens' presence in Narda's village is first made known by way of what appears to be a devastating earthquake. Swallowing her magic stone, Narda transforms into Darna and, after paying a call on the makeshift hospital where the quake's survivors are being treated (where, in a nice example of the rural homeyness of these pictures, the staff and villagers alike all greet Darna with the easy warmth of old friends), heads off with Ding to investigate the cause of the disaster. Soon they comes upon the flying saucer captained by the evil warrior queen X3X (played by Filipino singer/actress Helen Gamboa). X3X, they find, has been capturing villagers and turning them into gigantic, rampaging automatons, and it is the footfalls of these behemoths, rather than any kind of seismic activity, that has been causing the ground to tremble. Unfortunately, before she can act upon this information, Darna -- or rather, Narda, because she has somewhat ill-advisedly changed back into her civilian guise while snooping around the saucer -- is captured and strapped head to foot with young Ding (here played by Don Don Nakar) in a giant stabbing machine.

The aliens, however, have underestimated the lack of squeamishness that comes from living with a sibling in close quarters, and Ding is able to pry the tape off of Narda's mouth with the use of his extremely grubby-looking bare feet, after which he flicks the magic stone into his sister's mouth, effectively calling Darna Time. Darna then flies forth and dispatches a number of the caveman-like giants in a variety of gory manners, blinding one, grabbing another by his topknot and dropping him into a volcano, and lacerating another's face with a church bell.

And speaking of church bells, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Darna's movies -- or Filipino pulp cinema in general -- that Jesus also gets in on the action in Darna and the Giants. This time around the J-man makes his appearance when one of the giants, a fetching and horny (and I'm referring there to her viking-style helmet, so, Jeez, get your mind out of the gutter) female ogress, rips the roof off a church and, upon seeing the image of Christ on the crucifix, is jolted into remembering her God fearing, pre-giantess existence. This literal come-to-Jesus moment results in the big lady renouncing her villager squashing ways and turning upon X3X. It doesn't work out too well for her, but, hey, at least she's not going to Hell!

X3X's fatal weakness turns out to be the thing that she considered to be her greatest strength. In an odd chunk of English-only verbal exposition (the rest of the film's dialog is in Tagalog), she explains to Darna that she keeps her brain -- "the most superior brain in the entire universe" -- separate from her body, so that it "cannot be affected by the ailments of the other organs... or damaged by emotional strain or nervous tension". The flaw in this brilliant scheme, however, is that X3X's vanity has prevented her from safely locking her most superior brain away in a safe place, and she has instead placed it on display inside a glass thingy situated right in the middle of the flying saucer's control room. This makes it fairly easy for Darna to break glass in case of emergency and brain X3X's brain, with the result that X3X's head explodes, after which she collapses and is -- apparently -- eaten by her dog.

With its combination of goofy comic book escapades, overwrought melodrama, and rough-edged exploitation movie style violence -- not to mention the adobo-like hodgepodge of other elements typical of Filipino B cinema (we get to see Grandma sings a sassy song, and there is a funeral-themed comic relief sequence) -- Darna and the Giants is far and away the most entertaining of the Darna films that I've seen thus far. Like Darna vs. the Planet Women, it is not a particularly well-made film, but it has a scrappy enthusiasm and naive charm that is more than enough to put it over. Vilma Santos is as spunky and endearing as ever, and the many faux kung fu battles she takes part in, while no more convincing than those in Planet Women, benefit greatly from her spirited commitment. Still, even if I was a better man, and immune to these qualifier-dependent attributes, the irrepressible nerd in me would ultimately be felled by the cut-rate kaiju action provided by the movie's village stomping giants. So, in short, you might not love this movie overall, but I guaranty that you'll find something in it to make you smile. Unless, of course, you're some kind of soulless, towering juggernaut... in which case, well, heh heh, good on you! And, hey, nice helmet!


Yee-haw!

10 comments:

houseinrlyeh said...

Looks fab. Wouldn't it be great if more films would show their religious colours by the way of church bell clobberings, instead of through Mel Gibson learning family values thanks to alien invasions?

I find Darna to be an incredibly fascinating phenomenon. Wonder Woman without S&M as rural Filipina. It's just fantastic.
Makes you wanna pump your fist and shout "World pop cinema!".

Todd said...

Well said. At least it can be said of Filipino filmmakers that they don't exactly resort to "stealth" tactics when trying to put across a religious message. And, I agree: There's something about the type of bottom-up pop cultural co-optation that Darna represents that really warms my little heart. She's just awesome.

sunil said...

While we of course continue to be staggered to your devotion to pop movies from across the world, (with 20+ languages, I am happy enough to understand my world) before tackling El Santo, the librarian in me wonders, are there any non-pretensious resources which talk about the movie culture as a whole for each region?

sunil said...

P.S and great to see from the wiki entry that the tradition of making actors politicians is one more universal trait across the globe. But probably only the US went so far as to make one President. :)

Todd said...

"are there any non-pretensious resources which talk about the movie culture as a whole for each region?"

I'd say that Pete Tombs' Mondo Macabro is essential reading in that regard. The chapter on Filipino cinema is especially excellent.

"great to see from the wiki entry that the tradition of making actors politicians is one more universal trait across the globe."

And nowhere yet has it proved to be a good idea.

sunil said...

And nowhere yet has it proved to be a good ideaI would say it is an inevitable step that every proto-democracy that hasn't evolved a process to generate real leaders has to go through.

India for instance had a great set of self-evolved leaders (above all Gandhi) in the independence struggle.

Yet afterwards, the tendency is for the existing fuedal chiefs to take over.

Actors, for all their faults, are not part of the existing aristocracy.

Anonymous said...

I grew up watching those Filipino movies. Years later, when I moved to America, they are still imprinted in my head so I ordered copies of them online. My Mom wanted me to return them saying they are low-grade quality. I told her---it's not about that---it's the nostalgia that I paid for. It was the memory of me growing up in the Philippines with these movies. I also miss playing with my friends, putting candies in our mouths and shouting "DARNA!!!" all together. Oh, when things were simple...Lastly, I really enjoyed your blog. Good times. BTW, there will be a new Darna TV series this 2014.

Todd said...

Thank you, Anonymous (if that is your real name). I'm glad you enjoy the blog. As far as the Darna movies go: the sad thing is that, until someone can put the time, effort and money into restoring them, this is probably the best quality in which we're going to find them. I, of course, would also love to see them subtitled in English!

Anonymous said...

Hey Todd,
The other sad thing is, as far as I know, there are no surviving copies of the first Darna movie Vilma Santos made, "Lipad, Darna, Lipad"(Fly, Darna, Fly. I'm not sure if I ever saw that one. I think I might have but I have very vague memories of it. THe first one I ever saw was the one with the giants, which from what I hear in the rumor mill will be remade by a Film Company in the philippines called Star Cinema, and will star Angel Locsin, who also donned the red two-piece in a 2005 TV Series on the GMA Network. Lastly, I don't know if you've seen this but I just wanted to share it, here's a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FSjs1wzPWk

I think you might get a kick out of it.

Todd said...

Yeah, I've heard that about Lipad, Darna, Lipad!' too. The only thing that I Know about it, other than that it stars Vilma Santos, is that it has the same three episode structure as Darna at Ding.

Thank you so much for that link. That's going on the 4DK Facebook page.