Sunday, 24 March 2019
Blood Island Journal # 2:
Brides of Blood
(Gerardo de Leon
& Eddie Romero, 1968)
OBLIGATORY SCREENSHOT DISCLAIMER: As usual, I need to make clear that the screenshots above are sourced from an old DVD edition of this film, and NOT from the recent Severin blu-ray referred to in the text, which I can confirm looks a lot better.
I should also note that the footnotes in this review deal exclusively with background on the cast members, so please let this inform your decision re: whether or not you wish to scroll down to read ‘em.
Coming to 1968’s ‘Brides of Blood’ straight off the back of Eddie Romero & Gerardo de Leon’s initial excursion into the realms of South Seas monsterism, 1959’s highly accomplished Terror is a Man, is a transition guaranteed to provoke a bad case a cinematic whiplash.
Whereas in ‘Terror..’, character beats and plot situations were simple, clearly outlined and anchored by a set of solid performances, the opening scene of ‘Brides..’ instead finds us thrown into a cramped ship’s cabin, where a bunch of guys – and one token ‘blonde bombshell’ (‘Miss Beverly Hills’, later known as Beverly Powers) – sit around a table, midway through a conversation that doesn’t really seem to make a whole lot of sense (the poor sound recording doesn’t help matters).
Who are they? What are they up to? With no proper introductions, the amount of time it takes us to figure out the answers to these questions is frankly pretty annoying. I know that we movie reviewers are traditionally supposed to be dismissive of “exposition”, but can I have some please?
There seems to be some kind of innuendo going on concerning the sexual inadequacy of the blonde’s husband, and her implied attraction to a husky, shirtless sailor who stands behind her. In a scene that has absolutely no connection to anything else that happens in the film, this sailor proceeds to take matters into his own hands by pushing the woman into a cabin and violently forcing himself upon her. Pretty rough stuff for any movie’s opening minutes, but don’t worry readers - it’s one of those movie rapes where she seems to be quite into it. Because she’s a slut, I suppose? That’s what we in the business call “characterisation”, folks! (1)
Welcome to the choppy waters of Blood Island. “Here comes the local rotary club,” sneers Beverley, apparently none the worse for her recent assault, as the “natives” parade from their huts to welcome our protagonists (whoever they are) as they disembark upon the golden shores of this torrid tropical paradise.
Welcoming the new arrivals to his hut, the village’s dignified headman (played by Andres Centenera, who has a great face for horror movies) tells his guests that he is happy to see them, but wishes they could have visited a few months earlier, because unspecified events have recently caused his people to “return to primitive ways”, for which he feels great shame. (Speaking as someone with a spare bedroom, I know how he feels.)
The headman does not expand upon this unsettling line of chat, but he does introduce us to his comely granddaughter Alam (Eva Darren), who speaks perfect English and, like all the women on Blood Island, wears a fetching full length skirt and strapless bra ensemble made from floral patterned fabric. In all seriousness, it’s a great look. (2)
By this point, I think we’ve more or less got the drop of who our ‘heroes’ are. Beverly’s character name is Carla Henderson, and her husband is Dr Paul Henderson, a scientist who has returned to the island to do some unspecified tests that later turn out to have something to do with nearby atomic testing. As played by aging b-movie stalwart Kent Taylor, Dr Henderson resembles Vincent Price after a five-day drinking binge, and proves similarly ineffectual. His wife meanwhile seems determined to continue crowbarring crude sexual innuendoes into every conversation, no matter how inappropriate. (3)
Accompanying this happy couple is a happy-go-lucky young matinee idol type played by John Ashley. This turns out to be Jim, a “Peace Corps man”, apparently. I confess ignorance re: the operations of the Peace Corps, but I can only imagine Jim must have pissed off someone pretty important to find himself shipped out to Blood Island to teach the locals how to dig irrigation ditches. Still, he seems happy enough, especially once he sets eyes on Alam. (4)
So I’ll be honest with you – the first half an hour of ‘Brides of Blood’ is pretty hard going. So much so that I began to seriously question the wisdom of my decision to spend a not inconsiderable amount of money on a blu-ray box set of these films. Though there are some artfully composed, low angle shots here and there (a Gerry de Leon speciality, it seems), the majority of the direction is pure “point & shoot” kind of stuff, whilst performances are hesitant and unconvincing, and the plot rambles on uneventfully like the very worst kind of clock-watching ‘40s b-movie.
As I mentioned in my review of ‘Terror is a Man’, what we are essentially looking at here I think is a pair of talented and creative filmmakers delivering product “on spec” for an American distributor (Hemisphere Films), fully aware that their paymasters only priorities were to keep things cheap and provide enough exploitable material for the U.S. drive-in market. Back in ’59, de Leon and Romero were still making an effort, but by this stage, their disinterest in the material is clear.
The introduction of a colonial plantation owner type (Mario Montenegro) seems a potentially interesting development, and I liked the fact that none of the American visitors seem to bat an eyelid at the fact that his household comprises a hulking, whip-wielding major domo named Goro (Eddie Romero regular Bruno Punzalan) and a coterie of capering dwarfs in loincloths. (I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’d at least have some concerns about who cooked the soup.)
Later scenes shot in the (studio?) interior of this guy’s mansion are composed with a greater degree of care than the island location stuff, lending them a nice, over-heated Italian gothic feel, but the initial sequences involving him drag terribly, especially as the run-time is painfully padded out with footage of people tramping back and forth through jungle clearings as they move between the ‘village’ and ‘mansion’ locations.
The only thing that this opening stretch of ‘Brides..’ really has going for it in fact is the uniquely weird atmosphere shared by all of these Filipino / Hemisphere horror films. In part, this is created by the outrageously lurid colour photography (apparently DP Justo Polino never saw a white shirt he didn’t want to make a little bit green, or a sky that couldn’t be improved by a bit of blazing, radioactive pink), and the cacophonous assemblage of sub-Les Baxter ‘exotica’ on the soundtrack (I hope you dig that “wah-la wala-wala wah-la” chant, because you’re going to be hearing it a lot), but beyond that, a kind of queasy, subliminal strangeness seems to permeate everything on Blood Island.
It’s as if the humid climate and cross-cultural confusion of the shooting location has seeped into the DNA of the film itself. Things have a dazed, unreal quality to them, as reminders of the poverty stricken living conditions of the local extras (scrappy-looking fishing boats and nets hung out to dry, disconcertingly authentic looking mud huts, and hungry looking dogs and pigs snuffling around in the background) find themselves existing side by side with the wildest of movie-making contrivances, such as the goofy totem poles and big ceremonial heads prominently inserted into just about every shot, or the ‘aloha’-style floral necklaces hung around the necks of the modelling agency-sourced female villagers.
This faintly oneiric atmosphere allows the movie to pick up a real crazy head of steam as it goes along, finally boiling over into full scale delirium during the infinitely more entertaining second half.
The first real showstopper comes when some of our Caucasian intruders spy upon the villagers’ ceremony of appeasement for their resident monster-god. Yes, these are those “primitive ways” that the headman was going on about earlier, and it must be said that whichever of his ancestors came up with them back in the time of the ancients sure wasn’t messing around.
Pungent red gel lighting illuminates the night-for-night photography as braziers burn, clouds of purple smoke waft by, and a pair of nubile, writhing virgins are tied to some of those good ol’ X-shaped cross-beams. Our previously dignified headman takes it upon himself to yank off their strapless floral bras (face it, it was going to happen at some point), before he retreats into the bushes to await the approach of “the evil one”.
And, holy mackerel, what a monster it is! I’ve honestly never seen anything quite like this thing. It looks as if someone dropped a load of toxic blue paint over the head of the Ghostbusters Marshmallow Man and stuck googly eyes and a big, toothy mouth onto the remains of its semi-melted face. I love it! Stomping into view like he owns the joint (SPOILER ALERT: he does), the monster descends upon the helpless females with a mass of echoed groaning, panting noises, giving them a frankly indecent pawing before the camera cuts in close on their screaming faces, and the scene – perhaps mercifully – cuts.
Pretty freaky stuff for ’68, but, in case all this wasn’t sleazy enough for you, a subsequent dialogue exchange between Alam and Jim leaves us in no doubt whatsoever so to what this extraordinary beast was actually getting up to just out of shot;
“The men will survive this, because it needs only women. He does not devour his victims, he merely satisfies himself on them.”
“But they were torn to pieces!”
“This is his way of satisfying himself.”
The flimsy rationale for this monstrous activity turns out to involve side effects from the Bikini Atoll bomb tests (Blood Island must have been just downwind, presumably). In addition to causing one of the island’s most prominent citizens to transform into an amorous sludge monster whenever the moon is high, this pesky radiation has also played havoc with the island’s eco-system, causing trees to sprout aggressive, independently mobile vines, which writhe around like bulbous tentacles, fatally ensnaring anyone who veers too close to them. What fun!
Basically, where the first half of ‘Brides..’ saw a lot of people walking interminably through the jungle for no particularly compelling reason, the second half finds them running through it for no particularly compelling reason, shouting and screaming, hacking away at murderous vine-tentacles, and perhaps even being chased by the monster and/or Goro. All of which proves a hell of a lot more entertaining, needless to say.
Whilst all this is going on meanwhile, the dynamic Dr Henderson seems primarily concerned by the unusual behaviour exhibited by a cockroach he has trapped in a jar; “you should have seen this little beast - it had horns and fangs, and even tried to attack a lizard”. For Chrissakes, look out the window, doc – your wife’s about to get eaten by an independently mobile mutant tree! Bloody scientists, I don’t know.
This apparent disdain for the scientific method also extends to the movie’s conclusion. Whereas b-movie convention would normally dictate that Henderson should come up with some ingenious means of combatting the monster and returning the island’s foliage to its natural state, de Leon & Romero instead posit a simpler solution, as John Ashley simply hands out flaming torches to the villagers and suggests that the time has come to just find this goddamn monster and fuck it up. Which they then proceed to do. God bless the Peace Corps!
After the beast has been dispatched in the requisite fiery conflagration, the movie, wonderfully, continues to play out for a further seven minutes of joyous celebration. Maximum tiki bar vibes are in effect here, as the remaining villagers use the same clearing they had previously employed for their ritual sacrifices to stage a rip-roaring party. The blues and purples of the colour scheme become almost overwhelming, as the island’s more attractive young people writhe and grind against each other to the hypnotic sound of the pipes and drums (we’ll be seeing a lot more of this in the following year’s ‘Mad Doctor of Blood Island’), with things eventually reaching their climax as Alam performs a smokin’ hot erotic dance for the enjoyment of of Hero Jim. Oh yeah!
The head-man, who a few minutes of screen-time earlier had been ready to feed his granddaughter to the ancestral god-monster, is now seen happily groovin’ it up, swigging from a mug of the local home brew and casting approving looks in the direction of his potential new grandson-in-law. Other couples meanwhile sneak off into the undergrowth to get busy with their own “primitive ways”, having apparently decided to overlook the fact that their island has been irreparably ravaged by H-bomb radiation, and that the trees are liable to spring into life and strangle them at any moment. Good times! I forget what happened to Carla and the good doctor, but frankly, who cares.
This was my first proper visit to Blood Island, and I must say, whilst it took me a while to settle in, I ended up having a great time. I really got a kick out of the dancing, and the totem poles, and the sunsets… but most of all it was the PEOPLE who really made it worthwhile. So friendly! And the sludge monster. He was pretty cool too. I give it four stars on Trip Advisor, and I’m looking forward to heading back soon.
Wrong Side of the Art.
(1) This whole business must have been a bit of a baptism of fire for Miss Hills/Powers, who a few months earlier was twistin’ with The King himself in the 1968 Elvis movie ‘Speedway’. A prolific Hollywood bit player and TV actress with a wealth of ‘stripper’, ‘blonde’ and ‘dancer’ roles on her CV, she seems to have retired from the screen in the mid-‘70s, shortly after appearing as ‘Topless Swimmer [Uncredited]’ in ‘Jaws’.
(2) Happily, Eva Darren appears to have enjoyed a long and rewarding acting career subsequent to her appearance in ‘Brides..’, working in Filipino film and TV right up to the present day. Incidentally, IMDB lists her character name here as ‘Alma’, but I’m pretty sure the people in the movie are saying ‘Alam’, so will go with that.
(3) Described by IMDB as “..a modestly popular “B” actor of the 1930s and 1940s”, Kent Taylor retired from acting in 1975 – perhaps wisely, given the questionable immortality he had acquired in the preceding decade for his rather doddering appearances in such Al Adamson atrocities as ‘Satan’s Sadists’ and ‘Brain of Blood’. (BEST CREDIT: he appeared as a character named “Tonga Jack Adams” in the Florida-shot jungle movie ‘The Mighty Gorga’ in 1969.)
(4)Apparently Ashley was so taken with The Philippines that he more or less relocated to Manila after shooting ‘Brides..’, appearing in just about all of the subsequent Hemisphere horror films, and acting as a producer/fixer for numerous U.S.-Filipino co-productions in the following decade. Gossip suggests that Ashley was undergoing a messy divorce from fellow AIP Beach Party alumnus Deborah Walley when he agreed to appear in ‘Brides of Blood’ (perhaps the title appealed?), and that his off-screen adventures with the local female population had much to do with his enthusiasm for Filipino life.