Sunday, March 15, 2009

Stone Boy (1982)

1982 – Stone Boy (D’Wonder Films Inc/Cinex Films Inc)

[Release date 23rd June 1982, original Philippines title "Rocco, Ang Batang Bato"; also released internationally as “Boy God”]

Director J. Erastheo Navoa Executive Producer Alexander Muhlach Story/Screenplay Joeben Miraflor Music Ernani Cuenco Cinematography Hermo Santos Editor Joe Mendoza Assistant Editor Edgar Gutierrez Sound Effects Danny Sanchez Sound Supervision Rudy Baldovino Foreign Adaptation Jess Ramos

Cast Nino Muhlach (Rocco), “Jim Melendrez”/Jimi Melendez, Isabel Rivas, Cecille Castillo, [uncredited in export version’s titles] Dely Atay-Atayan (Granny), Jimmy Wilson (Mengele), Palito (Pancho)

Review by Andrew Leavold:

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.

Todd Stadtman’s review from his Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill! blog:

To give credit where it's due, Andrew Leavold has already provided a terrific overview of Boy God (aka Stone Boy, aka Rocco, Ang Batang Bato) over at his very fine blog Bamboo Gods and Bionic Boys, in which he not only summarizes the film, but also gives a substantial amount of background regarding its production. (And if you have any interest in Filipino film at all, you owe it to yourself to also check out the phenomenal capsule history of Pinoy B cinema that Andrew recently posted. It's absolutely essential.) The fact that Andrew has done all of the heavy lifting of providing a context within which to view Boy God means that I'm left free to instead simply focus on what a weird movie it is. Thus, in approaching the film, I think that both Andrew, a knowledgeable person, and I, a lazy person, have been afforded a chance to play to each of our individual strengths.

Still, what I will tell you is that Boy God stars Nino Muhlach, the phenomenally popular Filipino child star who we here at 4DK last saw in 1980's Darna at Ding, in which he co-starred with Vilma Santos in her last screen turn as the beloved Pinoy superheroine Darna. Like Darna at Ding, Boy God was produced by the Muhlach family's production company, D'Wonder Films, and, in its similarly superheroic themes, represents an attempt to capitalize on the success of that earlier film. As will happen with child stars, encroaching adolescence was necessitating a bit of re-branding on the part of Nino and his handlers, as he was rapidly becoming unsuitable for the cute kid roles that his stardom was built upon. The one-two punch of having him portray Darna's sidekick and then a magical hero made of rock seems, then, to have been a bid to position him as a teenage star of crazy fantasy action films.

And, if nothing else, Boy God succeeds at being crazy. Although primarily a fantasy film, it also seems to contain within it elements of every other type of Filipino exploitation movie of its day. There are horror elements which seem to draw upon both Catholic traditions and local folklore, two-fisted action with jungle guerrillas firing machine-guns at one another, spy elements right out of the Tony Falcon films, and, of course, as in any example of Filipino popular cinema, lots of broad comedy. I have also heard Boy God referred to as a children's film, which it very well might have been by the Filipino standards of its day. But whether you personally would want to expose your toddler to it would be determined by just how well you think a film prominently featuring spirit rape would fit into their regular diet of Pixar fare and Yo Gabba Gabba.

Another noteworthy aspect of Boy God is that it is a veritable tour de force of low budget special effects, encompassing everything from crude drawn animation to crude claymation to crude suitmation. In other words, basically every kind of "mation" that could be accomplished for less than the cost of one day's catering on the original Clash of the Titans is brought to bear upon the task of realizing the film's menagerie of fantastical beasts and magical creatures. Unfortunately for my purposes, director J. Erastheo Navoa and cinematographer Hermo Santos wisely chose to blanket these effects in an obscuring fog of dim lighting and murky night photography, rendering it nearly impossible both for them to be seen in all their flawed glory by the cinema audience and for me to get any decent screen caps of them.

Our adventure begins when a strange, toga wearing specter impregnates a young village woman against her will, with the result that, some time later, baby Rocco is born. Sadly, not long after this blessed event, a spurned former lover of Rocco's mom, village bad guy "Robby", shows up with his motley band of guerrillas to riddle both her and her husband with machine-gun bullets. This leaves Rocco's old grandma with the task of raising him, a process that increasingly involves her having to hide his growing superhuman abilities from the prying eyes of the other villagers. (As is frequent in Pinoy films, both A and B, village life is portrayed here as a seething hellhole of intolerance and malicious gossip.) Eventually young Rocco discovers that his powers are nullified when he is exposed to water, and his grandma helpfully explains that this is because he is made of limestone, and, like limestone (and Alka Seltzer), he becomes stronger when heated, but dissolves when placed in water.

Meanwhile, none other than oft-resurrected Nazi madman Dr. Mengele (Jimmy Wilson) is contaminating the water supply with a chemical that is turning the villagers into werewolves and giant vampire bats. Among the werewolf contingent are a trio of cannibalistic witches so unwholesomely smitten with young Rocco's plump dimensions that they end up -- in one of the film's most prize winning moments of utter wrongness -- tying his naked, well-basted 12 year old body to a giant spit and trying to roast him. While the basting part does the trick of incapacitating Rocco, the roasting part has the opposite effect, and he ends up kicking the asses of both the were-witches and their giant bat minions.

And at this point, you might be surprised to learn, the events of Boy God take a somewhat unusual turn. An old bearded sage type appears and announces himself to Rocco as Vulcan, "Elder of the Immortals". Rocco's real father, it turns out, was also one of the Immortals -- who appear to be a sort of Filipino B movie approximation of the Gods of Olympus as according to Ray Harryhausen -- and is now being held in limbo for the crime of falling in love with a mortal woman. Rocco's mom is also in limbo, I guess just because she's a woman. Anyway, the only way that Rocco can free the both of them, he is told, is to travel to the land of the Immortals and complete a series of arduous, predetermined tasks.

And so, with this, Boy God becomes a quest narrative of the least epic scale imaginable, with Rocco, now kitted out in junior-sized gladiator togs, marching through what appears to be the same small expanse of forest over and over again, fighting in succession an army of midgets, a partially claymation cyclops, and a pair of Siamese twin ogres. Also thrown in to provoke happy associations is a very Darna-like character called Janus, who pops up intermittently to aid him. Finally Rocco reaches the realm of the Immortals, where he is told that what he really needs to do in order to free his parents is return to Earth and settle this whole Dr. Mengele business. This he does, and thus effectively ends the "epic quest" portion of Boy God, just in time for us to have a James Bond style finale in which Rocco and the forces of the law invade Mengele's secret compound, do battle with his machine-gun wielding minions, and blow a lot of stuff up.

What to say about Boy God really? Out of all the Tagalog language films made for the local Filipino market, Boy God had to be one of the most eccentric candidates for being dubbed into English and set loose upon the international home video market -- admirably so, even. While it's not too hard to imagine that much within it was business as usual to its original intended audience, it's another thing entirely to put yourself in the shoes of some unwitting, Reagan era patron of Blockbuster who brought it home for his kids to watch, only to end up with therapy bills that plague him to this day. For us today, though, looking back upon the film with the kind of world weary sophistication that only prolonged exposure to the internet can engender, it's a different matter.

Or is it? To tell the truth, I don't think that any amount of distance, either temporal or emotional, can render Boy God any less strange. That is its true super power.

1 comment:

  1. Do you know if a copy of this in the original language exists?