Saturday, November 20, 2010

#96: The Unearthing aka Aswang (Wrye Martin & Barry Poltermann, 1994)

NOTE: This film is available on video and DVD under both its original title, Aswang, and The Unearthing. I had a much easier time finding it under Aswang.

This low-budget horror film made by two college buddies from Wisconsin for under $200,000 is well worth your time. Based on a Filipino vampire legend (coincidentally, I was drinking a Filipino dark lager while watching it), The Unearthing/Aswang shares some tonal, atmospheric, and visual similarities with early Cronenberg, the first two Evil Dead films, and the darkest childhood fairy tales. While it doesn't come close to early Raimi and Cronenberg at their best, it's pretty damn good in its own right and certainly better than the majority of mainstream films, including Gone with the Wind, Daddy Day Care, and Event Horizon. Aswang is low-budget without being cheap and amateurish, darkly funny without being campy, truly weird without being affected or "quirky," and honestly unsettling and scary.

Aswang begins with a young woman discussing her unplanned pregnancy with her mildly mulleted metalhead boyfriend. Check out that alliteration. She has decided to sell the child to a couple who can't have a baby, with a slight catch. She will also be paid to pose as the wife of the couple at a rural Wisconsin mansion owned by the man's sickly mother so he can inherit the property. As he tells the young pregnant woman while they drive to the mansion, his mother won't leave him anything in the will if he doesn't produce an heir. Things get sinister when they arrive at the mansion, which looks like it was designed by Stanley Kubrick. The only inhabitants are the sickly mother, who keeps sucking on oxygen, a strange Filipino maid named Cupid, and an exotic white chicken who roams the premises freely. Oh yeah, there's also an unseen sister who lives in a cottage out back. Apparently, she's "a little touched." At this point, I'd probably call a cab and head back home, especially after seeing a painting of an aswang, a Filipino vampire who drinks the blood of newborns, given prominent place in the study. Fortunately, our heroine sticks around, ensuring our enjoyment of a fucked-up, unusual vampire movie.

First-time filmmakers Wrye Martin and Barry Poltermann wrote and directed Aswang together, and they did an admirable job of creating a lot with a little. Working with a cast of amateur non-actors, including Violent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo as a bumbling sheriff, they get mostly naturalistic performances. Even the few awkward actors add to the film's weird texture. The directors have a nice eye (they share one giant eyeball), and though they're clearly new at the filmmaking game, they avoid a lot of dumb-ass overstylization and clumsiness. The film is loaded with atmosphere, too. A creeping sense of dread slowly increases, the house and the rural Wisconsin countryside are great horror movie locations, and the directors and their editors use sound and visual space well. The special effects are convincing, too, which isn't always the case in super-low-budget filmmaking.

I don't want to give too much away, so this review will be a little short. The movie's pleasures and surprises deserve fresh eyes and ears, and I don't want to diminish the Aswang experience. (That's what she said.) I'm a big fan of regional independent movies, and Aswang is a fine example of the creative freedoms possible within the financial limitations of non-Hollywood filmmaking. Joe Bob Briggs likes Aswang, too, so it's got that going for it.
Writer/directors Martin and Poltermann have remained active in independent filmmaking. Martin now works as a producer. Poltermann directed one other film, The Life of Reilly, a documentary about Charles Nelson Reilly's one-man show, and has enjoyed a long relationship with director Chris Smith as his go-to editor, working on American Movie, The Pool, and Collapse. I admire their later work, but I think these guys need to get back together and make another horror movie. Aswang is too good to be a one-off.


Matthew Bey said...

"the house and the rural Wisconsin countryside are great horror movie locations"

I felt the exact same thing when I was growing up in the Wisconsin countryside.

Dr. Mystery said...

I feel the same way about the rural Nebraska countryside.