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Aswang

Ventura // Unrated // September 2, 2003
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted September 1, 2003 | E-mail the Author

A Wisconsin movie about Filipino vampires. Honestly, I find it hard to wrap my head around that one, but Aswang (1994 aka. The Unearthing) is indeed a Filipino vampire movie made in Wisconsin, on a very low budget, by first time filmmakers, and gained some notoriety as part of Sundance's midnight line up.

Katrina is a pregnant teen who has taken an offer by Peter Null, the heir to a wealthy estate who needs proof of an offspring in order to get his inheritance. Null offers Katrina a large sum of money to pose as his pregnant wife. She travels with him to the Null estate and meets his wheelchair bound mother and her Filipino maid, Cupid. She is also warned about Peter's sister, Claire, who he says is crazy and lives in a guest house next to the mansion. On the first night, Katrina is prodded to drink some spiked punch and later that evening is haunted by terrifying dreams. The next day while walking the grounds, Peter and Katrina encounter Dr. Roger Harper. Harper has a large cocoon of some sort and informs them that he has found many baby skeletons in the area.

At Katrina's instance, Dr. Harper has dinner with the Null's. Peter explains their background growing up in the Philippines, and Harper is horrified by a painting Peter shows him of a creature called an aswang. The aswang is a vampirelike being with a long tongue that feeds on the unborn, usually by crouching on rooftops at night and slipping their tongues through the window and into the sleeping mothers womb. It becomes apparent to Harper, and eventually Katrina, that the Nulls have other motives for wanting Katrina's baby.

A payoff of being a freak is that I knew a little about aswang before I watched this film. To think that someone in Wisconsin used it as an influence for their horror movie, well, that had the film gain major points for me before I watched a single frame. And, it is those kind of allowances you have to figure in. Being so low budget, and a first time film, you have to be a little forgiving.

Aswang is not great. Aswang isn't really good. At the most, Aswang is fair, but it becomes a real winner just based on the first timers getting it made at all and, even if some aspects leave a lot to be desired, successfully making it entertaining. The film references classics like Rosemary's Baby and The Shining, but the real inspirado seems to be Evil Dead. The film includes some Evil Deadish moments like the gratuitous inclusion of a chainsaw battle and has a couple of "something scrambling through the woods" tracking shots. The good of the film comes through some okay gore, a few good shock surprises, and the unique premise.

The cast of local actors is mostly serviceable. Really the script doesn't get very deep into the characters, which really hurts Katrina, our girl in trouble, and actress Tina Ona Paukstelis doesn't have much to do other then look sour, puzzled, scared, or some combination of the three. From the first few moments I watched Norman Moses, who plays Peter Null, my instincts screamed "drama theater actor" and, sure enough, that is exactly what he is. The rest of the cast is adequately creepy (Cupid, Peters mom, and Claire) or decent unsuspecting dead meat (Harper and the local sheriff).

Of the two co-directors/writers, Wrye Martin and Barry Poltermann, only Poltermann has found film work post-Aswang. He was the editor of the documentary American Movie. Aside from their tenacity to get the film done in a community/state that isn't known for its high film output, there wasn't much in the film to make me want to see more from them. They show some degree of talent because they are never really too clumsy, but also they aren't inspired or unique enough to really impress me and make me yearn for more. Aswang is just a bit flat without much build in suspense, wit, or character. The last two are what is really needed, some wit and character. The gore is pretty good, and the aswang's phallic tongue is pretty icky, straddling the line between funny and frightful. From obvious line readings to "bum-bum-bum" music cues, there just isn't much mystery to the story and it very bluntly states that something is wrong with the Nulls from the very beginning. Add to that just reading the box cover and you pretty much get the entire film.

While never really overcoming the pitfalls of low budget filmdom, like the shoddy looking locations, the hammy acting, a thin script, and I will forever wonder why someone keeps a chainsaw and a garden hoe in their living room, all things considered, it could have been a thousand times worse. I give props to those stalwart and scrappy no-budget filmmakers, and the makers of Aswang at least accomplished a fair, entertaining, little horror film from the land of cheese and beer.

The DVD: Mondo Macabre. Available in two different editions, this one is R-rated, the other is Unrated.

Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen, 1.85:1. After watching the movie, the biggest surprise for me was finding out that the film was made in 1994. Based on the photography, I thought it was made in the 70's or 80's. The cinematography in I Spit on Your Grave looks like a Bertolucci film compared to Aswang. I'm certain the film was shot in 16mm, thus accounting for the dated look. For 16mm, it looks okay, though overall the image is very grainy and the color and contrast are really dull. But, for a low budget film, I doubt it is going to look much better, so therefore the elements are presented well with little dirt or spots and no glaring transfer defects.

Sound: Dolby 2.0 Stereo or 5.1 Surround. It does show its budgetary limitations both in some low dialogue recording and the cheesy keyboard scoring. The 5.1 mix is new and really all it does is fill out the sides with the music and ambient fx noise. Unfortunately, I found that the music and fx noise on the 5.1 mix was overwhelming the dialogue, which as I stated before, is sometimes a bit low. I preferred the Stereo track which seemed to present everything in a more even manner and the vocals were not as drenched in the aggressive score and fx noise.

Extras: Chapter Selections--- Trailers (Fundraising, Theatrical, and Prism Video). The Fundraising trailer is very interesting, with different actors and scenes, filmed to give investors an example of the final product.--- Lost Scene Narration (6:14). The actor who plays Dr. Harper reads the script pages to an intro. that wasn't filmed due to budgetary reasons.--- Audition Tapes (3:31) and (3:14)--- Still Galleries (Production, Fundraising trailer, and Miscellaneous)--- "Different Than Hollywood" featurette (27:58) The cast and filmmakers amusingly recall making the film, including lots of anecdotes and behind the scenes footage.--- Two Commentaries. Commentary One with moderator Pete Tombs and co-directors/writers Wrye Martin and Barry Poltermann. Commentary Two with the cast, which was a bit more fun than the first track. Both tracks should be interesting to low budget horror fans looking for some good stories of working on the minuscule end of cinema.

Conclusion: Well, as a horror fan, we all know these R-rated versions are out there to make it on the shelves of the Blockbusters of this world. Mondo Macabre does a good job, presenting a nice transfer and a gaggle of extras for a very marginal cult film. It is safe to say the same care and attention wouldn't be given to the film by any of the major studios. If you are the slightest bit interested in Aswang as a purchase, of course, go with the unrated. Since this is the R-rated and it was made for the video isle, I'll give it a justified "rent it."

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