Ashley, eager to be far from home following his divorce from AIP ingénue Deborah Walley, fell in love with the country and enjoyed working with director Eddie Romero. Moving to Texas, he owned a chain of movie theaters, and discovered Brides of Blood was drawing impressive crowds at his drive-ins. Returning to the Philippines, he eventually bought a condo and in partnership with Romero, would spend three months out of the year there, producing and usually starring in one-to-three movies, for him a kind of working vacation.
Despite the corruption rampant during the regime of dictator-president Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines was from the late 1950s a popular place to make cheap movies. (Expensive ones, too. Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now was shot there, on which Ashley served as a production coordinator/associate producer.)
However, few of these cheap Filipino exploitation pictures enjoy the merits of the best Ashley-Romero collaborations. Romero (1924-2013) was unusual in that his prolific output of domestic, Filipino films, apparently mostly humanist, historical and political dramas, is still highly regarded there, with This Is How We Were Before, How Are You Doing Now? (1976), a romantic musical drama about the end of Spanish colonization, considered his masterpiece, winning numerous awards.
His cheap collaborations with Ashley are, by contrast, awfully crude and threadbare - and yet the first several, particularly (Brides of Blood, The Mad Doctor of Blood Island, and Beast of Blood) have moments of unexpected effectiveness, and his women-in-prison melodrama Black Mama, White Mama (1972) is also good. Romero, sometimes in collaboration with Gerry de Leon, understood the mechanics of cinematic horror, how to unsettle and shock his audiences.
Image Entertainment released many of these films to DVD in the early days of that format, always in ratty full-frame transfers. VCI's new Blu-ray of The Twilight People (1972), though a problematic transfer, is still a massive improvement over those earlier DVDs.
The Twilight People has a bigger budget (around $120,000) and a bit more polish, but is one of the lesser Ashley-Romero collaborations. It's basically a remake of H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau with elements of Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game, neither credited. Romero had produced an earlier version of Wells's story as Terror is a Man (1959), directed by de Leon and starring Richard Derr, and would film another variation of The Most Dangerous Game the same year as Twilight People, the more obscure The Woman Hunt. Ashley and Twilight People co-star Pat Woodell were in that, too.
Here, Ashley plays diver Matt Farrell. Other than his name the script tells us nothing about him. Kidnapped mid-dive by Steinman (Jan Merlin) and some Filipino thugs, he's taken to the remote island mansion of discredited scientist Dr. Gordon (Charles Macaulay), who somehow intends to infuse perfect specimen Matt's brain waves, DNA or something into his creations, a veritable zoo of onetime humans transformed via mad science into half-animal monstrosities.
This doesn't sit well with Gordon's daughter, Neva (Woodell), who contemplates suicide until Matt convinces her to escape with him. The film's novel twist is that she refuses to leave her half-animal pals behind, so that the mass escape includes Ayesha the Panther Woman (Pam Grier), Kuzma the Antelope Man (Ken Metcalf), Darmo the Bat Man (Tony Galsavez), Lupa the Wolf Woman (Mona Morena), and others.
While pretty dreadful, The Twilight People is not without interest. For one thing, Jan Merlin, given a buzz cut and his hair dyed blonde, makes Steinman a memorable sadistic heavy, the script implying he's trying to force Matt into an escape attempt to hunt him down and thus suppress his homoerotic urges for the young castaway. The subtly effeminate Macaulay, a longtime friend and business partner of Raymond Burr, typically played military generals, judges and the like, but as the amoral, emotionally aloof Gordon he's also above average.
The Twilight People isn't remotely scary, unlike Romero's earlier "Blood Island" films, but the outrageousness and dogged occasional effectiveness of the "manimals" is undeniably amusing. Though unable to speak, the creatures have retained enough intelligence to understand Neva's instructions to them, dolled out with a peculiar mixture of empathy for their plight while also sounding like a pet owner cautioning his dog not to poop on the carpet.
The creatures have behavioral characteristics particular to the animal each has partway become. Pam Grier, in a thankless, non-speaking part though on the cusp of stardom, rolls on the ground with dubbed in purrs after eating a piece of meat, and slinks about the forest, pouncing upon Steinman's men, ripping their throats out. Less enthusiastic is actor Metcalf as Kuzma the Antelope man, who limply kicks his opponents with his hind legs, like a Billy goat. He, however, gets to romance Lupa the Wolf Woman.
However, it's Tony Galsavez as Darmo the Bat Man who steals the show. Wild-eyed and flapping clumsy wings, the actor really does kinda sorta look like a bat. Initially positioned as comedy relief, he falling out of trees while attempting to fly, he comes to the rescue in the end, and during the ambitious climax actually makes it into the air, flying about in a couple of well-staged scenes and he plays a key role in the movie's incredible final shot.
The rest of the film is pretty crude, with expansive but unconvincing interior sets of Gordon's castle-like mansion, and a musical score, credited to Ariston Avelino and Tito Arevalo, that is inapt and intrusive. For such a cheap exploitation picture the monster makeups (by Tony Arteida) show some imagination, but during respected Filipino actor Eddie Garcia's brief appearance as a human about to be operated on by Gordon, Garcia sports what may be the least convincing bald cap in movie history.
Video & Audio
"Green and yeller! Green and yeller! Mother come quick, I'm going to be sick and lay me down to die!" Those Pete Seeger lyrics came to mind watching MVD Visual and VCI's 2K remastering of The Twilight People, from the original negative. Basically, color balance is nonexistent, though it's hard to say whether that's inherent to the original lab work, fading while stored for decades who-knows-where, or ignorance on the part of whomever did the remastering. One shot will look near-perfect, with great resolution and color, while the very next shot is overwhelmed with a yellow sky or sickly green fleshtones. The film source also has its share of damage, particularly at the heads and tails of reels, and like many of their other releases, an overzealous engineer at VCI seems determined to hide scratches digitally, creating odd image anomalies. Still, it's a massive improvement over earlier DVD versions of Ashley-Romero collaborations, and I hope they release others. Region-free with no subtitle options.
Supplements include a repurposed interview with the late director, running nearly an hour long. He's quite charming and his memories are strong and vivid. Also included is a casual-style audio commentary with David Del Valle and David Decoteau. A trailer and TV spots round out the supplements.
For Filipino horror fans only, but for them this is Recommended.