Last year was unusually bountiful for home-video completists, even if several of the most historically significant titles that made it to disc were not heralded as such. Image Entertainment recently released DVDs of five horror movies produced in the Philippines during the 1960s and ’70s, nearly doubling the number of films by Gerardo De Leon and Eddie Romero available in North America.
De Leon and Romero may not be household names in the West, even among cineastes, but in the Philippines they’re justifiably revered. De Leon directed dozens of films in his 30-odd-year career, including acclaimed adaptations of national hero José Rizal’s novels Noli Me Tangere (1961) and El Filibusterismo (1962) (neither of which are on video), and was the first filmmaker to be recognized as a Philippines National Artist shortly after his death in 1981. Romero, who appears in a filmed interview on the Image discs, helmed the seminal As We Were (1976)—also unavailable for home viewing—and was a friend and contemporary of Lino Brocka. He continues to work to this day.
So why did such respected artists co-direct dubious English-language movies like Brides of Blood (1968) and The Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1969), two of the recent Image releases? Primarily to keep working after the collapse of the Philippines’ studio system in the late ’50s, when independent film production began in earnest. Romero teamed with Kane W. Lynn, a former GI and one of several American micro-moguls who perceived the location’s low-budget potential (Roger Corman was another). The two formed Hemisphere Pictures, which produced and/or distributed the aforementioned horror films as well as a slew of well-regarded war pictures and lucrative exploitation movies. Many of these entries in the De Leon-Romero oeuvre arrived on video prior to the Image releases, including WWII drama The Walls of Hell (1964, available from Fox Lorber) and chicks-in-chains epics like Black Mama, White Mama (1972, Warner) and Women in Cages (1971, Corman’s New Concorde).
De Leon came to these American productions under less propitious circumstances: He was hired by Romero, his former protégé, and the two worked together almost exclusively for over a decade. Nevertheless, his are the more aesthetically exhilarating works in the cycle. Image’s lovingly remastered discs of The Blood Drinkers (1964) and Blood (née Curse) of the Vampires (1966)—two Tagalog vampire films that Hemisphere purchased ready-made—showcase the antic action, spare narrative, and deep-focus setups that typify De Leon’s style. It’s unfortunate that these gifted filmmakers are known here mainly for movies like Terror Is a Man (1959) and Beast of Blood (1970, both also available from Image), but, viewed with the proper historical perspective, they provide a glimpse into the directors’ distinctive talents.