Time for another trip o’ Gentle Visitors to explore the weird and wonderful horror cinema of Asia with your Favorite Movie Watching Catgirl… this time out with a “Nekolishous” look at the recently released Malay horror effort, “Penanggal”. No hopping vampires… no “ghost in a sack” pocongs… no long haired hantu… not even tree demon kuntilanaks…. this time we get perhaps the freakiest and scariest Asian folklore critter of them all, the flying vampire head called the penanggalan!! Yep. If you’ve been watching Asian horror films as long as this wee lady then you certainly know all about this critter…
Our synopsis? Well try this on: “In 1930s rural Malaysia, tragically deformed young Murni unknowingly inherits evil ghostly powers from her grandmother, Mak Ajeng, which terrifies the village folk in Kampung Jawa, forcing her to flee. Abused by the villagers for her unwanted powers, Murni is saved by the intersession of righteous stranger Syed Yusof. Smitten with him, she is unable to avoid drawing him into becoming hopelessly entangled in her doomed life as a creature of the night.”
Oh heck, yes…. Definitely no darn way a certain goofy kitten is gonna pass this one up. No way… no how. You, however, can benefit from my impulsive desire to risk a couple of dollars on a whim by just reading along to see if this particular monster movie flies or flops before you plunk down your hard earned money for a copy…. C’mon, silly… you know you wanna…
Oh yeah…. ever since a lil’ Indonesian film called “Mystics In Bali” this lady has know all about the penanggalan. What could be crazier and more scary than a woman’s head with it’s gooey, bloody intestines dangling away underneath it as it flies around in the dead of night drinking menstrual blood, eating placentas and intestines… now there’s an “Ewwww” factor for you!! Brrrrr!! So creepy!! Since encountering that film, I’ve snapped up about every one of these goofy monster movies ever made, so naturally when I saw the Trailer for this one, I was hooked.
I’d like to say it was as nifty a film as I had hoped…. Yep. I’d really like to say that. But… unfortunately all such “flying vampire/witch head” movies aren’t created equal and although this one is certainly a slick looking production… especially for a Malay film… it just didn’t succeed at wowing this horror junkie… Sigh…
The basic story isn’t to blame. It’s a relatively simple one… our central heroine Murni (played by Ummi Nazeera) is a poor rural girl growing up in a simple village in 1930′s Malaysia. She’s lonely and despised by her fellow villagers due to two things… her really freaky skin affliction and her association with her grandmother Mak Ajeng (played by Normah Damanhuri). Grandma is some sort of witch, having made a pact with the forces of Evil that grant her the dread powers of the penanggal. Naturally the villagers are getting really cranky every time she swoops in on local women as they give birth to eat their newborn babies. Yep… you just know that’s eventually going to raise that angry mob of torch wielding villagers bent on revenge. Grandma dies in the inferno of her burning hut, but not before passing her pact and evil powers on to Murni, along with her hunchback manservant and bodyguard.
So OK… the downside? Well… Murni now transforms nightly into the horrible vampire monster to prey upon the locals whether she wants to or not. The Upside? Hmmmm? For one thing, now that she’s got the curse, that nasty skin condition she’s always had goes away and Murni turns out to be a pretty hot babe after all. Ahhhh…. and now she’s also a witch too, with her own arsenal of evil magic powers to bewitch and ensnare her victims…. She also inherits her Grandma’s super secret hut out in the jungle, hidden away by the powers of evil magic to keep her safe from the constant searching by vengeful local guys seeking some payback for her attacks on their wives and babies. (Personally… I wonder why her Grandma never seemed to use that hut to stay safe rather than letting the locals hunt her down… seems a stupid lapse on her part, but that’s just one of the irritating plot holes in this one….)
It’s those nagging plot holes that kept your Favorite Catgirl from really liking this one as much as I wanted to. For one… there’s the death of Murni’s parents. Was it an accident? There’s a hint that Grandma might just have had a hand in that… that maybe she wasn’t even really Murni’s real grandma at all. Some really important… really interesting stuff that is just barely hinted at and then dropped like a hot potato never to return to the story at all. Grrrrr!!!! But… but…. inquiring Catgirls wanna know!!! And they never tell us!!
Then there’s the whole “evil pact”…. I mean, what the heck is the point of it? What the heck did Grandma get out of that deal? Why did she make it in the first place? Apparently there was some provision in it that meant she had to pass it along to an heir, but for goodness sake… why? Hmmmm? Maybe the Forces of Evil had a “Two for One” special going on…. or maybe a “Friends and Family” plan? Really got no clue.
And… what about Murni herself? Outside of seeming to want to use her new “non-ugly” looks to find friends and romance, she seems pretty darn OK with the whole nightly painful decapitating transformation to the title monster and it’s midnight gory snack-fest. Can’t say I found much to be sympathetic in her character. Sorry… but that’s pretty much the truth.
Ahhhh…. and the most puzzling plot thread of the whole thing? How about the inclusion of an arranged marriage for our hero Syed Yusof Al-Attas (played by Azri Iskandar) before he runs into Murni and becomes bewitched and smitten with her for the last half of our story. Sharifah Zahrah Al-Sagof (played by Fasha Sandha) seems like an important character. Beautiful and righteous and filled with concern for her missing fiance she accompanies his brother Umar to find him once he falls into Murni’s clutches. There’s some hint that maybe she and Yusof’s brother Umar (played by Zul Arifin) will find romance along the way (assuming Yusof and Murni manage to overcome the problems of their own doomed affair…) but naturally, chaste and proper as she is, Neko knew that seemed a long shot. One huge problem. She fills the middle third of our story with all those possibilities, only to get horribly scarred by Murni’s acidic blood during an attack…. and then just plain disappears from the plot entirely. Yep. Even when Murni dies at the climax and Yusof miraculously survives thanks to the power of Faith, we never see her again… no mention of whether she lives or dies or if she and Yusof ever do get married. Nothing at all…. Say what? What the heck was she even doing in this story, anyways?
That’s “Penanggal’s” problem in a nutshell all right. Too many unanswered questions… too many plot threats dropped without any reasonable explanation or any rational reason for existing in the first place. Thinly written characters that you just can’t become invested in. The result is a mess of a story with too many contradictory elements and shaky plot motivations all of which manage to derail any possible enjoyment overall. Sigh….
A shame too. The whole folklore behind the penanggalan is just so creepy and cool. There’s so much that could have been done here to make a really good film. But it just plain wasn’t. Sorry but I’m afraid I can only give this one a scant 2 “Meows” out of 5… mostly on the strength of atmosphere and special effects alone. The writers and director might have blown it, but the technical aspects of the film are very well done indeed, especially for a low budget Malay horror effort.
Still… if you want a peek for yourself.. at least the Region 3 DVD is definitely budget friendly at around 6-9$ US with reasonably well done English subtitles and can be found fairly easily. I suppose that’s some comfort….
Yep… as always there’s a Trailer, filled with all the creepy flying vampire head goodness you might want.