‘Do you see that? That’s my brain. The most superior brain in the entire universe!’
A strange spaceship appears in the sky over the Philippines and shortly afterwards a rural village is attacked by giants. If that wasn’t enough, strange alien humanoids are prowling through the nearby woods and kidnapping villagers at the point of a ray gun. Fortunately, one of the locals has the power to transform herself into a superhero…
Darna is something of a pop culture phenomonon in the Philippines. She first appeared in Pilipino Komiks in 1950, although writer and cartoonist Mars Ravelo initially had the idea for a ‘female Superman’ back in the late 1930s. An early dry run at the concept in 1947 with a heroine called Varga hadn’t taken, but Darna enjoyed almost overnight success. A film adaptation starring Rosa Del Rosario was released before the original comic book serial had even finished its initial publication. Darna was a dead extra-terrestrial whose powers manifested through a human girl called Narda when she swallows a magic stone and shouts out the alien’s name.
This film was the second in a series of four features that starred young actress Vilma Santos. The first was ‘Lipad, Darna, Lipad!’ (Fly, Darna, Fly!) (1973), a film that is apparently lost. By all accounts, Santos expressed serious reservations about taking the part when the brief nature of her costume was revealed, but was rewarded when the film was a massive domestic hit. Her incarnation differed from the original concept of the character by dropping the dead alien angle altogether and have Narda transform into her alter-ego to use her own powers.
Here, as the film begins, she is living quietly in a small, rural village with her extended family, including her grandmother and younger brother Ding (Dondon Nakar). She’s busy being serenaded by the local boys outside her window when they’re rudely interrupted by dastardly alien queen X-3-X (Helen Gamboa) doing a quick fly-by in her rinky-dink spaceship. Soon the woods are filled with strange humanoids sporting pudding basin helmets, go-go boots and just enough clothing to cover their embarrassment and stay on the right side of the moral majority. Villagers go missing, the ground shakes and trembles. Earthquakes? No. Giants, yes.
Santos swallows the stone and sets off to investigate, soaring through the air without the aid of a green-screen and with Nakar along for the ride. Gamboa and her minions have taken up residence in some caves (a favourite haunt of invading aliens from all parts of the universe) and are busy kidnapping the local population and turning them into giants. How? By using a substance obtained from what looks like one of those cutaway models used to teach human anatomy!
And here’s where I have to make a confession. The film’s dialogue is delivered in Tagalog, which I don’t speak, and there were no English subtitles available on the print that I saw. So, it’s entirely possible that some of my questions about the story are explained quite satisfactorily in the film, but the language barrier means they escaped me. For instance, it’s unclear whether Gamboa has brought some giants with her or if she’s creating an army from the locals. If it’s the latter, it does seem that bestowing greater physical prowess on your enemies than your own forces possess may be a slightly questionable strategy. Also, it’s not clear why the giants are prepared to go rampaging across the countryside and destroy their own villages? Is it mind control? Gamboa’s cave is filled with lots of machines that go beep, so I guess so. Whatever it is, Gamboa doesn’t seem to mind. She looks like she’s having a ball as she chews the scenery like her life depends on it.
But back to Santos and Nakar! They’re hiding out in Gamboa’s caves to see what they can find out when one of the rebellious locals is slowly impaled on a bed of spikes after trying to escape. Santos doesn’t interfere, though. She’s just watches him die. I guess he wasn’t integral to the plot. Perhaps she was just tired. After all, she does nod off for a while! Eventually, our seemingly unenthusiastic duo are captured and taken to Gamboa. She starts giving them the spiky treatment after confessing that she keeps her brain separate from her body so it won’t be affected by any physical weakness. Curiously, these lines of dialogue are delivered in English, the only lines of that language in the film. Even stranger, her brain is kept in some kind of arrangement of white boxes that look rather like an ornamental birthday cake.
Torturing Santos and Ding proves to be a tactical error, though. She suddenly remembers she has superpowers! She picks up one giant by his hair and dunks him in a volcano. She takes a church bell from a tower and repeatedly smashes it in the face of another until he collapses and she drops it on his head. Most of the giants are dressed like refugees from ‘One Million Years B.C.’ (1966), apart from a woman who has a Viking helmet, complete with horns!
It’s a strange brew, to be sure, but obviously what looks out of place to one culture is perfectly at home in another. The film even has a couple of early musical numbers, one seemingly a celebration of gardening to the tune of ‘Singin’ In The Rain'(!), the other a ballad sang by Santos’ grandmother. The vibe is generally cartoonish, but then again the aftermath of one of the giants’ attacks is presented very seriously indeed. Survivors are either hysterical or slowly expiring from their injuries. There are also splashes of gory detail here and there, and some of the climactic action involving Santos and the giants is surprisingly violent.
Inevitably, the SFX are a little primitive. Santos taking to the air is more convincing than ‘Turkish Superman’ (1978) or even the iconic ‘Puma Man’ (1979), but you still won’t believe that a girl can fly. The giants are simply tall actors filmed from ground level while the fleeing crowds are shot from above. Forced perspective allows the two different groups to share the frame with giant legs up close to the camera and actors running about in the distance. It’s not good, but I’ve seen a lot worse. Extra fun is to be had when the giants shrink back to normal size and the actors sink slowly down and disappear beneath the edge of the frame.
Playing Darna did not hurt Santos’ career. Despite her slight frame, she throws herself into the hand to hand combat with admirable enthusiasm and her high kicks are quite impressive. Nevertheless, the results aren’t that credible, and a gymnast was likely used for some of the more dynamic manoeuvres. But Santos went from strength to strength anyway, appearing in over 200 films and becoming the most awarded actress in Filipino film history. In later life, she married a high-ranking politician and she is now Mayor of Lupo City!
Technically limited, occasionally baffling, this is still a fun, goofy ride. And any film that separately credits the two individuals who supplied the leading ladies with their boots must be worth a look.