Monday, September 9, 2013

Sumpah Pontianak, aka Blood of Pontianak (Malaysia, 1958)

Hey, pretties, why slaver over the next Karloff or Lugosi retrospective when you can build your own alternative pantheon of classic monsters from those based on Southeast Asian folklore, such as the Oily Man, The Krasue, or Sumpah Pontianak's Pontianak. Shy away from them, if you must (go ahead; they're gross!), but I will not stop singing their praises until they have their own cartoon on Nick and appear on every lunchbox and pencil case in the country.

Sumpah Pontianak is the third and final in a series of films based on the female vampire the Pontianak that were produced during the late 50s by Cathay Keris, the Singapore branch of Hong Kong's powerhouse Cathay studio. Sadly, the first two films in the series appear to be lost, but someone clearly loved Sumpah Pontianak, as the existing VCD sports a handsome transfer, albeit an unsubtitled one. Well, you can't win 'em all. Fortunately, I had the omni-lingual Braineater's fine review to steer me into safe waters.

First off, kids, I don't know how to put this, but the Pontianak is one butt fugly woman. In this case, she is Comel, as played by Maria Menando, who has a hunchback and a pretty smashed up face, like you're looking at it pressed to the windshield of a speeding car.  The earlier films tell how she is a foundling raised by a sorcerer who, as an adult, avails herself of a beauty potion. It works, turning her into a beautiful woman, but, as a turd in that particular box of bon bons, she also gets turned into a Pontianak -- or vam-pyre, as some would call it. Apparently at the end of the second film, she is deprived of her ability to transform herself by some yokels who stick a nail in her neck.

Sumpah Pontianak begins with a bereft Comel wandering the countryside and encountering her share of hostile bumpkins, who, as bumpkins are won't, are quick to raise up torches and form mobs against anything that smells of the other worldly. Among these hicks are a young comedian Mat Sentul, ten years before his appearance as Mat Bond, and a singing satay vendor played by a guy named Wahid Satay, who, according to Braineater, specialized in playing singing satay vendors. This might make Sumpah Pontianak an effective appetite stimulant if you like satay, or are a ghost with hole.

Comel's pathetic pleas for understanding fall on deaf ears, as the villagers waste no time in stringing her up and tormenting her in various ways. Meanwhile, a host of supernatural happenings take place: The satay gang are spooked by a ghost voice that sounds like Yolandi from Die Antwoord and Comel raises a male vampire by removing a stake from its heart. At the same time, a series of  exsanguination murders makes it all the more difficult for Comel to convince the gentry that she means them no harm.

Directed, like the other two films in the series, by B. Narayan Rao, Sumpah Pontianal gains a rich, classic horror movie atmosphere from the moody contributions of cinematographer Laurie Friedman (one of a number of Western names among the crew) and composer Zubir Said, who has to compete with a lot of jaunty songs about satay. Also benefiting the production greatly is the heartrending performance by Maria Menado, who really drives home the tragic dimensions so typical of these cursed females spirits in Southeast Asian folklore.

Parallel to Comel's woeful sojourn, we see that of her beautiful young daughter Maria (Salmah Amad), who is wandering the forest in search of her long thought dead mother. This, like a ghost busting Goldilocks, puts her constantly in peril at the claws of a Puff n' Stuff like menagerie of plush beasties, first and foremost a combination toucan/salamander thing that is apparently the real culprit of the murders. Others include an unfriendly Cro-magnon man and, finally, a furry, bat-like gentleman who whisks her away to his lair. Fortunately, some hapless tormentors accidentally remove the nail from Comel's neck, allowing her to transform into the hag-faced Pontianak and take off into the night sky like Superman. What follows is a rousing kaiju battle that is somewhat at odds with the sombre tone of pretty much all that has proceeded it.

So, in the end, the Pontianak series offers poor Comel some karmic reward for all of the hardship she's endured -- no longer a shunned outsider, but an unorthodox superhero whose powers separate her from the rest of small minded society by degrees of, not just ghastliness, but of virtue and bravery. That cartoon on Nick may not be too far off.

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