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DVD SAVANT
Savant Guest Reviews:

Aswang
&
The Living Corpse

Separate releases reviewed by Lee Broughton

Mondo Macabro UK have been unusually quiet of late but their US wing is keeping busy if these two very different vampire related releases are anything to go by. Aswang is an obscure American production but its unusual ambience and subject matter help it to qualify as 'wild world cinema'. The Living Corpse is a Lollywood version of Dracula: it's a quite unique viewing experience which successfully transcends most of the limitations that Western audiences choose to associate with popular Asian cinema.


Aswang
Mondo Macabro USA
1994 / Colour / 1.66 enhanced for 16:9 / 83m. / The Unearthing / Street Date September 3, 2003 / $19.99
Starring Tina Ona Paukstelis, Norman Moses, Flora Coker, Mildred Nierras, John Kishline, Jamie Jacobs Anderson, Victor DeLorenzo, Daniel DeMarco
Cinematography Jim Zabilla
Production Designer Margot Czulewicz
Editor Barry Poltermann
Original Music Ken Brahmstedt
Written by Barry Poltermann and Wrye Martin from a story suggested by Franklin Lee Anderson
Produced and Directed by Barry Poltermann and Wrye Martin

Synopsis:

A pregnant girl, Katrina (Tina Ona Paukstelis), agrees to pose as Peter Null's (Norman Moses) wife in order for him to meet the stipulations of a family will and the pair pay a visit to the remote country estate where Peter's infirm mother (Flora Coker) lives. Peter becomes agitated when he discovers that a holidaymaker, Dr Harper (John Kishline), has found a number of strange skeletons in cocoons buried within the surrounding forests but Katrina is more concerned by the bizarre behaviour displayed by Mrs Null and her servant, Cupid (Mildred Nierras).

The very best Kiwi and Australian films always possess a noticeably distinctive ambience. They're presented in English and yet they remain intriguingly alien on some levels. While we understand the language being spoken well enough, the best Antipodean filmmakers mine a vein of national cinema which ensures that their productions are loaded with their own cultural quirks, their own social norms, their own distinctive aesthetics and even their own mythic elements which stem from the region's rich ancient history. The result is films which have the power to engage European and American audiences with their often quirky, unfamiliar and unusual or threatening and foreboding content. Aswang feels a lot like an Antipodean movie - presumably, in part, because its finer details concerning American colonials returned from the Philippines have been convincingly brought to life by unfamiliar faces - but it was actually filmed and produced in Wisconsin, USA.

It's essentially a re-run of themes encountered in both John Gilling's The Reptile and Freddie Francis's The Ghoul. In this case, the Null household has added an aswang to its ranks during its stay in the Philippines. An aswang is a Filipino vampire which uses an extremely long but powerful tongue to seek out sleeping victims while it crouches on their rooftop. The aswang is presented here as a somewhat vulnerable creature that can be hurt if its victim should awaken and retaliate while its tongue is fully extended but, when in attack mode, the aswang can use its tongue with the kind of lethal accuracy associated with Ridley Scott's Alien.

There's a hint of an Evil Dead influence about the rushing camera tricks and sound effects which are used to represent the aswang's point of view. Same goes for the dilapidated cabin that Null's mentally disturbed sister is said to live in. Both work well but further homages to Sam Raimi and Tobe Hooper play rather incongruously: Aswang's strengths lie in its presentation of the unusual and the unfamiliar and the contents of these additional Raimi/Hooper-inspired sequences were all too familiar by 1994. They ultimately disturb the film's ambience, rhythm and credibility. (Spoiler begins....) Why bother suspending the viewer's disbelief to the extent that they will accept the existence of a supernatural creature that can take out a human victim with one well placed jab from its projectile tongue, only to then ask the viewer to accept that said creature would choose to rest its lethal tongue and instead put itself at risk by attacking a victim with a noisy chainsaw? (....spoiler ends).

The first half of this show plays like a modern day Gothic horror and successfully generates a claustrophobic air of deceit and conspiracy: if the second half had continued in this vein Aswang might well have gone on to achieve minor classic status. As it is, it feels like Poltermann and Martin lost their nerve and decided to play relatively safely by filling the latter half of the film with a succession of generic and quite disturbingly gory set-pieces. Ultimately, the film feels like a missed opportunity to produce a feature that could have been consistently impressive and unusual from start to finish. But that's not to say that Aswang is bad. The cinematography and direction are good and the look of the Null's grand mansion and its interesting interiors bring much to the film. It's the kind of film that could have been a home video smash in genre circles if it had appeared on rental store shelves in the mid-Eighties. I've read harsh words about the quality of the acting here but I thought it was fine. Norman Moses steals the show as the slightly kooky and dangerously unpredictable Peter Null: just imagine Potsie from Happy Days dying his hair strawberry blonde and then coming on like Jack Nicholson in The Shining and you've almost got him. The film also scores points for its predictable but nicely executed 'twist' ending.


This is a pretty decent presentation given that we're dealing with a very obscure independent film shot on 16mm by first-time directors. There's a fair bit of grain present and a little bit of print damage but that kind of goes with the territory. The sound is largely very good. The 28 minute documentary Different than Hollywood features new interviews with the cast and crew and it provides an interesting insight into the world of independent filmmaking. The disc reviewed here features the un-rated directors' cut of Aswang but I understand that a R-rated version is in circulation too.


The Living Corpse
Mondo Macabro USA
1967 / B&W / 1.33 flat full frame / 103m. / Zinda Laash/ October 14, 2003/ 19.99
Starring Rehan, Yasmeen, Deeba, Habib, Asad, Ala-Ud-Din, Nasreen, Sheela, Cham Cham, Baby Najmi
Cinematography Raza Mir, Nabi Ahmed, Irshad
Art Director Shahab
Editor Asghar
Original Music Tassadaque Hussain
Written by Khwaja Sarfraz and Naseem Rizwani from the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker
Produced by Abdul Baqi
Directed by Khwaja Sarfraz

Synopsis:

Professor Tabani's (Rehan) vampire bride (Nasreen) bites Dr Aqil (Asad) when he foolishly chooses to spend a night at their haunted mansion. When Aqil's concerned brother (Habib) subsequently finds him sleeping in a coffin in the mansion's cellar he promptly dispatches him. It transpires that Tabani has designs on Aqil's fiancee, Shabnam (Deeba), but her brother Parvez (Ala-Ud-Din) and his wife Shirin (Yasmeen) refuse to listen to Aqil's brother's warnings. Tabani soon succeeds in transforming Shabnam into a vampire and he then turns his attention to Shirin.

Most Western film fans are familiar with the strict conventions and product line look associated with India's popular Bollywood productions: Pakistan's Lollywood films are generally very similar. But fear not because the overall feel and quality of The Living Corpse stands as a tribute to just how determined the film's producers were in their desire to shoot a serious Horror film. The film couldn't have been marketed locally without the inclusion of the region's requisite 'song and dance' interludes but these are kept to a minimum and are, for the most part, cleverly worked into the film's narrative in ways which Western viewers should find acceptable (the vampire bride's seductive dance, a night-club entertainer's performance, etc). And incongruous comedy sequences have been avoided altogether. Things are still a little shaky in places (the soundtrack features a few cues which are totally inappropriate) but The Living Corpse remains a really fascinating piece of Horror/popular World Cinema history.

The film is set in present day (1967) Pakistan and it was filmed at a time when vaguely current Western fashions and aesthetics were readily employed by Pakistan's filmmakers (the show has a kind of mid-Fifties/early Sixties Hollywood feel in this respect). Hammer's Dracula (Horror of Dracula) is an obvious influence (Rehan actually looks like Christopher Lee in some shots) and Rehan creates an impressively feral and aggressive vampire. Interestingly, the vampire here is a man-made creature: the film's prologue shows Professor Tabani trying to create an elixir of life and he becomes a vampire when his experiments go wrong. Local censorship issues have resulted in Asian filmmakers becoming adept at representing sex and sensuality in symbolic ways and this undoubtedly assisted in the staging of some of the vampiric action here. While their tone is similar to Hammer's sixties output, most of the vampire attacks fade out just before the bite but they're all well executed.

Tabani's haunted mansion is nicely laid out: a kind of Gothic dressing of local architecture and its dark, dusty and cobweb strewn cellars provide a suitably spooky atmosphere. Equally atmospheric is a scene where Shabnam is observed stalking a graveyard after dark: this gives way to a sequence where she slyly tries to win over a stunned and incredulous Parvez before being dispatched by Aqil's brother. Real suspense is generated when Tabani dupes Shirin into taking a late-night taxi ride with him. When she gets home Parvez and Aqil's brother begin setting a trap for Tabani as they know he will return the next night to finish transforming Shirin into a vampire: unfortunately she's already acting under Tabani's influence and is secretly working to scotch their plans. The final showdown between Tabani and Aqil's brother is a lengthy but impressive fight sequence which involves some good stunt work and fight choreography for a Lollywood production. Aqil's brother is eventually forced to submit to Tabani's superior strength and it's actually a fortuitous accident that results in Tabani's defeat.

The acting here is impressively solid (Omar Khan's informative commentary reveals that some of Pakistan's top acting talent appeared in the film) and the cinematography is generally good. Interesting lighting, almost expressionistic in places, enhances many scenes. While some of the show's music does play extremely incongruously there are some really good cues too and it's fascinating to hear the Lollywood musicians performing their own take on Horror film music. While obviously being based on Bram Stoker's Dracula, the script deviates from Stoker's well known story just enough to remain fresh and engaging. This film was only Pakistan's second genre entry but it put the local censors into such a flap that they immediately warned industry insiders that any future Horror features would automatically be denied a release. Presumed lost for many years, The Living Corpse isn't quite as polished as Fernando Mendez's superb El Vampiro but it is essential viewing for anybody with an interest in the history of Horror films or popular World Cinema.


This is a really great presentation given that the print used here was mastered from a damaged negative that had suffered years of neglect before finally being restored. The picture does rock and wobble a little in parts and odd sections do get quite 'jittery' for a second or too. And there are a couple of lost frames, a few ragged edits and a certain amount of general print damage. But the picture itself is clear and sharp and the film's black and white photography comes through just fine: there's nothing about the print or the picture quality that will affect appreciation of the film. The disc's sound is surprisingly good, with the film being presented in Urdu with optional English subtitles. The Dracula in Pakistan featurette catches up with some of the film's key personnel while Omar Khan's text article details the story of his search for the film's apparently long-lost negative.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Aswang rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good -
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Directors' commentary, cast commentary, audition tapes, lost scene narration, three trailers, Different than Hollywood documentary and image galleries
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 12, 2004

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Living Corpse rates:
Movie: Good ++ / Very Good -
Video: Very Good -
Sound: Very Good -
Supplements: Commentary by Omar Khan & Pete Tombs, Dracula in Pakistan featurette, trailer, text article by Omar Khan, a song from a lost music scene, various image galleries, a documentary on South Asian Horror and a film poster postcard
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 12, 2004




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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