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!
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