Sumpah Pontianak
Since I've started reviewing unsubtitled Malay horror films, I've got my hands on a Malay language kit to help get me by. I'm up to lesson four as I write this. If I ever find myself in Kuala Lumpur, and I'm attacked by a pontianak (or female vampire), I think I have a pretty good chance of coping with the situation. Provided, that is, that I'm attacked in the airport. And provided also that my name is Mark Davies. All of those possibilities are about equally likely, I'd say.

But there has been one important thing I've learned from picking up a few words of Malay:

Earlier, I had come to the conclusion that the Pontianak film I had first heard about when I was a child, a movie that had come out on commercial video in the mid-seventies, was probably the 1975 film directed by Roger Sutton. However, I am now able to read the description of the original Pontianak (1957) that's posted on the Malay Films Database. Apparently a dubbed version of the older film was released to American television in the 1960's. This is incredibly important information, because the 1957 Pontianak is presumed lost... the film's producer got tired of maintaining his collection of original reels and dumped them all down a quarry. The original film's first sequel, Dendam Pontianak (Revenge of the Vampire) is also lost, and is much less likely to resurface somewhere in the world. But if one of those 1970's videotapes could be found, or if somewhere an American TV print could still be located, then there's a chance that the original Pontianak, a classic piece of world film history, could be saved. I urge my readers (all three of them) to check their basements... look carefully at garage sales... ask their local TV stations and keep an eye out for Pontianak.

As it happens, there is only one surviving film from the original late-50's trilogy: 1958's Sumpah Pontianak (Curse of the Vampire). On its own, Sumpah Pontianak is a well-made and enjoyable film (even if you don't understand the dialog); but since it follows immediately from Dendam Pontianak, and references events in the original Pontianak in the assumption that the audience would be familiar with them, I think Sumpah Pontianak is unlikely to be picked up for release outside of Malaysia until the original movie is found.

But it is still possible to get a video copy of Sumpah Pontianak — so, for those who are interested in the movie and want to know how it relates to its predecessors, here is a pieced-together synopsis of the original Pontianak:

Once upon a time here was a sorcerer who lived alone at the edge of a village in the Malaysian jungle. One day he found a baby girl that had been abandoned in the woods. The sorcerer decided to raise the little girl as his own, and named her Comel (or Chomel, to spell it in English as it is pronounced), which means "the cute one".

But Comel's name turned out to be a burden to her, for she was not "the cute one". She grew up to be hunchbacked and twisted. The people of her village feared Comel because of her extreme ugliness, and they treated her miserably.

When the sorcerer died, his last instruction to Comel was that she should burn all his magical books and artifacts, before they fell into someone else's hands and caused some mischief. As Comel was obeying her late father's instructions, she came across a beauty spell: anyone who cast this spell would become beautiful, as long as he or she never again tasted blood. Rather than destroy this spell, Comel saved it for herself, and shortly thereafter was transformed from a squat, toad-like creature into a radiantly beautiful woman.

The newly-beautiful Comel was soon able to find a handsome husband, to whom she bore a daughter. The years passed in happiness for Comel, until one day in their garden her husband was bitten by a snake. Rushing to his aid, Comel tried to suck the poison from his wound... and in doing so, she tasted his blood. Comel was overcome by a sudden inescapable thirst: rather than drawing out the poison from her husband's snakebite, she ended up draining him of blood. Now Comel transformed into a ghastly white-haired monster, with a hooked nose and enormous fangs. The poor girl had become a pontianak, helpless to resist her appetite for blood.

You don't need to know much about Malaysian superstition and folklore to appreciate the power of this story. It starts out like Cinderella, and then plunges headlong into Faust. The real horror of the movie doesn't come from the cheap monster makeup, but from the tragedy of Comel's fate: all she wanted was to be happy, but her desire to live like a "normal" person brought despair and death to her and to everyone she loved. Other, more overt vampire movies may give us a bigger scare, but it's movies like this, based on deeper and more complex emotions than shock or disgust, that linger in the imagination.

Anyway, that's the basic setup for the original film. Very little information is available in English about Dendam Pontianak, though I think it's safe to say that in that film, the vampire comes back for revenge. Sumpah Pontianak apparently begins immediately after the end of Dendam Pontianak, as the usual band of torch-bearing villagers comes back to the town square in a mood of sober triumph. Go back to your homes, says the village headman, or datok; the monster will not trouble you again. Apparently Comel the vampire has been caught and dealt with in the traditional manner: a nail has been driven into her neck to take away all her power. According to the legends, there are different kinds of pontianak: some become monsters when they die in childbirth, and others like Comel have curses placed upon them. Thus, unlike the Western wooden stake, the nail in the neck doesn't necessarily kill the vampire if she wasn't already dead.

And so we cut from the villagers' grim victory to a dark, lonely part of the forest. There crouches Comel, once more a ghastly hag, weeping over her father's grave. "Have pity on me, father," she sobs; "I'm all alone. Please help me!" Her father's ghostly voice answers from the grave, reminding her that if she'd only listened to him in the first place, none of this would have happened.

"All I wanted was to become beautiful," says Comel. "But I failed. Now I want to repent for what I've done."

But she can't, says her father's voice. It's too late for repentance. She has been infected with... sumpah pontianak, the curse of the vampire!

This is a natural cue for the opening credits.

After the credits, we find ourselves back in Comel's old village. Some time has passed since Comel was driven away with the nail in her neck, and life has returned to normal... for almost everyone. Comel's daughter Maria, who understands better than anyone else that her mother was as much a victim as a monster, is still heartbroken over her loss. Though her husband Samad promises his worried father, the datok, that he will try to keep Maria's mind off Comel, the girl can not be consoled. She thinks she sees her mother eveywhere as she takes her long lonely walks in the woods.

We in the audience know that these visions are not really supernatural visitations. Aside from the fact that the nail has taken all Comel's powers away, we also know that the poor pontianak has wandered to a distant village where noone will recognize her. There, she stumbles into the village marketplace, asking from stall to stall and house to house if anyone will let her work for them. And here, as in her village, the people turn the ugly hunchback away without pity.

If there is one thing in particular that raises Sumpah Pontianak out of the realm of B-horror and into something close to art, it is Maria Menado's performance as Comel. It's rare for a beautiful young actress to allow herself to look as awful as Menado looks in her role as the hunchback. It's still rarer for such an actress to throw herself into the role with complete commitment and understanding. Menado's Comel is an astonishing performance: she manages to convince us that she really has been beaten and abused all her life. In the way she speaks and the way she carries herelf, she inspires in the audience both pity and a certain loathing as well — we almost understand why strangers refuse her comfort. She has come to expect to be beaten down, and her attitude almost invites others to beat her. In short, Comel is neither a noble martyr nor a contemptible whiner — she's a recognizeable, suffering human being.

The many faces of Comel:
Hunchback Comel
Pontianak Comel
Beautiful Comel

At last an old man comes across Comel cowering in the forest. When Comel pleads with him to help her, the Pak Cik (a term of respect for an older gentleman; the female form would be "Mak Cik") replies that of course he will. He calls out to his wife, who agrees she could use some help around the house. Comel goes home with the kindly couple and becomes their housekeeper.

And then the murders start.

Villagers begin to turn up dead, drained of blood, with strange bite marks on their corpses. As it happens, rumors have spread from a distant village (guess where?) that a pontianak (guess who?) had been found nearby. As a growd gathers around the newly-retrieved body of another victim, the whispers about the pontianak begin to circulate; Comel, on the edge of the crowd, tries to slink away unseen, but her Mak Cik calls out to her. Comel starts guiltily — but all Mak Cik wants is for Comel to take her little granddaughter safely home with her. And Comel does.

Back in the first village, Maria has a vivid dream in which she sees her mother calling to her. Interpreting this as a sign, she grabs a bundle of clothes and goes off to follow the visions in her head, hoping to find her mother.

(Sweet kid, Maria; but not very bright.)

When Maria's husband awakens and finds Maria gone, he realizes what must have happened. It's time to assemble the comic relief and go off looking for her.

The comic relief in this movie is a curious mix of silly and serious. There's the lazy servant of the datok, and a village kid we recognize as a very young and relatively restrained Mat Sentul. But the focus of the group, and I suppose as close as we get to a surrogate for the audience, is the village satay vendor, Ali. Ali the satay vendor is played — as always — by Wahid Satay, who (as you might guess from his name) made a career of playing singing satay vendors in movies like... well, like Satay (1962).

While Ali and his companions do their share of clowning, they also have a genuine part to play in the action. One of their finest moments comes as they sit with Samad by the side of a road at night. In an attempt to cheer him up, they pull out some traditional musical instruments and begin to sing a particularly appealing song. By the end of the singing and dancing, even the poor grieving Samad is smiling in spite of himself.

You might wonder why Ali found it necessary to pack a huge stringed instrument to take with him on a trek through the forest. Probably for the same reason Mat decided to bring along a tambourine... and nothing else. I suppose every culture has a slightly different idea of what constitutes the necessities for survival. Personally, I'm rather fond of a culture that values music over food, water or a change of clothing!

The next morning (after some botched comedy involving a dream sequence), Samad and the comedians come to a fork in the path, where Maria's trail becomes difficult to follow. Samad decides to go off in one direction, while Ali and the others go down to a village — one which is strange to them, but very familiar to us.

Ali figures the best way to get information from the locals is to befriend the village satay seller, and then treat the whole community to free meat skewers as he sings another song about the joys of eating satay. Soon Ali has the whole crowd singing and clapping along. Everybody's having such a good time that it's a shame nobody has any actual information to give them, not even the village datok. But just as the datok is giving Ali his opinion, a child comes running up with the news that another villager has been found dead. Everyone goes off to the scene of the crime, and Ali and his friends overhear the datok muttering that there can be no doubt a pontianak is among them.

Ali and the others slip quietly back to the village. Mat is frankly terrified: if there's a vampire loose, he says, maybe they four will be next in line to be killed. After all, they just recently managed to get rid of the pontianak from their own village... at which point, almost on cue, Comel comes up behind them. Recognizing Ali, she asks if they're looking for her. The four men practically jump out of their skins: though Comel begs them not to be afraid of her, Mat and Ali accuse her of being the monster.

"Percaya lah," says Comel; "aku tidak bunuh kepada mereka!" (You must believe me; I didn't kill them!") For a moment, Ali seems inclined to trust her. But what neither the four men nor Comel realize is that one of the village women has overheard them. Before Comel can convince Ali of her innocence, the women has run off to tell the datok that the pontianak has been identified. Ali has barely had enough time to inform Comel that her daughter has disappeared from home when a band of villagers — the same people Ali had been laughing and singing with only a few minutes before — arrives in the form of a lynch mob, intent on putting an end to Comel.

Ali tries to stop the mob, but since he is a stranger he has little authority. Besides, it was he who identified Comel as the monster. The poor hunchback is dragged off and tied to a tree, while the villagers attempt to figure out what to do with her. As night falls, the datok calls on Ali, as someone who's had experience dealing with this pontianak, to give him advice. Ali — I think — suggests they take her back to their village. The datok agrees, and orders Mat, who's also from Comel's village, to go out and get Comel. Mat panics at the thought of going out to deal with Comel by himself. While he's dithering, Comel's kindly old Pak Cik, who is appalled at the way the villagers are treating the poor woman, sneaks up and unties her. Mat finally comes outside, only to find to his horror that Comel has escaped.

That's the cue for everybody, including Ali and his friends, to grab stick and torches and run after her in classic monster movie style. Poor Comel hasn't had much of a head start, and her hobbling gait makes her a poor runner. Before long, she begins to realize that there is no escape for her, and that she must fight if she wants to survive. She grabs a long pole that's sticking out of the ground and pulls it up, hoping to use it as a weapon. And what do you know — it's even been sharpened on one end! Just like the sort of wooden stake you'd use to... oh, I don't know... maybe, drive through the heart of an undead creature to keep it in its grave, for example. An undead creature... like the rotting corpse that's even now starting to push its way out of the earth...!

Chasing a helpless hunchbacked woman — even one suspected of being a vampire — is easy enough. But when they're confronted by a genuine hantu crawling up out of the ground, the torch-bearing villagers lose their nerve en masse: they drop their clubs and run back to the village as fast as they can.

Comel is every bit as horrified as the others. As the zombie lurches toward her, she begs it for mercy. Relax, says the zombie; he's not going to kill her. My understanding of Malay is nowhere near good enough to understand what happens next — I won't get to reviving supernatural monsters from the dead until at least Lesson 10 — but what I think he says is this: because he and Comel have the same cursed blood, she brought him back to life when the stake was removed.

The Hantu Raya
The Hantu Raya

Back in the village, one of the elders considers the description of the new monster that the panic-stricken mob is babbling. It's his considered opinion that the zombie-like creature is a particularly powerful kind of spirit called a hantu raya.

The hantu raya takes Comel back to an abandoned hut he refers to as "tempat aku"... "my place"... not, however, to see his etchings. He warns her she must never attempt to go upstairs (presumably where his etchings are kept), or he will kill her. Presumably, since the hantu raya is so powerful, Comel's pontianak magic would be useless against him, even if she had her powers back.

Daylight comes, and Maria — remember Maria? — is still wandering starry-eyed, looking for her mother.

Unfortunately, no matter where she may be in the world (and when), a pretty young girl on her own can only wander starry-eyed through the forest for a certain amount of time before she attracts some unwanted attention... and in Maria's case, the unwanted attention comes from orang-hutan, the Wild Man of the Forest. This version of orang-hutan isn't the fuzzy red-haired Great Ape we call orangutan; it's a literal Wild Ape Man. He grabs the poor screaming girl and drags her off to his cave, in classic movie-troglodyte style.

The orang-hutan abducts Maria

Back in the ground floor of the hantu raya's lair, Comel suddenly realizes that something has happened to Maria. Whether this is simple motherly instinct or part of her residual pontianak power is never explained; but at the moment of Maria's abduction, Comel knows. As she rushes off to help, she runs into Ali and his friends, who are still out looking for Maria. Comel tells them she can sense that Maria's in trouble. She begs them to pull out the nail from her neck, so that she can use her powers to find Maria and help her. At first, Ali refuses to help, fearing that Comel will kill them all as soon as she regains her supernatural powers. One of the others comes up with an idea: they'll tie a long rope to the nail and pull it out from a safe distance.

This leads to the gruesomely comic spectacle of Ali and his friends pulling with all their might on a long, long string, while Comel writhes in agony on the other end. Finally the nail comes loose, spilling the four men onto the ground. Instantly Comel changes from her scabrous hunchbacked form into a ghastly fanged crone. Ali and the others run in terror, but Comel has other things on her mind besides food.

In the meantime, Samad — remember Samad? I almost didn't; being the male hero in a horror film, he's so typically bland he's easy to forget — Samad has found Maria's pack, which she dropped when she was attacked by orang-hutan. He follows the signs of the struggle until he finds the Wild Man's cave, where Maria lies bound. Samad attempts to free her, and almost has her untied when the Wild Man comes back. Samad knows the graceful traditional Malysian martial arts, but they're of no use against the orang-hutan's animal fury.

But look — up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's... a semi-transparent pontianak, flying through the air in a manner that will seem very familiar to anyone who grew up with the old George Reeves Superman TV show. Comel arrives just as Samad has been knocked unconscious by the Wild Man. One bite on the neck from the pontianak, and the battle is over. Samad comes to in time to see Comel, now in the form of Maria's beautiful mother, in a bittersweet reunion with her daughter... over the dead body of the Wild Man. Now that they've had a chance to see each other again, Comel counsels her daughter to stop trying to find her and go back to the village with her husband.

The bruised and bleeding Samad takes Maria to the nearby village, where he meets up with our comic relief. Samad relates his adventures fighting the Wild Man. "Nasib baik pontianak datang menolong," he says casually — "Good thing that vampire came to help us!" — and he seems a little put out when the four men react as though this was the most natural thing in the world for him to say.

So now everybody knows that Comel is a good vampire. If that's so, then what's been killing all the local villagers? We're about to find out. From under one of the village huts comes... a man in one of the worst lizard suits you'll ever see in your life. It's basically a decorated leotard with a tail pinned on, while the headpiece features something like an enormous beak and a pair of wobbly things that may be antennae or may be huge eyebrows — neither of which you expect to see on a lizard. This bizarre creature also attacks by strangling his prey with his five-fingered hand — again something you rarely see in a lizard.

The (cough) dragon.

The monster crawls through a window and drags out a screaming woman. This time, though, the monster's victim survives. The creature is surprised in its attack by someone else in the house, who attacks it with a club. Now the villagers realize what's really to blame for the spate of recent deaths.

Fortunately, there just happens to be a horror movie hero on hand in the form of Samad. Samad leads a party to follow the monster's tracks, and eventually they come across a cave. Within they find — horror of horrors! — a nest full of monster eggs. As the lizard-thing comes crawling through the cave after them, Samad and the others seal off the entrance with burning brush. The monster dies of smoke inhalation, and the eggs are presumably cooked.

(Mind you, the presence of eggs suggests there may be another lizard of the opposite gender hanging around somewhere... but not necessarily [Roland Emmerich, eat your heart out!]).

So now the monster is dead, Comel's released from her torment, and Maria has been returned to her family. Sounds like the cue for a happy ending, right?

Well... almost. There is the little matter of the hantu raya — remember the hantu raya? While Samad and Maria relax at a village festival, the hantu raya takes the form of a bat-man — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say "a teddy bear with wings" — and abducts Maria straight out of the audience.

And now the *hantu raya* abducts Maria.

What is it about Maria that marks her as monster bait?

Fortunately (I suppose), Comel is hovering on the sidelines, watching over her daughter. I say "fortunately" with reservations, since it may be the strange connection between Comel and the hantu raya that draws the ghost in the fuzzy Dr. Dentons straight to the poor girl. Anyway, seeing Maria being dragged off into the sky by the hantu, Comel transforms into her pontianak guise and follows.

It's possible that most of the movie's special effects budget went into the scene in which the hantu raya flies through the window of his house. Four times we see supernatural creatures fly in the course of the film, but this is the only time we actually see one land... and the expense of the harness may explain why the rest of the effects in the movie look so cheap. Anyway: as Comel arrives at the old house, the hantu raya does the expected villain thing by locking up his victim (in a trunk this time) and going somewhere else to cackle over his sheer evilness.

But the hantu raya is a powerful enemy — much more so than the orang hutan, who was merely a binatang buas (or "wild animal"). Comel can't fight the monster in her pontianak form, so she must transform herself back into the helpless hunchback and free her daughter the old-fashioned mortal way. As she does so, the bat demon comes back and finds her. The hantu grapples with Comel, who is at a clear disadvantage without any of her supernatural powers. But the hantu, furious at being betrayed by a fellow spirit, concentrates entirely on Comel. So intent is he on thrashing the pontianak that he fails to notice "poor, helpless" Maria has found a long, pointèd stick...

Perhaps you'd think if you were a monster that had recently had the wooden stake pulled out of its heart, the last thing you'd want to leave lying around the house is... another wooden stake. Yet this is precisely what Maria pulls out of the hantu raya's... um... umbrella stand, or something. Just as the hantu raya is about to leap on Comel and kill her, Maria thrusts the stake deep into his heart. The hantu raya transforms back into a rotting corpse and slumps to the floor, inert.

OK: now the stage is set for the happy ending.

Except it isn't quite as happy as we might expect: as they walk back to the village in the morning light, Maria asks Comel to stay with her and her husband. Surely the townspeople would accept her now that she's proved she's not evil? But Comel does not forgive easily. She is still seething over her years of mistreatment by the villagers, and her recent experiences have done nothing to improve her outlook. The blood of the pontianak is too strong for her to live among the living. Maria begs her not to kill any more, at least; Comel tells her not to worry — I don't think she says she won't kill anybody; she just says not to worry — and bids her daughter a tearful farewell. As Samad and the villagers come out to greet them, Comel transforms back into the grotesque hag and flies away, semi-transparently.

If there are two things guaranteed to endear a cheap horror flick to its audience, they are 1.) a decent story, and 2.) hilariously bad monster makeup. Rarely to the two come together so perfectly as they do in Sumpah Pontianak. Its cheap special effects in no way detract from its overall entertainment value. True, anyone looking for a scare from this movie will be terribly disappointed. But then again, how many other films of this vintage continue to scare us today? And come to think of it, how many recent vampire movies have managed to be even a little bit scary?

Sumpah Pontianak is very cleverly constructed in the many ways it deals with the idea of the "curse of the vampire". The movie deals very sympathetically with poor cursed Comel, whose vampire blood has separated her even futher from the world of normal people she so desperately wanted to be a part of. The sumpah pontianak is also the reason why the hantu raya comes back from the grave — Comel was only trying to defend herself, but the curse she has brought upon herself gives even her most reasonable actions horrible consequences. But at the same time, "curse of the vampire" also relates to the ties of blood between Comel and Maria. The bond between mother and child is shown to be so strong that it eventually transcends the curse; but until then, the curse works as much on the daughter as the mother, attracting all sorts of beasts and monsters to poor Maria.

It's also fascinating to me to consider how very different Sumpah Pontianak is from director Balakrishnan N. Rao's Pontianak Gua Musang, made some six years later. Pontianak Gua Musang approached its material in strictly realist terms, turning the old Malay legends into a study in psychological horror. This represents an enormously different approach from the original trilogy, especially Sumpah Pontianak with its menagerie of supernatural creatures in crazy costumes. Yet the connection between the two is this: both stories derive their power from the essential humanity of their monsters. Sumpah Pontianak's Comel and Pontianak Gua Musang's Halimah both become monsters out of a desire for love and happiness — except that they try to steal love and happiness when they seem to be losing the struggle. Comel is a supernatural creature who regains some of her humanity through her suffering; where Halimah loses her own humanity without ever completely losing the audience's sympathy. Also, it's interesting to note that in both films it is the women in the story whose actions really matter; the men are almost peripheral to the action, reacting to the situations the women create for them.

Sumpah Pontianak was the first Malay film shot in widescreen, but the Malay VCD which is currently available has been cropped from the 2.35:1 Cathayscope original to standard fullscreen. However, though the movie has a certain historical curiosity value for having been shot in widescreen, we're really not missing much when we see it cropped. Director Rao concentrates his action at the center of the screen, as though he were still filming in Academy aspect ratio; he doesn't seem to have considered using the wide screen as anything more than a gimmick.

Special mention should be made of the incidental music. The songs aren't as numerous as in Pontianak Gua Musang (which is, after all, a half-hour longer); nor in my opinion are they quite as memorable. But the background music for Sumpah Pontianak is all original, unlike Pontianak Gua Musang's extensive use of Hollywood library music. Sumpah Pontianak uses melodic material, including some from the movie's songs, to follow the characters's actions in a sort of simplified leitmotif technique. The music seems to be played on a combination of Western instruments and traditional Malay instruments, giving it a fresh and vigorous sound to Western ears.

If you want to see this film, you might have a little trouble. It's listed as still being available on VCD from my usual Malay suppliers at Cinemashops; however, I had trouble getting my order from them and eventually had to turn to slightly less reputable sources to find it. Whether this is because of the local authorities' recent crackdowns on tahyul (or superstition) in fiction... I don't know. It would be a shame if the movie were to become unavailable again, since — for all its technical failings — it's one of the most original and entertaining vampire films of its era.

I've gone into such detail on this film because I want people to understand what they're missing. Then, if they want to see it and are able to track it down, they can use this review to understand what they're not missing... because as far as I know there has never been an English translation of the movie. Sumpah Pontianak was much easier for me, a non-Malay speaker, to understand, since the situations and the language seemed much simpler than Pontianak Gua Musang (which is a far more sophisticated film). I hope I haven't gone too far wrong in my attempts at translation, and that nobody will be offended by anything I misunderstood. Even with my limited understanding, I enjoyed the film tremendously, and I can only hope that a restored, subtitled version will come out in the West some day.

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