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ASWANG (1994)
[aka The Unearthing]

"And this one?"
"This – is the Aswang."
"Good God…. What’s it doing?"
"Feeding…."

Director: Wrye Martin, Barry Poltermann
Starring: Tina Ona Paukstelis, Norman Moses, Flora Colier, Mildred Nierras, John Kishline, Jamie Jacobs Anderson, Victor Delorenzo
Screenplay: Wrye Martin, Barry Poltermann

Synopsis: Over the protests of her boyfriend, a young pregnant woman, Katrina (Tina Ona Paukstelis), enters into a contract with a childless couple, Peter and Janine Null (Norman Moses, Jamie Jacobs Anderson). Since Janine cannot have children, and Peter cannot inherit his family’s estates without an heir, Katrina agrees, in exchange for a large payment, to pose as Peter’s wife until after the birth of her baby. Peter and Katrina travel to the Null estate, where Katrina is introduced to Peter’s wheelchair-bound mother, Olive (Flora Coker), and the family’s Filipino maid, Cupid (Mildred Nierras). When Cupid startles Katrina by immediately pressing her ear against Katrina’s abdomen, Peter explains that Cupid was once a midwife, and delivered him and his sister, Claire. Claire, however, is "touched", and lives in a cabin beyond the main house. At dinner, Katrina is pressed into drinking too much of Cupid’s homemade apple cider. Drunk, she spends the night tormented by strange dreams and wakes up frightened that she has somehow hurt the baby. While Peter and Katrina are out walking, they encounter Dr Roger Harper (John Kishline), a scientist on sabbatical. Peter angrily accuses Dr Harper of trespassing, but Katrina intervenes to make peace. Dr Harper is carrying a strange, cocoon-like object, and reveals that he found it and a number of tiny skeletons on the grounds of the Null estate. Invited by Katrina, Dr Harper has dinner with the Nulls. Afterwards, Peter displays a number of paintings brought back from the Philippines, where he grew up. One that catches Dr Harper’s eye depicts a monster with a long, projectile tongue. Later, at home, Dr Harper finds a reproduction of the painting in one of his books. The creature is an Aswang, a Filipino vampire that feeds upon unborn babies, most of which die, while some become Aswang themselves. Before he can act upon his sudden fears for Katrina, Dr Harper is viciously attacked. Meanwhile, Cupid carries Mrs Null to the roof of the house, where she begins to undergo a strange metamorphosis, sending forth a long, fleshy tongue that actively searches out Katrina….

Comments: It’s been some considerable time since I saw a film that contained as many truly disgusting elements as Aswang. And apart from Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), I can’t think of any film that made me sit with my legs crossed for so much of its running time. Shot on location in Wisconsin, Aswang was the first effort of former film students Wrye Martin and Barry Poltermann. It also appears to be their last effort, which is a shame, because although it never quite fulfils its potential, the film has enough in it to suggest that its creators might have had a real future in the horror field. The concept of a foetus-eating monster is so compellingly revolting that it is surprising it has been so little exploited by horror filmmakers. (If anyone knows of any other movies dealing with the Aswang, I would greatly appreciate it if they could let me know.) The use of this legend gives the film a real power, partly through its genuinely disturbing nature, but also because the unfamiliarity of the story, at least for Western audiences, makes it difficult to predict which way the movie will go. The viewer is also kept off-balance by the film’s shifts in tone. The unease generated by the obvious threat to Katrina’s baby, particularly after an early glimpse of a tiny skeleton, is increased, rather than dissipated, by the film’s sick humour. If the sight of Mrs Null suspended by her tongue from the roof, and having to be – ulp! – cut down isn’t sufficiently gross, we also have a scene which is my nomination for one of the Bad Taste Moments Of All Time when Peter, having spent the night with his face buried between the drugged Katrina’s legs, announces to his mother over breakfast, "It’s a girl!" However, Aswang finally goes off the rails when, like so many other modern horror films, it begins concentrating on the gore effects rather than the story. These scenes (which are pretty full-on, despite being trimmed for video release) do deliver a surprise or two, such as how much of the violence is dished out, as well as taken, by women, most notably the scene in the cabin when Claire attacks Katrina with a chainsaw, and in return is brained with a hoe. (This is equality of a sort, I suppose. And don’t ask me why Claire had a hoe in her living-room. I’m still trying to figure out why she had a chainsaw in her bedroom.) However, by the end you get the impression that Aswang’s originality has been sacrificed to economic realities. The film was shot for under $200,000, and it is very easy to understand why the filmmakers might have gone for gore rather than exposition. Still, I can’t help feeling that Aswang’s impact would have been increased had a little less time been spent cooking up gross-out scenes, and a little more plugging up plot holes. For instance, what exactly were the plans for Katrina’s baby? Was the child meant all along to be the Nulls’ heir, as the ending suggests, or was it really intended to end up as another set of tiny bones buried in the woods? And where exactly did those bones come from? Surely the Nulls don’t go through this entire rigmarole every time one of them feels peckish? And why are a group of Filipino vampires disguised as a nice, clean-cut, all-American family? Loose ends like these make things confusing rather than mysterious. Aswang contains various references to other films, including, not surprisingly, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but also The Shining (1980) and Blue Velvet (1986); however, a credit listing for "fake shemps" suggests that, like many indie films, its real inspiration was The Evil Dead (1982). On the production side, given how much of the film’s budget must have gone on the special effects, Aswang is quite impressive, with some nice cinematography and a memorable credit sequence featuring Asian shadow puppets. Despite the amateur standing of the members of the cast, none of whom seem to have any other credits, the performances in Aswang aren’t too bad. Tina Ona Paukstelis’s perpetual pout gets a little tedious (admittedly, she hasn’t got much to smile about), but her situation makes it impossible for her not to have audience sympathy; while the undercurrents of weirdness in the Null family are nicely conveyed by Flora Coker and Norman Moses (although I could have done without the latter’s terrible Jack Nicholson impersonations). John Kishline, as Dr Roger Harper, also gets to demonstrate that while scientists may not be particularly bright, they are incredibly difficult to kill.

Footnote:  Wrye Martin and Barry Poltermann having recently been involved in the production of Chris Smith's American Movie. Visit the official website: http://www.americanmovie.com

Check out all the details of this movie on the IMDB