In “Tiyanak”, the punchline lies in the frailties of humanity
Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’ darkly comic 1988 classic offers insights on motherhood, morality, and human nature.
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on Halloween Night last year. In light of Peque Gallaga’s passing, we thought it appropriate to look back to one of his most beloved works.
In all of Philippine cinema, Regal Films has the richest history of peddling frights. In 1984, the studio released “Shake, Rattle & Roll”, an anthology film featuring three horror featurettes. Bathed in similar glory as Orion Pictures and Hammer Films before it, Regal has carved out a thriving (and lucrative) niche for itself. Regal’s brand has become so honed-in in fact, that from 1987 to 1989, the studio would produce a number of horror shorts for television programming with Regal Shocker, which would later become its own movie in 1989.
Perpetually down on Regal’s trenches in the 80’s were filmmaking duo Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes, whose work together appears in many “Shake, Rattle & Roll” entries, “Aswang”(1992), “Hiwaga sa Balete Drive”(1988), and more. Perhaps the two’s most known collaboration is “Tiyanak”, a 1988 cult classic that bred its own catchphrase (“Ayan na ang anak ni Janice!”) and showcased two film technicians who work with such creative vigor and penchant for the macabre.
In the film, a young woman named Julie (Janice De Belen) is sent to the ends of her wits when for the nth time she loses her child to a tri-sem miscarriage. Her estranged sister Christie (Lotlot De Leon) reminds her to keep faith in God. As if by divine intervention, Christie chances upon an infant and decides to bring it to her house. Completely foregoing her mother (Mary Walter) who orders for the baby’s exile with great fear and passion—”Maligno! May sa-demonyo ‘yang batang yan! Patayin ‘yan!—Julie jumps on her chance at motherhood and claims the baby as her own, calling it Angelica. Unbeknownst to her, the baby is the eponymous vampiric creature, which takes the form of a baby before it pounces on its human victims.
If that makes “Tiyanak” sound ridiculous, it’s because it is ridiculous. It’s unabashedly b-grade, from its heady premise down to its self-approving indulgences at meta-humor. Though the film mainly depicts the deep-seated anxieties of motherhood and the matriarchal instinct humans are unable to unmoor themselves from, it’s also lip-smackingly funny. The indelible moment set in a movie theater where the tiyanak punishes an obnoxiously loud moviegoer ever is absolute gold. Towards the end of that sequence, people start scrambling out of a screening of Steve Miner‘s “House” (1985), exclaiming. “I will never watch horror movies again.”
Gallaga and Reyes’ balls-to-the-walls approach give spine to an otherwise unwieldy recontextualization of Larry Cohen’s “It’s Alive!” (1975). The same overindulgence leads this writer to think that the film could have taken itself a bit more seriously, especially with a message that can be construed both ways: enabling or appropriating.
The film’s weight rides on the cultural fear that tiyanaks (and other creatures of lore) cast over Filipinos. Tiyanaks, according to our lolos and lolas, are the souls of aborted fetuses, (mal-)formed into a thing of endless nightmares. That fear seems rooted in our ties with Christianity and conservative ways. It is almost implied in “Tiyanak” that at the very peak of one’s womanhood there is the desire to have her own children. Or at the very least help a lost infant, even if that means your own gruesome demise.
Though its politics are a wee bit dated in 2019, Tiyanak at the very least poses intriguing questions about our frailties as humans. Gallaga and Reyes’ 2014 remake, “T’yanak”, is more begotten with the times. The dynamic in that movie is more current and in my book more complex. However, what the duo presents with the 1988 original is supremely (re-)watchable, intoxicating, and all-in-all difficult to recapture beat-by-beat.