You could make somebody
a pretty little wife
But don't let anybody
tell you how to live your life
Tear off your own head!
— The Bangles
Like many people, I'm fascinated by the southeast Asian legend of the Floating Head Vampire. You may have heard of her before: she's referred to as penanggalan in Malaysia and Indonesia, and as krasuë in Thai. At night, she is said to detach her head and innards from her body and fly around searching for fresh blood to drink1.
The legend of the Floating Head Vampire is now known all over the world. It's served as the basis for a growing number of movies, the best-known of which is probably H. Tjut Djalil's Indonesian film, Mystic in Bali (the best-known... I can't believe I've actually just written this last sentence; I'm going to go back and weep for joy as I read it again... how times have changed since the advent of DVD!). Others include recent Thai films such as Krasue, a.k.a. Demonic Beauty (2002) and Krasue Valentine (2006). Among the rest, the most tantalizing is probably Penanggalan, an Indonesian/Hong Kong co-production from 1967. Penanggalan was directed by India's legendary Tulsi Ramsay, several years before he and his brothers practically invented the modern Indian horror film.
Only slightly less obscure than Penanggalan is our movie for today: Hong Kong's The Witch with Flying Head (1977).
Many people who haven't seen the film assume The Witch with Flying Head is a Shaw Brothers production, and that's a good guess. The Shaws got their start making movies in Malaysia, and took back with them influences from the folk legends of the region (The Oily Maniac , based on the figure of the orang minyak, is an obvious example). Certainly the idea of a feral pile o' guts chasing people around seems in keeping with the wild sort of stuff the Shaws were churning out in the mid-seventies. But here's the first of The Witch with Flying Head's many surprises: it's not really a Shaw production at all. Rather, it's a microbudget small-studio production. While the film-makers seem to have been able to make up for the movie's low budget through sheer imagination and commitment, the lack of major studio backing is no doubt part of the reason this movie has not been preserved, and is so extremely difficult to find today.
The only print of the movie that I've been able to track down is an old VHS transfer in Mandarin. It is not subtitled. A long time ago I knew a little bit of Mandarin, but what little I knew has long since evaporated from my head (and it took my hair along with it). Frankly, I never really knew enough of the language to deal with floating-head monsters in any case. To make matters worse, my copy of the video is cropped to full-frame from the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio... meaning that not only don't I understand what the characters are saying, but most of the time I can't see what they're doing, either, since half the picture is missing. For now, though, this is as good a copy as I am likely to get: nobody is even sure if the master prints for the film even exist any more, and even if they do still exist (and someone is able to find them), obtaining the rights for an official re-release is going to be a nightmare.
Maybe some day this film and Penanggalan will be released in a pristine widescreen DVD double-header by Mondo Macabro — I can dream, can't I? But in the meantime, here's a tiny glimpse of what we've all been missing:
The story takes place in rural China some time in the distant past. There is a family that lives at the edge of a forest; a father, mother and two daughters... or at least that's what I assume they are; I'm embarrassed to say I just don't know for sure. Anyway: as the movie opens, our main character, one of the family's beautiful daughters, is performing some sort of ceremony in a temple — her Bat Mitzvah, perhaps.
But unfortunately for this family, the forest near which they live is haunted by a trio of snake spirits, one male and two female (I'm getting ahead of the story by revealing this to you, but everything will make much more sense if you know this in advance). The male snake-witch, the leader of the group, happens to be slithering by when he catches sight of the beautiful daughter. Reverting to human form, he spits a smaller snake out of his mouth, and sends it to crawl up under the young woman's skirt.
The little green snake then, umm, inserts itself. I'll leave it to your imagination exactly how it does this... we actually see this happening from inside the girl's body. Naturally, this causes the poor girl some discomfort; and as she writhes in pain, the snake-witch saunters in and asks if he might be of some assistance. He offers the girl's mother a potion he says will make the pain go away. But the mother, sensing something odd about the stranger, hesitates before taking it from him. Fine, says the snake-witch, popping the potion back in his pocket and making as if to leave; if you don't trust me, you can always just leave your daughter squirming in agony. The mother relents, and sure enough the potion does seem to work.
You'll have guessed that the potion is worse for the girl than the pain is, and you'd be right. Rather than cure her, the snake-witch's bottle has completed the spell that will turn the innocent young woman into a monster. It's an all-too-typical ending for religious ceremonies such as this one...
(What, you've never heard of a Vampire Bat Mitzvah?)
Later that night, in the nearby village, two men (one with a torch, the other with the night-drum) are out keeping watch. Hearing a noise, they are at first confronted with a Spring-loaded Cat® (you always suspected they were made in China, didn't you?). Almost immediately, though, they find themselves face-to-viscera with... The Witch with Flying Head, complete with title-card and opening credits.
In the morning, the girl awakens with blood on her lips, and is understandably concerned. Concern gives way to horror when the snake-witch shows up at the door. He explains that he's placed a curse on her, which will cause her to turn into the Floating Head Vampire every night... unless, that is, she agrees to marry him.
The girl's parents beg him to accept anything else... everything else they have, if he will leave their daughter in peace. The snake-witch refuses. However, he's not prepared for the girl's own reaction. It's true turning into a monster every night is a heavy burden for the girl to bear. Still, nothing will persuade her to go willingly with the man who's inflicted this terrible curse on her. She decides she'd rather be an unwilling monster than submit to being someone's slave.
Thwarted in mid-smirk, the snake-witch has no choice but to withdraw... for the moment. It doesn't matter, he mutters; after a little while, when the usual torch-wielding villagers figure out who's terrorizing them every night, she'll be grateful for his protection.
Now, this would be enough of a setup for the average Western-style horror film; and if this were an average Western-style horror film, we'd probably spend the next eighty or ninety minutes bringing this setup to a linear and logical conclusion. This is not an average Western-style horror film. The action of the rest of the film takes place over the next several years, including some digressions that sometimes seem to be taking us into a completely different movie.
At first, things stay fairly straightforward. The family calls in a pair of monks to exorcise the evil spirit that's living in their daughter's belly. The monks seem to be succeeding, and when little glowing snake-ghosts come flying at them through the air, they use their holy magic to zap them out of the sky. But then the snake-witch himself intervenes, and the tin-foil swastika on the head monk's chest is no match for a full-on blast of snake magic. As blood drips from the head monk's mouth, the Witch with Flying Head joins the battle, easily snapping the other monk's sacred spear with her fangs.
Here's where we learn Wicked Surprise #2: the Witch with Flying Head can breathe fire!
In the morning, the family awakens to find both monks reduced to snake-infested carrion.
This is too much for the poor young woman to bear, so she rushes out into the forest and attempts to hang herself. The others restrain her just in the nick of time. Her mother gets the idea that they should go far away to the other side of the haunted forest, where there are fewer people for the girl to eat.
From then on, every night when the girl feels the transformation is about to begin, she runs out into the forest. There she stands less chance of running into any innocent victims. One night, though, a pair of men catch sight of the pretty young woman all alone and (seemingly) helpless in the dark. Since nobody's around to see them, and since they're a pair of louts, they decide they may as well rape her. She certainly seems too distressed to put up much of a struggle; in fact, she seems to have lost consciousness completely. But as the men begin to disrobe, they're surprised to see their intended victim sit up and pull a Linda Blair on them. As they stand boggling, the girl's head detaches itself from her body...
One of the attempted rapists quickly gets turned into a midnight snack. As the other tries to flee through the forest, he runs into an old Taoist priest — this is a Hong Kong horror movie, after all — who happens to be wandering through the woods. The priest battles the Witch, who tries out some new magical powers during the struggle: she fires red laser beams from her mouth, and spits out exploding disco balls! In spite of these formidable attacks, the old man knows exactly what to do. After a few feints, he traps the flying head in what looks like Christmas-tree net lights. But before he can destroy the Witch, her mother runs out of the woods and begs him for mercy.
Once he understands the situation, the priest attempts to use his magic accupuncture to cure the girl. It doesn't work. The snake-magic is too strong for him. Nevertheless, he does leave the family with two weapons to help them: a holy mirror, and... umm... some sort of holy fire extinguisher. These objects won't break the curse, but they should help if the rest of the family finds themselves menaced by their own child in her monster form.
So far we haven't strayed too far from the main thread of the story, so at this point it's time to veer off in a sub-plot that seems at first to be unrelated to everything we've seen so far.
I mentioned earlier that the forest was haunted by three snake spirits, although up until this point we've only met one. In a different part of the forest, two travellers (whom I initially mistook for the rapists from a couple of scenes earlier) are suprised when a ghostly woman's voice calls one of them by name. Try as they might, they can't seem to find the source of the voice, although there is a rather large snake dangling from a nearby tree branch. At the same time, a curious mark appears on the forehead of the man whose name was called — though it's indistinct at first, the mark gradually resolves itself into the form of a coiled serpent!
That night, the two men show up at an inn. After a night of drinking and joking about the weird events of the day, the two go off to their rooms... where two mysterious women are waiting for them. One of the women works on seducing the man with the snake on his forehead, while the other hides near the entrance his room. When the second man hears what he thinks are the sounds of sex coming from his friend's room, he goes to the door and peers through a gap. He has no time to see his friend being devoured by the snake the first girl has transformed into; instead, he gets his own face eaten off by another snake, which suddenly appears where the second woman had been only a moment ago.
Once this gory little vignette is over, we see another young man riding through the same stretch of forest. He, too, hears someone calling his name, and he too ends up with a strange sort of mark on his forehead. He ends up at the same inn, where the snake-mark causes considerable turmoil among the other people at the inn. After all, they'd just finished cleaning up the last two victims...!
But this man, Tao, is no fool. Guessing that a trap is waiting for him, he decides to run for it. As night falls, and strange voices being to call from out of the shadows, the young man has got just as far as... a certain lonely farmhouse that seems very familiar to us.
So just as we were beginning to think we'd crossed over into some other movie, the plot threads cross. The two snake women are the other two spirits of the forest I'd mentioned at the beginning. When Tao comes barging in begging for help against the snake women, Flying-Head Witch and her mother and sister find themselves in a very awkward position. After all, they have snake-magic-related problems of their own! But our heroine rather likes the way the stranger looks — especially the way he looks at her — so she convinces the family to help him. Eventually, when the snake spirits come to claim Tao, the erstwhile witch comes to the rescue: at great risk to herself, she uses the talismans left behind by the Taoist priest. First she uses the sacred mirror, which holds the spirits off for a few moments. Then she uses the amazingly ridiculous holy fire extinguisher, which leaves one of the snake women a sopping mess. Defeated and humiliated, the snake women retreat into the forest, vowing revenge.
Tao is deeply attracted to the girl who's just saved his life, but she attempts to dissuade him by telling him she's, er... unwell. The love-struck idiot doesn't get the hint, and assures her he'll go get some medicine for her and be back soon. Off he rushes back into the forest. The girl, who's not thinking very clearly either, takes a moment to realize what a bad idea that is, considering he'll be returning just in time for her nightly transformation. But by the time she's thought of this and sent her mother out to stop him, he's already gone too far down the forest path.
When Tao comes back in the evening, he finds his would-be girlfriend by the side of the road, doubled over in pain. When he tries to help her, she pushes him away and runs off into the woods. When he tries to go after her, her mother and sister jump out of their hiding place and try to restrain him. He pushes by them, just as the girl's head detaches itself from her body... but this time, something remarkable happens. Rather than attack her new love, we have Wicked Surprise #3: the Flying Head Witch forces herself to bite big chunks out of a nearby tree instead.
Well. If it can turn a vampire into a vegetarian, then it must be love. The young man settles in with the family, and before you know it (nine months story-time, and 90 seconds movie-time) Flying Head Witch has given birth to a daughter.
I suppose we should assume the girl has been transforming every night during her pregnancy; but if that's the case, there are some questions I'd love to have answered about the nine months the film has just elided so thoughtlessly. For example: how did they manage to conceive? She's got a snake up her... up her... uhh... next question: why didn't the snake in her belly take a bite out of the baby? I know it's another tasteless question, but really: why not? Finally, if the Witch had to detach her head and entrails every night, did she take the fetus with her? Because if not, and she was leaving her body without its heart and lungs every night, how did the fetus manage to survive? And if she did... then eurgh.
But these are questions to which we will never know the answers. Now that the child has been born, the famnily is faced with a different problem: how can they keep the Floating Head Witch from devouring her own child?
The Witch's mother decides to take the baby far away, for its own safety. This may be the most practical plan, but it's not one our heroine is willing to accept. After all, she hasn't eaten her baby-daddy yet, has she? Unfortunately, the stress of the decision gets the snake inside her body all riled up, and her transformation starts early. The girl's mother grabs the baby and runs away as fast as she can, with the Floating Head slavering close behind.
And this leads to what is easily the strangest scene in a very bizarre film. The Flying Head catches up to her mother, who attempts to shield the baby with her own body. The sister manages to rescue the baby while the Head is feasting at her own mother's throat. The Head looks up and sees a soft, fat, yummy baby being taken away, and flies off after it. But the dying mother wraps her arms around her dreadful daughter's spinal column & guts, and is dragged off across the forest with her!
As astonishing as this little sequence is, don't think the movie is going to allow you to catch your breath afterwards. You see, the next scene takes place about five years later, as the Witch stands with her common-law husband and growing child by her mother's grave. Before we even have much chance to adjust our frame of reference, though, the movie jumps right back into the action. After all this time, the original snake-witch has checked his day-planner and realized he's overdue to claim his bride. Surely after five years of nightly headaches, by now she'd be ready to give into his demands!
This kicks the whole snakey soap opera into high gear, as the snake demons abduct Flying Head Witch, her husband and her child. What follows is a rapid-fire series of betrayals, attempted seductions and wacky special effects. As fast-paced as the first hour of the film has been, the last half-hour manages to complicate the story even more (I feel it's my duty to point out that during the course of the action, one real snake gets chopped in two bits for our "amusement"; it's unfortunate, but in the Chinese movie industry, non-human life is often cheap... at least it's not as awful as, say, the snake calamity that ends Calamity of Snakes).
Just when all seems bleakest, and it looks as though our heroine is going to have to surrender to the snake-witch in order to save her child, the little green snake in her belly starts to writhe again. That's when the snake demon discovers that even though he created this Flying Head monster, she is too strong for him to control... especially when he's made her angry. The snake-witch has plenty of colorful and powerful weapons to use: for example, he has a fan that shoots fireballs, and he has a sort of glowing golden waffle that flies through the air and explodes when it hits something. But the Flying Head Witch not only flies and bites, but she also coughs up smoke, shoots multi-colored laser beams out of her mouth, and spits live centipedes into the eyes of her enemies. In other words, even if you are a powerful snake spirit, you don't want to mess with her.
It also involves an axe.
I'll leave the rest to your imagination, until this magnificently loopy film finally gets the worldwide release it deserves.
There is some confusion about when The Witch with Flying Head was made. According to some sources, it was shot in 1977, but the soundtrack of the video version uses music from other films that weren't released until the early eighties. Since many Hong Kong films were shot silent and dubbed afterwards (into Cantonese, Mandarin, English, Thai, or any other language that was profitable), it's still possible that the music was added much later. Copyright concerns over some of this music, which includes excerpts from Tomita's synthesizer version of Gustav Holst's The Planets, may prove to be a further stumbling block between this film and its modern audience.
You may have noticed that none of the screenshots I've provided here give a good view of the whole Flying Head monster. There's a reason for this: the director (wisely, I think) very rarely lets us get a good look at the creature. We see it briefly in closeup as the head rises from the body, but it's so close up that we never actually see the whole thing at once. The rest of the time, the Head is in the distance, or is travelling fast, or is partially obscured by her victim. This helps create the impression that the prop is much more convincing than it really is.
But honestly: when you've got an eight-foot rubber snake chasing a disembodied head through the air, "convincing" doesn't much matter anymore. That's the sort of image you will never get out of your head. If you have a chance to see The Witch with Flying Head, even in the truncated, unsubtitled, grainy version of questionable origin that I saw it in, don't hesitate. You'll never look at disco balls the same way again.
1. It's a particularly gruesome legend, so vivid in its way that you can almost imagine where the story came from... (cue the smoke machine and the harp arpeggios, we're going to a flashback!)
It's late at night, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, somewhere on the Malay peninsula. Strange noises fill the air, as exotic nocturnal animals — many of them dangerous — move through the jungle. A group of men sits by a fire, keeping watch to make sure no tigers or other beasts come into the village. To keep up their spirits, they tell each other the most frightening stories they can come up with — perhaps if they can scare each other enough with their stories, the real terrors of the night in the jungle will seem less daunting.All right, so maybe it didn't happen quite that way.