Monday, December 28, 2009

Boy God (1982)

Boy God

Philippines 1982 colour

aka Stone Boy, Rocco Ang Batang Bato

Director J. Erastheo Navoa Writer Joeben Miraflor

Cast Nino Muhlach (Rocco), “Jim Melendrez”/Jimi Melendez, Isabel Rivas, Cecille Castillo, Dely Atay-Atayan (Granny), Jimmy Wilson (Mengele), Palito (Pancho)

Many of these shot-in-Tagalog fantasy films were never destined to leave the Philippines; thanks to busy distributor Cinex Films, we have this demented miniature Clash Of The Titans, which frankly gave ME nightmares as a kid, along with its other galleries of provincial grotesqueries.

Boy God, or Stone Boy as it's also known, stars possibly the most famous Filipino child star of all time, Nino Muhlach. Success for young Nino was in his genes, as the Muchlach clan was tantamount to film royalty - Auntie Amalia Fuentes (The Blood Drinkers [1964] and Curse Of The Vampires [1966]) will be forever remembered as the "Elizabeth Taylor of the Philippines". From age three, Nino would receive top-billing with the most famous film stars of the Seventies, and sentimental audiences warmed to his moon face and chubby thighs immediately, so that one of his 1977 films would out-gross the original Star Wars. Nino's father Alexander Muhlach formed D'Wonder Films to capitalize on Nino's early success, thus becoming one of the most powerful independent producers of the day.

By 1982 he was approaching his teen years and was now not so cute and adorable, and his box office lustre had begun to lose much of its shine. D'Wonder had previously bought into the iconic Darna franchise with Darna At Ding, featuring Vilma Santos as the Philippines' answer to both Supergirl and Wonder Woman and cherubic Nino as her little brother, and with its already-established Darna fanbase and cheap yet charming and effective special effects, the film broke box office records as the most successful Darna ever over Christmas 1980. The Muhlachs wisely decided to return to the fantasy genre one more time with 1982's Boy God.

Baby Rocco is born the same night his parents are gunned down outside their house. Years later, Rocco is now a precocious eleven year old living with his grandmother, who warns him to keep his growing powers secret. “You’re like limestone,” she explains - harder under heat, but dissolves in water. Just what a self-conscious 12 year old wants to hear. Meanwhile the evil German scientist Dr Mengele is turning the village into werewolves and vampires, and the pale bodies of their victims are starting to pile up by the waterfront. Little Rocco is captured by three witches who keep him weak and moist and, in the film's most disturbing image of all, they tie a naked, basted Nino to a bamboo spit under a full moon (not Rocco’s, of course) while turning into werewolves. The heat naturally makes him stronger and he escapes, only to be picked up in a fantastic tracking shot by a swooping, screeching vampire bat (a costume with enormous bat ears and umbrellas for arms).

Recovering in a cave, Rocco sees a vision of Vulcan, an Elder of the Immortals. The blind coot tells Rocco of his Immortal heritage - his father, Python, fell in love with a mortal, making him half-god - and suggests he travel to the Land of the Small People to save his parents from Limbo. At this moment the film morphs once again from vampires and werewolves and becomes Clash Of The Titans, or a much cheaper Italian variety sword and sandal adventure. He wakes next to a gladiator costume ("looks like a fat girl's dress!") and sets off towards his mist-shrouded goal, battling a small array of mythical creatures, but aided by an army of dwarves - all no taller than Rocco - and the girl warrior “Janus”, who looks and sounds suspiciously like Darna. Cue the trick perspective shots and claymation that would make Ray Harryhausen blanch, and perhaps the definitive shot of the film, in which the giant cyclops Golem plucks up one of the dwarves, chomps through his middle (this is a kid’s film?) and spits out his sword like a toothpick.

It's a strange film alright, cute and baffling, though with a simple three-act structure - boy learns powers, boy battles monsters, boy becomes immortal - which never allows the film to grow stale. Filipino films are renowned for "borrowing" elements from other films, and it's not just Clash Of The Titans from which the film takes its cues; there's the dwarf army from Time Bandits, and a lycanthrope transformation scene cribbed from either An American Werewolf In London or The Howling which, despite its crude stop-motion effects with plasticine and Brillo pads, is unnerving enough both in its primitivism, and in its family film context. There are also echoes of the Philippines' own bloodthirsty folklore in Boy God's creatures: shape-shifting female blood drinkers, the Aswang, and the bat-winged eaters of the dead, the Manananggal (unlike Boy God's batmen, however, their torsos detach themselves for easier flying), which have been unnerving Filipino children, not to mention adults, for centuries. It's this black wedding of Hollywood fantasy and horror and the Philippines' own brand of ghoulishness which gives Boy God its potency - a Harryhausen epic on a hundredth its budget, of course, but with monsters the folk in the Provinces will tell you are very, VERY real. Now that's unnerving. (Andrew Leavold)

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