by Don Jaucian
True to his work as a musical composer, Jerrold Tarog’s Aswang moves in rhythms. Moments occur in the steady stream of strings and beats, escalating in the right moments. Tarog’s score for Aswang recalls the darker tones of Howard Shore’s score for The Fellowship of the Ring. InAswang, a re-imagining of the Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes film of the same name, a sleepy town in Pampanga becomes the Mines of Moria, withab-waks, a frightening combination of aswang and the great lizards that we call bayawaks, standing in for Orcs or maybe the Balrog. But Lovi Poe’s Hasmin has more of the beguiling charm of Lady Galadriel, with her mysterious air as she walks through the woods. There is a lady that walks through the woods and she lures men into their deaths. A forest nymph who dines on flesh. But she may be not that evil after all.
After witnessing the murder of their parents and escaping their own eventual death from the murderers (Nina Jose, Paulo Avelino, and a scene-stealing, Johny Depp-ing Marc Abaya), two kids, Ahnia and Gabriel (Jilian Ward and newcomer Albie Casino), flee to Pampanga, hoping to hide in their uncle’s home. Things don’t go as planned. Landing in the middle of an ab-wak attack, they meet Hasmin, who entrusts them to her guardian, Guada (Gigi Escalante), who tells them the unfortunate story about the fate of her town and its long-time struggle with the ab-waks.
Far from the stereotyped incarnation of the aswang, ab-waks look more like humans cursed to crave manflesh and live under an increasingly precarious existence. They burrow underground to stalk their prey or they transform into crows, cawing like heralds of death. The opening scene, beautifully shot by Mackie Galvez, establishes the might of these creatures. They are relentless, feared by the townspeople once the ground shakes, with their hulking forms starting to take shape under their feet. But time withers away their power. Progress comes in the guise of paved roads, barring the ability of ab-waks to stalk more prey more discreetly. As the mayor threatens to pour concrete in all of the town roads (hinting at a greater collision between the government and the ab-waks), the ab-wakleader grows more desperate to regain power and wreak terror once more.
There is a push and pull of forces in Aswang. There is the direction that the director wants to take and another the producers prefer. Despite the hammy acting of the newcomers (Casino, Ward, and Avelino), an awkward sex scene, and lags in pace, Tarog ultimately takes Aswang to an even darker point. The third act of the film seethes with a thick atmosphere of terror, punctuated by the evil presence that infests the cavernous ranch that serves as the home to the ab-waks. Bodies are hacked to bits, entrails are pulled out and blood comes flooding in, makingAswang one of the goriest Pinoy horror movies (which can also be said of Tarog’s closing Shake, Rattle and Roll segment, Punerarya, from last year).
Among all of this, a young ab-wak, Isabel (a creepy Ana Vicente), builds up an even more terrifying courage to take up what is left of her kind. Shadows play in her face, giving her a gentle but gaunt appearance. Her story is a glimpse of what will probably be a greater and more horrifying chapter of a sequel, if Aswang becomes successful enough to warrant one. Vicente’s minor role has prevented her from eclipsing the film’s leads.
As a film that depicts communal disconnect and a blurring of heritage,Aswang is a shot of adrenaline to Pinoy horror. Its brilliant use of a tropical gothic atmosphere recalls the stories of Joe Hill and Tom Piccirilli. Aswang drips with the blood of a new breed of creatures, beasts that will make their way into the new stories of a generation, stories that will haunt you in nightmares.