The Twilight People/Island of the Twilight People/Beasts (1973) -***
Eddie Romero must really have been taken with H. G. Wellsís The Island of Dr. Moreau. His first horror movie (indeed, perhaps the first Filipino horror film, period), Terror Is a Man, was either a very loose adaptation of the novel or an unusually brazen rip-off, depending upon how charitable toward it youíre inclined to be. And while there was nothing specifically Moreauvian about the mad science in Romeroís Blood Island movies of the late 1960ís, two of those sleazy little flicks did at least revolve around a doctor of questionable sanity operating out of a secret lab on a tropical island. Even that apparently wasnít enough to work Dr. Moreau out of Romeroís system, though, for in 1973, he unleashed The Twilight People, his most overt crib yet. Sure, itís much tawdrier than any legitimate adaptation, and the scientist is turning people into animals instead of turning animals into people, but all the essential elements are here. Hell, thereís even a panther woman as one of the featured manimals!
The Twilight People is also one of those rare films that begin with a really obvious blunder. The plan was clearly to establish that Matt Farrell (John Ashley, from Brides of Blood and Frankensteinís Daughter) is out scuba diving in what I take to be the Sulu Sea, for the camera spends the full duration of the extraordinarily long opening credits down below the waves while the unmistakably 70ís theme music wriggles and writhes on the soundtrack. The trouble is, at no point during those credits do we ever see Farrell, and weíre forced to endure a second lengthy establishing sequence in order to get the point. Anyway, once weíve all ascertained that Romero isnít just showing us coral reefs and tropical fish because he thinks they look pretty, Farrell is seized and trussed up by another pair of divers, who somehow manage to sneak up on him totally out in the open in some of the clearest water Iíve ever seen. The divers work for a man named Steinman (Jan Merlin), evidently an old enemy of Farrellísó but donít bother asking whence their enmity derives, because that seemingly crucial point never comes up in even an indirect way. Steinman, in turn, works for somebody called Dr. Gordon (Charles MacCaulay, of Blacula and The House of Seven Corpses), whom the doctorís sexy-as-hell daughter, Neva (Pat Woodel, from The Big Doll House and The Woman Hunt), haughtily describes as one of the most brilliant scientists alive. No one will say just why, but it would appear that Gordon has such great need of Farrell that he doesnít think he can afford the chance of Matt refusing to give him what he wants. We may rest assured that it has something to do with his demented research, however.
That demented research is motivated by Gordonís belief that the human race is on the fast track to extinction. So far as he can see, the only chance our species has of surviving the next century is to incorporate adaptations from other organisms, and with that in mind, he employs Steinman to keep him supplied with native villagers abducted from the surrounding settlements. These he sends down to his lab in the basement, where he and Neva reconfigure their bodies along animal lines. Farrellís first glimpse of this comes when Steinman brings him along to witness the pursuit of an escaped experimental subjectó presumably in order to convince Farrell of the futility of running away. The creature, when Steinman catches it and shoots it down, is revealed to be a swarthy, hairy man with the head of a wild boar! Consequently, we have some idea what lies ahead for Mattís fellow captive, Juan Pereira (Eddie Garcia, from Beyond Atlantis and Beast of Blood), but Dr. Gordon and his daughter keep dropping veiled hints that they have something else in mind for Farrell himself. Actually, Farrell is lucky enough that all three of his captors have mutually contradictory agendas regarding him: Dr. Gordon wants to extract his brain and install it in some sort of machine that will apparently allow Mattís consciousness to inhabit all of the beast-people simultaneously, Steinman wants to goad Farrell into making an escape attempt so that heíll have an excuse to hunt him down and kill him, and Neva (big surprise) falls in love with him after just a few days in his company. With all those schemes in competition, Farrell might have a chance of getting off the island alive.
Naturally, itís Nevaís affection for him that provides the opportunity to flee, but Matt doesnít just make a break for it all by his lonesome. Neva wants to come with him, and she curiously takes along most of the remaining manimals, too. Then, Farrell heads back to the villa to abduct Dr. Gordon while Neva takes to the hills with Ayesa the panther (Pam Grier, from Bucktown and The Big Bird Cage), Lupa the wolf (The Secret of the Sacred Forestís Mona Moreno), Darmo the bat (Toby Gosalvez, of Silk 2), Kuzma the antelope (Ken Metcalfe, of Stryker and Up from the Depths), and Primo the ape (the Internet Movie Database attributes this part to The Deathhead Virginís Kim Ramos, but since Ramos is a girl and Primo most assuredly is not, it seems likely that we should be looking for her somewhere else in the film). Steinman naturally comes in pursuit with all of his native mercenaries, and The Twilight People suddenly becomes the only movie I know of to rip off Island of Lost Souls and The Most Dangerous Game at the same time.
Iím tempted to suspect that the copy of The Twilight People I saw was missing some footage. There are several times when seemingly vital plot points simply fall by the wayside, and in one case, weíre left with a gaping hole through the center of the movieís climaxó we see a badly wounded Steinman draw a bead on Farrell from the cover of some dense foliage, and then after a scene showing events elsewhere on the island, we cut to Matt leading Neva out of the warzone, with his arch-enemy nowhere to be seen. How the fuck did Farrell worm his way out of Steinmanís trap?!?! Either weíre looking at incompetence on a rare and wonderful scale, or something has gotten lost somewhere.
Much of the fun of The Twilight People stems, expectedly, from the unusually zany character of the mad science. Even if we accept the notion that biological adaptation will be the key to survival in a future defined by rampant pollution, habitat destruction, and quite possibly the aftereffects of nuclear war, it hardly follows that currently existing animals will possess the adaptations we would want to borrow for ourselves. And even if we accept that, thereís just no explaining the specific species of critter into which Gordon partially transforms his experimental subjects. Seriously, panthers, wolves, and apes are all much more endangered by ecological breakdown than we are, and itís totally beyond my ability to understand what benefit a man would derive from being turned halfway into a gazelle. Flight, sonar, and the ability to hibernate might come in handy, I suppose, and thereís got to be a reason why the Earth harbors more species of bat than of any other mammal, but the rest of Gordonís bestiary? Not a chance. Then thereís the monster makeup itself. Some of it is sensibly restrained (Pam Grier doesnít need much more than a set of fangs to be convincing as a panther) or executed with surprising competence (Kuzma makes a plausible enough human antelope), but most of the manimals are goofy in the extreme. Darmo the bat is crappy enough to be worth the price of admission all by himself, and he probably gets more screen-time than any of the other Twilight People, even though heís only rarely the focus of a scene. You have to admire the nerve of a filmmaker who isnít ashamed to glue cut-up plastic garbage bags to a guyís arms, and call him a bat-man.
Thereís a fair amount of peripheral screwiness in the film, too. The use of dubbed animal noises for the beast-peopleís vocalizations is one of those things that sound like a great idea on paper, but come out noticeably wanting in actual practice. Maybe it would have worked a little better if Romero hadnít had Ayesa doing her jaguar-scream constantly during every minute she was onscreen, or if Lupaís vocalizations hadnít sounded more like the family pooch than a wolf. And I love the little subplot in which Lupa and Kuzma inexplicably fall in loveó I mean, itís hard to imagine what a wolf would see in an antelope, you know? Youíll also never believe the final-act revelation of what became of Nevaís motheró not because it isnít essentially in keeping with both the rest of the story and the character of Dr. Gordon, but because of the way it comes out of nowhere, resolves nothing, and seems to imply a completely different direction for the mad doctorís earliest experiments. And beyond that, such winking at the audience was extremely uncommon in 1973. The Blood Island cycle may have come to an end three years earlier, but its spirit obviously lived on.