It seems that, for most of Filipino comic maestro Mars Ravelo’s career, his creations had a direct line to the nation’s theater screens. Due to the breadth of Ravelo’s work, this goes not only for obvious superhero properties like Darna and Captain Barbell, but also melodramas like 1951’s Roberta, the adaptation of which provided the ailing Sampaguita pictures with a much needed hit just when it was on the verge of collapse. Another of Ravelo’s beloved and often revisited comic-to-screen creations is the mermaid Dyesebel (pronounced “Jezebel”), who seems to owe some debt of inspiration to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. The major departure here, of course, is that, in Ravelo’s version, his mermaid heroine is the spawn of human parents who is made outcast from the human community due to her difference.
The first screen treatment of Dyesebel -- Gerardo De Leon’s Dyesebel, released in 1953 -- provided a star-making turn for the beautiful young actress Edna Luna, and is today so rare that, as I understand it, the only available copies are made from a print unearthed in Southeast Asia minus its entire audio track. The film show us the story of Dyesebel’s birth to normally limbed parents -- the result, apparently, of her mother paying too much attention to a calendar illustrated with pictures of mermaids. (No, really.) Her unusual physiognomy inspires hostility and ridicule in the inhabitants of her small village and makes life difficult for her folks, to the extent that her father at one point contemplates killing the child in her sleep.
Once she grows old enough to recognize the strain her parents have been put under, the pre-adolescent Dysebel slips away in the night and heads off to sea, where -- in a twist reminiscent of another famous Anderson tale -- she meets up with a community of mermaids living on the ocean floor. Though Dyesebel immediately finds herself on the bad side of a hag-like mermaid called Dyaangga, she is otherwise welcomed and accepted by this group. Still, she continues to make visits to the human world, where she eventually falls for a handsome two-legger by the name of Fredo (Jamie de la Rosa). Fredo’s conniving ex-girlfriend Betty (Carol Varga), however, has other plans for Dyesebel, which include having her kidnapped by pirates and sold to a sideshow. Here she is forced by a whip wielding trainer to perform for the jeering crowds until Fredo and his pal effect a rescue. The solution to her and Fredo’s primary romantic obstacle is finally provided by a magical conch shell, which grants Deysebel’s wish to become a full bodied human girl.
Though it’s impossible to assess in its current condition, this version of Dyesebel struck me as being surprisingly dark. Of course, that shouldn’t be too surprising; coming as it does from the future director of Terror is a Man. There was something about the way that the mermaids were forced to laboriously drag themselves along by their elbows when on land that was disturbingly abject and debased, reminding me, among other things, of the deformed sideshow denizens crawling through the mud at the end of Browning’s Freaks. (There’s also a moment of poetic retribution at the end of the film that drives that association home even further.) Perhaps my impression of how mermaids are represented in contemporary culture is based too much on Happy Meal toys and sparkly stickers, but it was nonetheless jarring to see them portrayed here as somewhat cursed creatures; not just other than, but less than human.
De Leon’s Dyesebel is also dark in the traditional noir sense. Carol Varga’s Betty is a classic man eater, and the sideshow that Dyesebel ends up in is every bit as sinister as the one in Nightmare Alley. Furthermore, when it’s time to resolve things, this shadowy back alley milieu guarantees that guns will be involved, as well as a protracted slug fest that prefigures the later excesses of Filipino “Goon” cinema. I don’t know how true this all was to Ravelo’s original vision, but it was clear that, in depicting the state of the mermaids as lowly, the filmmakers had no intention of idealizing the bipedal world by contrast.
In 1964, De Leon reassembled his cast -- with the addition of soon-to-be Darna Eva Montes in the role of Dyesebel and Fredo’s daughter, Alona –- for a direct sequel to Dyesebel in the form of Anak Ni Dyesebel. Following belatedly upon that, 1973’s Dyesebel (aka Si Dyesebel at ang Mahiwagang Kabibe, or “Dyesebel and the Magic Conch”) is what would today be referred to as a reboot, with beloved Filipino star Vilma Santos taking over in the title role. Mars Ravelo would make 1973 a very busy year for Santos, as she had also made her debut as Darna that year, in Lipad, Darna, Lipad!, and would go on to complete a second Darna feature before the year was out. As did the Darna pictures, this Dyesebel benefits greatly from the undeniable raw charm of Santos, who, in place of Edna Luna’s ethereal glamour, provides a likeable and approachable portrayal of the mermaid heroine as a loveable and trouble prone naïf.
This new Dyesebel, directed by Emmanuel H. Borlazza, takes even further than its predecessor the idea of the mermaids as something feared and reviled by the human world. This is illustrated in a scene where a group of them comes ashore only to be met by a maniacal, sword-and-pitchfork wielding mob. A graphically violent fight follows, with much blood spilled and many a fin brutally slashed (I think that would count as “HMV” for “Human on Mermaid Violence”, for those keeping track.) In addition to this bracing infusion of gore, Dyesebel also welcomes us to the 1970s with a generous display of boobs (none of them Santos’s) and an absurdly confident rolling out of bush league special effects. Among these last are a giant seahorse upon which Dyesebel and Fredo (Romeo Miranda) ride during a romantic interlude and an adorable giant octopus from which Dyesebel is saved by a helpful swarm of puppet electric eels.
Though passing over the story of Dyesebel’s birth completely, Borlazza’s take otherwise follows along fairly closely with what we’ve seen in the 1953 version. And in keeping with that -- and in spite of Vilma Santos’ winsome presence -- this is no carefree ride. Santos’ tearstained reprise of her happy mermaid song -- sung under duress as she is mercilessly whipped by her carnival keeper -- would give Anne Hathaway a serious run for her money. In addition, the utter cold heartedness of Fredo’s ex, Betty, is here made all the more explicit by first having her and her shrewish mother kick and stomp upon Dyesebel as she pathetically tries to crawl past them in one scene, and then, later, by having her calmly plunge an ice pick into a lover’s back.
For some reason I thought that the Dyesebel films would be children’s movies. And, given the vagaries of Filipino children’s films (even nonsense like Biokids boasts no shortage of adult nightmare fuel), I’m not saying they’re not. But the truth is that there seems to be something inescapably and glumly adult about them, that their flights of fantasy come across less as fanciful than they do as indictments of the cruelties and shortcomings of the non-fantastical world. That’s a point of view you can certainly aim at kids, but it nonetheless one redolent of frustrated adult expectations. While Anderson’s The Little Mermaid presented humanity as a prize to be won at the cost of great sacrifice, when Dyesebel, at her story’s conclusion, sprouts legs to better walk among her former persecutors and abusers, we have to wonder if Ravelo and company might have seen her as the victim of a con.