It is to Malaysia that we are headed now, and to a set of supernatural myths that may be unfamiliar to many of my readers. Actually, they're unfamiliar to me, too... which is why you'll find this review peppered with the words "I think" and "apparently". But before we talk about Malaysia, we need to visit even stranger and more distant parts...
... namely, the Seventies.
Let me assure my American readers who weren't there for the Seventies: if you could travel back in time, you'd probably find the culture shock far greater than if you were plopped down unprepared into Kuala Lumpur. At least in a foreign country you'd expect the language and customs to be different. But even going back a mere thirty years to our own culture, you'd find more differences and peculiarities than any nostalgic TV show could hope to deal with.
I can give you some trivial examples. Consider home video. Today we take it for granted, but in the Seventies, it was in its infancy. The Video Cassette Recorder — known to most of us by its abbreviation, "Betamax" — was too expensive for most working families to afford, except as a luxury. And even if you could afford to buy the machine, most commercially-recorded videotapes cost between $40 and $80 in the local currency, the "Seventies Dollar". That was a lot of money: adjusted to today's values, that would put a single tape between $125 and $250. And renting the tapes was not an option!
Here's another odd fact from the Seventies: Publishers' Clearing House used to be... a publishers' clearing house. Yes, I know it's difficult to believe, but they used to be primarily a mail-order store for remaindered books. I used to love leafing through their catalogs, looking for bargains. At a certain point they also started carrying videos, which opened up a mysterious new world to me; after all, my family could never afford a Betamax, no matter how much I pleaded... heck, we never even had a color television until the early 1980s. So I would look through the lists of movies and sigh, dreaming of the day when I could afford to buy my very own Betamax and watch my favorite monster movies ad libitum.
One day — I remember it very clearly; it was in the early summer of either 1976 or 1977, on a two-hour car trip — I was sitting in the back of our Plymouth Valiant, squinting to read the Publishers' Clearing House catalog in the fading twilight. I was, as usual, torturing myself by skimming the video section. I turned a page, and there at the top of the next column was a listing for a horror movie I had never heard of before. It was called PONTIANAK.
What a wonderful word that is, "Pontianak": exactly the sort of word to appeal to a little boy whose best friends and playmates were words. I had no idea how to pronounce it1, but that didn't matter. It was a deliriously foreign word, with unexpected hooks and barbs in it that stuck to my mind like thistles. I read on and found out that the movie was about some kind of Asian vampire. I knew I had no chance of seeing this strange and mysterious-sounding film at the moment... even if I'd had eighty bucks of my own to spend on a movie, nobody I knew had a video player. But that magnificent word, PONTIANAK, was forever engraved in my memory, and I knew that some day I would track the movie down.
As the years passed, and the times mutated gradually into the present we all take for granted, I never forgot the word or what it stood for. Gradually I found out that there had been a whole series of Malaysian movies about the Pontianak, or female vampire, starting with a set of three movies from the mid-1950s. Pontianak, Dendam Pontianak (The Revenge of the Vampire) and Sumpah Pontianak (The Curse of the Vampire) were all made by the Cathay Keris film company, and starred Maria Menado as the title creature. Into the Sixties, another four films were added to the canon: Anak Pontianak (Son of the Vampire) and Pusaka Pontianak (Scream of the Vampire) were produced by the Shaw Brothers's Malaysian company, while Cathay Keris went on with Pontianak Kembali (Return of the Vampire, marking Menado's last appearance in the series) and Pontianak Gua Musang (The Vampire of Civet Cave). The films were really only intended for a local audience, even though they had taken advantage of talented directors and crew-members from all over the world. They exploited a particularly local set of legends and beliefs, and presented them in a way that was familiar and acceptable to the local community. In form, they were based on Indian models: slowly-paced, varying widely in tone from scene to scene, and punctuated by musical numbers.
As for the Pontianak herself: the Pontianak is a particularly nasty Malaysian spirit. She sometimes takes the form of a beautiful woman, but in reality she's a horrible bloodthirsty hag. She announces her presence with a sort of keening cackle, but the sound is deceptive: it's loudest when she's furthest away from her victim, growing fainter as she comes near. She often preys on the weak and helpless, sometimes devouring babies out of the bellies of pregnant women. Like Ann Coulter, in other words, only slightly less frightening.
The way to deal with a Pontianak is to drive a nail into her head. According to some legends, this will cause the monster to die; but according to other legends, this will cause her to change back to a normal woman... at least until the nail is removed.
The more I investigated, the more anxious I became to finally locate a copy of the original Pontianak. I found a number of horror movie reference books that mentioned it — Golden Video Retriever's guide to vampire films even gave it a two-bone rating — but more specific information, like where to find a copy, was always lacking. The emergence of the Internet opened up the possibility of ordering movies from all over the world, and eventually I was able to get my hands on a number of Malaysian and Indonesian movies (even if none of them came with English subtitles). But Pontianak was not among them.
Eventually I found out why the movie I most wanted to see was the hardest one to find. It no longer exists. It takes a good deal of care to maintain films in the heat and humidity of equatorial Asia, and at some point the original producer of the Pontianak films got tired of the trouble. He took the only remaining prints of many of his movies, including Pontianak and Dendam Pontianak, and tossed them down a well.
So. If Pontianak has been lost forever, with no remaining copies anywhere in the world, then how on earth did I ever run into it in a video catalog? How could reviewers have rated it? There's a cynical answer to that last question, but I think the real explanation is this: it turns out that there was another movie called Pontianak, made in 1975 as a Malaysian / Indonesian / Japanese / Chinese / Thai / Philippine co-production; and that's probably the movie that I saw mentioned in the old PCH catalog. Since it was made with an eye on international sales (within Asia, anyway), that film was much more likely to have been exported to the nascent American video market than an untranslated black and white Malaysian classic. Especially since the original was rotting under water somewhere.
As luck would have it, the 1975 Pontianak is available on Malaysian video. So it seems that after almost exactly 30 years, three-quarters of my life, I have finally been able to track down and view the film that so tempted me as a little boy.
And it's, uh... not very good.
Well? What did you expect? No low-budget horror flick could possibly live up to thirty years' worth of expectations.
Let me make a few things clear, though: first of all, I admit that I am in no position to pass judgment on the script of the movie, since I do not speak Bahasa Melayu and the movie is not subtitled. Let me also assure everybody that I'm not trying to cast aspersions on Malaysian cinema in general: the classic black and white Malaysian films of the fifties and sixties I referred to above were all solidly professional productions that remain entertaining today, even without subtitles. And finally, I don't want to give anybody the impression I don't like the 1975 version of Pontianak, or that it doesn't contain a number of fascinating ideas and moments.
But none of this changes the fact that the 1975 movie, for all its considerable charm, has some problems.
The problems begin with the print they've used for the video: it's deteriorated badly. On the plus side — and unusually for a Malaysian VCD — the video is presented in widescreen, in its 2.35:1 Winscope aspect ratio... and that's a very good thing, because the image is faded and liney enough that cropping it would have rendered it nearly unwatchable.
But the print is clear enough that we can see the production's biggest real problem: its monster. The vampire takes several forms throughout the story, and each costume looks like something you'd find on the rack at K-Mart two weeks after Hallowe'en. In her usual form, the Pontianak wears a white negligée and a cheap white fright wig. When she's about to attack, she grows big pointy teeth, but the teeth usually disappear whenever she has dialogue (unless the scene calls for both teeth and dialogue, in which case she somehow manages to speak without moving her lips). To show she's a vampire, she occasionally drips blood from her mouth. Unfortunately, she sometimes drips the blood before she's bit her victim, which seems a little wasteful.
Since there was evidently no budget for special effects, the vampire's ghostliness is suggested by stopping the camera, having the actress walk off-screen, and then starting the camera again... a technique that was outdated even before the days of sound. As for her unearthly laugh? They play a recording of an unhappy cat.
Admittedly, the effects in the early Pontianak films from the Fifties were hardly realistic; nor were they meant to be, since they were aimed at an audience that didn't expect or require realism. But like their more graphic later counterparts from Indonesia, these films made up for the crudity of their effects through the sheer vividness of their storytelling. Regrettably, the woman playing the Pontianak here is no Maria Menado. Remember Jeannie Stevens' turn as the Black Ghost in Ed Wood's Night of the Ghouls? This girl is worse. Sometimes, her woodenness has a certain effect: when we see her in the daylight, as she prepares to marry an unfortunate victim, her corpse-like stillness gives her a very disturbing appearance. But when she's called on to scare us, she's completely ineffective. Here, for example, is how she stalks one of her victims: while he sits obligingly still, she walks a few paces toward him; then she slowly raises her arms; then she lowers her arms, and walks toward him another few paces. Then she raises her arms again. Repeat. Bear in mind, too, that her "attack" is accompanied the whole time by the sound of a very annoyed house cat.
She also has a tendency to slip out-of-focus when she menaces the screen. That's hardly her fault, but it doesn't exactly help restore her dignity.
Now, I have heard this movie referred to as a parody, but I don't think its occasional silliness is intentional. In fact, its overall tone suggests that Pontianak was meant to be taken very seriously. I can understand why someone might look back on Pontianak and take it for a parody... not just because of its unintentionally funny special effects, but also because of its producer/star. Hamid Bond, whose Hamid Bond Organization helped finance the film, was apparently a successful comedian of the time. I understand that he and his partner Ah Leng, who also appears in Pontianak, were a sort of Singaporean Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. We might expect a comedy from a comedian, and Bond and Leng do provide the inevitable comic relief. But far from being a parody, Pontianak instead takes its "comic relief" into an unexpectedly serious direction halfway through the film... in one of the gestures that actually helps save the movie from its own cheapness.
The movie starts promisingly enough, with a half-glimpsed Thing pushing its way out of a forest grave at night. If the wolves howling in the background sound suspiciously like they came from Hollywood, that's certainly forgiveable. The movie has the good sense never to give us a clear look at the Thing, as it slumps through the mist. We do get our first clear moment of horror, though, from the credits: in the cast list we see The Family Robinson Band, and we know we're in for some bad Seventies Rock at some point in the film.
Fortunately, the movie decides to get the Family Robinson Band over with as quickly as possible. No sooner have we seen the Thing crawl painfully out of her grave, when we switch to a swingin' night club where the Band is providing the evening's swingin' entertainment. And to be fair, the song they sing (in English) isn't all that bad. The sound quality isn't good enough for me to make out everything they're singing, but the swingin' refrain goes a little like this:
... something unintelligible (but swingin')."You do it once,
"You do it one / you do it twice/
Later on Ah Leng / is gonna eat some mice."
While the band is performing, the lead singer catches sight of a girl in the audience. She's attempting to make little come-hither gestures to him, and she's failing so badly that I suppose it awakens his sympathy:
After the song is over, we see the lead singer leaving the club with the strange girl on his arm. She leans up and gives him a quick kiss on the neck, causing the poor guy to blush and cast a guilty look at the camera.
The couple leaves the swingin' night club in the singer's swingin' sports car. When the boy finds a suitable spot to park, he's very surprised to see his companion's dark hair
Her second victim is a young man who is sitting alone at night. He looks up from his book and sees a pretty if vacant-looking girl smiling at him on his right. When he fails to respond and goes back to his book, the girl disappears and reappears on his left. The guy is a little astonished to see the girl apparently changing her position with lightning speed, but hey: at least she's managed to get his attention. The poor guy isn't suspicious that this girl has literally appeared out of nowhere and started chatting him up, so we're hardly surprised when he too ends up as vampire food.
These killings attract the attention of a certain young man — I think his name is Aziz, and I think he's a doctor, but whatever his position, his job is apparently to find out how the murders were committed. He immediately connects the style of the killings with the legendary Malaysian vampire. At first, in spite of the evidence, he dismisses the idea; and in any case, the young man is not so upset by the murders that he doesn't put his investigation aside when his girlfriend Melati (or Jasmine in English) comes for a visit.
But Melati has her own connection to the murders. Late one night, she hears a voice calling her name from the forest (though I suppose the voice is supposed to be ghostly and mysterious, its tone is anything but: it makes the listener glad the girl's name isn't "Ricola"). When Melati goes to investigate, the Pontianak appears behind her. "Melati anak aku (Melati, my child)," it calls, "mari saya; mari (come to me)!"
(See? I'm picking up a little Malay!)
Now, according to legend, the Pontianak is often the spirit of a woman who has died in childbirth; so I'm assuming the creature really is Melati's deceased mother. You'd expect Melati to be absolutely terrified when her dead Mom teleports herself out of the forest, looking younger than her own daughter and
Back to the murder investigation: our young hero's mentor (I'm not sure of their exact relationship) is bewildered by the killings. The locals are convinced it's the work of vampires; he thinks that's ridiculous. This is a little unusual, in that the wise older men in films such as these are often the ones to convince the worldly younger generation that supernatural things are prowling in the darkness. What's more, I understand the traditional Malaysian image of the Storyteller, the one who would pass on the legends of the Pontianak, is just such a distinguished older man as this. But in this case, it's up to the young people to persuade him that vampires may actually exist.
A seemingly-unrelated side story presents us with Hamid Bond and Ah Leng as hapless proprietors of a traditional medicine shop. A scrawny man with a persistent cough is on his way into the shop when he meets another man coming out. This other man is clutching what appears to be an enormous jar of red fruit juice... well, either that or perhaps a jar of his own blood; but that seems a little unlikely. Anyway, the man with the jar meets the gaze of the man with the cough; he gives a lugubrious shake of his head, and walks away.
Undeterred, the man with the cough goes in to meet the quacks. After a brief examination, "Doctor" Leng decides on the proper "tradtional" treatment for him: he must eat a live mouse. Leng demonstrates (mercifully off-camera). While both "Doctor" Bond and the man with the cough look on in shock, Leng measures out the "dosage" of tiny white mice into a plastic bag.
After the man has gone, Leng discovers that he has a slightly upset stomach. In fact, it's so upset it's squeaking at him. Bond suggests he take a glass of water to settle himself, so Leng does. That seems to do the trick for a moment; but before long, the mouse in his stomach isn't just squeaking its displeasure... it's also haranguing him in Malay. So there's nothing else to do except for Bond to get Leng on the examining table, where he extracts the unhappy mouse from Leng's throat.
Presumably the scene comes off funnier if you speak Malay and understand the verbal sparring between the two men. The same is true of a second scene featuring the two comedians: this time their patient is a fat man. It's a rule of Bad Comedy all over the world that fat men are always funny, just by their very presence. Not as funny, perhaps, as a man dressed like a woman... but still funny. Bond and Leng try to diagnose the fat man's tummy ache by marking the parts of his body where the trouble might be. The end point of the joke is obvious: his stomach is going to turn into a tic-tac-toe board by the end of the examination. However, it takes a very long time for the pair to get to this point; and when you don't understand what the two clowns are talking about, the wait for the feeble payoff is excruciating.
To make things even more unbearable, these comedy scenes are accompanied by broad, silent-film-style music — "Ain't She Sweet?" is used in one of them.
But just as we're beginning to wonder what place these scenes have in the movie, and why Bond and Leng have top billing in this nominal horror film, the movie suddenly decides to answer our questions. Bond and Leng are apparently friends of the hero's family, and it just so happens (in a Bram Stoker-like coincidence) that Leng is about to get married... and the girl he's marrying is curiously shy and pale.
The couple's wedding night starts as a little bit of harmlessly risqué comedy: Leng is excited but nervous, while his bride seems peculiarly sullen. As Leng tries naïvely to set a romantic mood, the girl just gets more and more distant, finally curling up on the bed with her back to Leng. Poor Leng has no idea where to put his hands as he tries to warm the girl up. He pats her hip shyly; he runs his fingers along her arm; then he places his hand on her neck...
Leng may be a quack, but even a quack can tell when a woman has no pulse.
Up from the bed rises a white-haired monster with long, sharp teeth; and, in the scene I described at the beginning of this review, she starts her curiously tepid attack. Neither Leng's cries for help not the deafening cat-noises attract much attention from outside. But when the bride (back in her normal form) comes out of the hotel room, hands her mother-in-law a blood-soaked cloth and disappears, well... you can imagine that raises a few eyebrows. Not to mention gorges.
In case the significance of this scene hasn't occured to you yet, let me put it bluntly:
They've just killed the comic relief.
Yes. In an unexpectedly brilliant and poignant gesture, they've done what we've always wanted a movie to do, and killed the comic relief. I guess you should be careful what you ask for... because equally unexpectedly, the film treats Leng's death with a good deal of respect. We're shown his funeral, and it hits us that this throwaway character was actually somebody's son... somebody's brother... somebody's friend. This tragedy not only convinces Melati and Aziz that a real Pontianak is among them; it also turns Bond into one of the committed vampire hunters — and even though he keeps on cracking wise for the rest of the film, something about the movie's overall character has changed.
Earlier, the movie had attempted to generate some pathos by having the Pontianak call out to her daughter, Melati. The idea of a Pontianak coming back as a sympathetic figure to protect her child was handled very well in Sumpah Pontianak, the last of the original trilogy; but in the wake of Leng's death, this film seems to realize there's little chance of further humanizing the vampire.
In fact, the movie goes so far as to undo its attempts to make the monster seem sympathetic. When a powerful witch shows up to show the inexperienced Pontianak how things are done, the vampire actually abducts Melati, along with three other girls, to be used in a sacrifice (there is evidently a scene missing from the print I saw... we go without any transition from the vampire hunters' strategy session, where Melati is present, to the vampire's lair, where Melati is held in a trance. We can tell, though, that this is the Lair of Evil, since the paintings on the wall are all hung crookedly).
You can also tell this is the lair of Evil
by the skull with the burning nose.
By this time, though, Melati and Aziz know what's going on; so although the Pontianak is able to drain the blood from the other three girls, when she gets to Melati she finds she's unable to bite her. She tries the right side of the neck: no luck. She tries the left side of the neck: still nothing. She even tries biting Melati on the nose. Mystified, the Big Witch investigates the girl's body, to see if she's hiding some sort of talisman. Sure enough, Melati has a small box clutched in her right hand. The Big Witch opens it and recoils in horror: inside is a miniature Qur'an! The poor clueless Pontianak doesn't seem to understand the danger. She reaches out to touch the holy book, but the witch slaps her hand away. To touch it would bring dire consequences! Defeated for the moment, the monsters and their newly-bitten protégées flee into the night.
When Melati comes to, she finds herself alone in the decrepit building and realizes what must have happened. She summons her friends and the police to come investigate. The old man is still skeptical (to say nothing of the police), since the house has clearly been abandoned for some time; The Skull with the Burning Nose is gone, and even the ashes in the braziers are cold. But Melati insists she saw the Pontianak at work while she was in her trance.
As the vampire hunters investigate, the Pontianak goes to claim another victim. The vampire disguises herself as a midwife and sucks the life from a pregnant woman and her unborn child. This scene shows a surprising amount of female flesh for a Malaysian/Indonesian film, in the form of a woman's swollen belly. It also illustrates the Pontianak's power to change her shape in order to win the trust of her potential victim. Like Hillary Clinton, in other words; only slightly less frightening.
By this time even the skeptical old man has to admit the situation has become dealy serious. Eventually, our heroic band catches up with the vampire when she returns to her spooky old house. Bond nearly wets his pants with terror when he sees the Pontianak's shadow passing the windows.
But when they go to confront her, she proves to be a surprisingly ineffective foe. Sure, she jumps up and confronts them; and sure, her overdubbed voice launches into a passionate defiance... but the actress's lack of charisma (combined with the fact that she doesn't move her lips during the harangue) makes the gesture seem pretty weak. The monster first threatens, telling the vampire slayers that while they may have come to kill her, they've really come to meet their own deaths. I think. When this fails to deter them, she tries pleading with Melati to let her escape and come with her... but the old man rebuts her — I think he uses the example of the pregnant woman she'd killed in the earlier scene to dismiss her appeal to Motherhood.
At this point, the script calls for the Pontianak to fly around the room and attack... an effect that honestly should never have been attempted on such a limited budget. It all comes to nothing, anyway, since no sooner has the attack begun when our hero Aziz jams a nail into the top of the vampire's head.
This is the cue for the movie to rip off Jess Franco ripping off Roger Corman, in the least successful room-bursting-into-flames sequence I have ever seen.
But the movie has one last surprise waiting for us. Normally, in movies like this, once you exploit the monster's One Weakness it dies, and that's the end. That's not what happens here. The Pontianak reverts to her true form, the one we half-glimpsed as she crawled out of the earth at the start of the movie. No longer a beautiful girl with long white hair, now she's a woman in a hideous rubber mask with short, mouse-colored hair.
She's mortally wounded, yes, but not dead yet. And while she staggers back to her grave, she's still very dangerous. The vampire hunters run after her to make sure she doesn't get away; but when the Pontianak finds the old man alone, she attacks him and wounds him rather badly.
Apparently the effects budget didn't allow for ruining the Pontianak's wig. Rather than fastening the nail to the costume, they had the monster run around holding the nail to its head... an effect that comes off even less convincing than it sounds. She even hold the nail in place while she's attacking the old man. This has the unavoidable result that the nail keeps shifting position from scene to scene, shot to shot:
Just when it seems as though the Pontianak is about to kill the old man, Bond shows up. He distracts the monster by pretending to know Kung Fu. Naturally, his martial arts moves only succeed in knocking him flat on his own ass, but the brief distraction was enough: rather than finish off the old man, the dying Pontianak mutters, "To hell with it", and slinks back to her nameless grave.
"Melati! Tolong ibu nah! Kasihanilah ibu! (Help your Mother! Have mercy on your mother!)" wails the voice of the Pontianak from its grave... Aziz apparently wants to finish the job by digging up the body and destroying it, but Melati intercedes. I think the idea is that if Aziz violates the grave and destroys the body, the Pontianak may never rest in peace. So Aziz reluctantly agrees, and takes Melati out of the forest. The last image we have is of the Pontianak's claw, clutching the bloody nail as she dies for the last time.
Pontianak was directed by somebody named Roger Sutton. As far as I can tell, this was Sutton's first and only directing experience. I can believe it. Still, it's a very entertaining mix of great ideas and sloppy execution, and one of the most enjoyable lousy movies I know. It's not the sort of lousy movie you look down on. Rather, it's the kind of movie you admire, because it actually — against all odds and in spite of itself — manages to succeed from time to time.
Looking back on this review, I realize I've left out one of the most amusing parts of the film: the soundtrack. Malay films typically re-use stock music from other productions, but this mid-seventies film actually uses about 40 years' worth of spooky cues. There are snippets of music dating back at least to the 1940's, and probably even earlier, and these mix with other snippets that were very contemporary, including some Goblinesque prog-rock that plays during the monster's attacks. And yet (with the possible exception of the vaudeville music that accompanies the Comic Relief), the integration of all these unrelated bits of music works rather well.
This film and many others from the region are available on VCD and DVD from the very nice people at Cinemashops in Malaysia. Browse through their collection of Indonesian and Malay movies — if you've read this far in the review, I can all but guarantee you'll come away with a wish list several pages long. It's true that practically none of the movies they offer have any English on them at all; most of them are panned and scanned, and many have been censored multiple times over the years. On the other hand, they're reasonably inexpensive, even with overseas shipping. Someday, perhaps, Mondo Macabro will release more of these gems in remastered, international versions... heck, even Brentwood is doing it now! But until then, why not go straight to the source?
You will not find this movie listed on the IMDB; for more information, check the listing in the Malaysian Film Database.
1. In this movie, it's pronounced "Pon-ti-AH-nah", which I think may be the Indonesian pronunciation. In other Malay films, I've heard it pronounced "Poon-tya-NAH". In either case, the final "k" is silent.