Gerardo de Leon profile by Mark Holcomb
[originally published on the Senses Of Cinema website, March 2005]
d. July 25, 1981,
I. The Two Gerrys
Few figures in cinema inspire such uniquely contradictory reactions as Filipino director Gerry de Leon. Revered in his home country as a national treasure and esteemed by the international critical establishment, De
This schism doesn't represent a vehement divergence of opinion on his ability as a filmmaker, but stems from a confounding material conundrum: there's a distinct, maddening paucity of available works from De
At the time that De Leon took these latter projects on, the Hollywood-style
Given the rich and unusually convoluted artistic path De
II. Passion, Opera, and So Forth
Born in 1913 to a show-business family in the Manila suburb of Bulacan, Gerardo de Leon Ilagan began making films in the late 1930s after finishing medical school, becoming licensed as a physician, and serving a stint as an actor. He directed dozens of movies in almost every genre over the next 30-odd years, among them Bahay Kubo (1938), a musical; acclaimed adaptations of Filipino anticolonialist martyr Jose Rizal's novels Noli Me Tangere (1961) and El Filibusterismo (1962); antic action-fantasy programmer Sanda Wong (1955), which was co-produced with Hong Kong's Vistan-Chapman studio; Pedro Penduko (1954), a treatment of Francisco V. Coching's popular comic book series featuring a sort of Filipino L'il Abner; Blood Brothers (release date unknown), a staff orientation film for the United States Navy; and, most intriguing, a handful of anti-American propaganda films produced in collaboration with the occupying Japanese forces during World War Two (2). De
The extreme depth of field of his shots allows the viewer to take in everything, all the possible lines of action, and creates an internal rhythm sustained through all the mishaps and vicissitudes of the narrative. A change of axis, a shift of frame, suffices to upset the rhythm. ... Visually, this axis creates lines of flight – horizontal planes extending outside the frame to dissipate tension; as well as lines of force – diagonal planes within the frame. In short, he creates dynamic tension at the very source of each action, each adventure. ... This is truly great artistry. (3)
A few decades later, Bill Landis, editor of American schlock-movie fanzine Sleazoid Express, would exhibit similar enthusiasm by praising De
Regardless of such taste-bridging talent, however, widespread renown for De
Peña's statement reveals the central conundrum of assessing De Leon's work: By “what we can see”, Peña – whether he realises it or not – is referring primarily to the films produced during the last years and arguably lowest point of De Leon's career. With such sanguinary titles as Brides of Blood and Mad Doctor of Blood Island, and showcasing the sort of graphic violence and exploitation adored by the Sleazoid Express crowd, these American-backed potboilers are, for better or worse, all the De Leon most moviegoers will ever see.
Treasured up until now only by genre completists and nostalgia merchants, these movies – despite their low quality and even lower aspirations – tend to bear out Peña's hunch about De
Such contempt may be misapplied, but it isn't entirely unfounded. With a few notable exceptions, these films are hobbled by juvenile story lines, silly monsters, repulsive gore, amateur performances (representative lead actresses include a retired Miss Denmark and sad, porn-starlet-to-be Angelique Pettyjohn), and the ubiquitous presence of faded 1950s American teen heartthrob John Ashley. Moreover, their Philippines setting serves as little more than a vaguely Asian, anachronistically “exotic” backdrop that's been culturally denuded for Yank consumption. It's only slight consolation that these choices reflect the tastes of the audiences the films were intended for (American drive-in habitués) rather than the director's own.
Yet for all their reliance on sure-fire schlock these films kept De
Although it adheres to stock
Romero directed other war movies for Hemisphere that mimicked the themes and tone of Intramuros (1968's Manila Open City was, in fact, an unacknowledged remake), but they lack the stark physicality of that film. Romero is inclined to assert that De Leon's contribution to their collaborations was “style” while his own was characterisation, (6) and it's undeniable that Romero's solo films pivot more on moral – and not infrequently moralistic – quandaries than kineticism. Regardless, De
Judging from De
This is especially the case with Blood is the Color of Night (Kulay Dugo ang Gabi) (1964) and Whisper to the Wind (Ibulong Mo sa Hangin) (1966), two vampire films shot in Tagalog that Hemisphere purchased ready-made, edited (heavily, in the case of Blood is the Color of Night), dubbed, and retitled The Blood Drinkers and Creatures of Evil, respectively (7).
Of all his later films, this hip, dynamic pair showcases De
In addition, despite the Gothic trappings, De
Only the first of the “
The disappointing, increasingly formulaic follow-ups to Terror that De Leon directed with Romero, Brides of Blood (1965) and Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968), are sumptuously shot if occasionally nauseating pulp entertainment, but lack the atavistic dread of the original or the quasi-Freudian depth of his vampire films. American indie micromogul and one-time Hemisphere silent partner Sam Sherman suggests that it was a case of the foundering production company “going to the well once too often” – or twice, since Romero directed a fourth entry, Beast of Blood (1970), on his own – and says that Romero, Lynn, and Pizor “ended up repeating everything they did. They had no versatility.” (9)
IV. Average Joe
The same can't be said of De Leon, who returned to strictly Filipino productions after scraping the bottom of the American exploitation barrel with the lurid Women in Cages (1971). This incongruously well-made girls-in-prison movie, which features cult icon Pam Grier in an early starring role as a brutal warden, was produced by Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Corman, like Kane W. Lynn before him, had discovered the low-budget production potential of the
After moving on, De Leon's next few works – all unreleased in the West – included the award-winning horror movie Lilet (1971), a segment of the omnibus film Fe, Esperanza, Caridad (1975), and the film he was working on at the time of his death, Juan de la Cruz – a title that is the Filipino equivalent of “average Joe” (10).
The detours and derailments of De
What sets him apart is not just the sui generis muscularity of his films or his impressive flexibility, but his persistence. Gerry de Leon straddled the terrain between the disposable and the durable for much of his working life, and mined improbably rich material from it – all for no other reason than that he loved making movies.
1. From “Gerardo de Leon: A Master Film-Maker Speaks Out” by
2. There's evidence that De Leon was keen to work with Japanese director Abe Yutaka, who hand-picked him for these projects. Regardless, De
3. From “Deux Cineastes Philippins”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 333, March 1982.
4. Landis on Women in Cages: “All exposition and explanation is irrelevant in this picture, which rides on the pure visceral impact of torture scenes in which glamazon Pam [Grier] works over Roberta [Collins], Judy Brown, and Jennifer Gan...” From Sleazoid Express, Fireside Books, 2002, p. 245, a book-length compendium/expansion of the zine co-authored by Michelle Clifford.
5. From author interview, January 2002.
6. From “Eddie Romero: Our Man in
7. Blood is the Color of Night and Whisper to the Wind were later re-retitled The Vampire People and Curse of the Vampires, respectively, to appear on the bottom halves of separate drive-in double-bills; little wonder that even Filipino film scholars have lost track of these as De Leon's work. Happily, they were released on DVD in the United States several years ago, complete with pristine transfers from new prints (supplied by Hemisphere beneficiary Sam Sherman), restored scenes, and yet another title change for Whisper to the Wind (it's now the more marketably thematic Blood of the Vampires).
8. Tumbocon makes this observation in advance publicity material for “In a Climate of Terror: The Filipino Monster Movie”, his essay in Steven Jay Schneider (ed.), Fear Without Frontiers, FAB Press, 2003.
9. From author interview, June 2001. Sherman, who went on to launch the successful production and distribution company Independent-International Pictures, had reservations about Hemisphere's business acumen, and was also sceptical of Eddie Romero's filmmaking instincts: “Eddie's an intellectual, he likes character and story.” (The rogue!)
10. Eddie Romero kept working, too, and after several more exploitation movies and a gruelling stint as the location liaison on Apocalypse Now (1979), he also weaned himself from American funding. He subsequently wrote and directed a series of well-received films that addressed the