Eddie Romero is an important figure in the history of U.S. – Philippines relations, or at least he is to the extent that U.S. – Philippines relations depend upon the import and export of quality drive-in fare. As a producer and director, Romero pioneered the practice within the Filipino film industry of tailoring product for the American market, usually with the participation of American producers. Who knows what butterfly-effect-like calamities might otherwise have befallen our great country, denied exposure to the films in Romero’s Blood Island trilogy, or his classic WIP picture Black Mama, White Mama? The mind positively reels.
The Twilight People, like many of Romero’s U.S. releases, began life as a co-production in which Roger Corman had a prominent hand, in this case via Corman’s recently formed New World Pictures. However, the film ultimately saw release in the States under the Dimension Pictures banner, having changed hands in the split between Corman and his New World co-founder, Lawrence Woolner, who had gone on to found Dimension. On the Filipino end, the film was made under the auspices of Four Associates Ltd., a production company formed by Romero and actor/producer John Ashley, who also starred in the picture. As legend has it, Ashley –- who is a familiar face to many due to his appearances in the Beach Party movies and other AIP teen fare –- fell in love with the Philippines during the filming of Romero’s Manila Open City, in which he starred in 1968. Ashley then proceeded to consummate that love by producing and/or starring in a string of Filipino exploitation films, a number of them with Romero, that would keep his career Philippines-bound for the better part of the next several years.
Among the biggest of Romero and Ashley’s Stateside successes was the trio of Blood Island films that started with 1968’s Mad Doctor of Blood Island. The Twilight People, with its monster-fied tale of science gone mad in an exotic setting, could be seen as a spiritual sibling to those films. But it can just as clearly be seen as Romero’s undisguised homage to both The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Most Dangerous Game. Ashley, who seems to have had no qualms about using his grip on the purse strings to secure a flattering star turn, plays Matt Farrel, a figure whom another character in the film at one point describes thusly:
“Scholar, soldier of fortune, hunter… What did that magazine call you? ‘The Last Renaissance Man'”.
Of course, a person of such extraordinary stock as Farrell will naturally be attractive to a mad scientist bent on creating a race of supermen, which is why Farrell finds himself abducted and taken to the island hideaway of one Dr. Gordon (Charles Macaulay). Though it should be said, as Gordon points out, that what the doctor is creating is not so much a race of supermen as it is a race of super beings. At this point, however, Gordon’s radical hot-wiring of the evolutionary process is only at the stage where his otherwise human-looking subjects all appear to be wearing carnivalesque masks of one type of animal or another. What is missing is that certain x factor that Gordon is hoping Farrell can provide, the renaissance man brain patterns with which to imprint his creations.
At the same time, Gordon has a strong-arm man by the name of Steinman (Jan Merlin) who makes a secret neither of his admiration for Farrell or of his desire to hunt Farrell like a wild animal. As such, he is constantly goading Farrell to make a break for it, and even, at one point, offers to help him… and then to give him a head start before he comes after him guns blazing. What’s interesting is that, despite the antagonism bred by their roles as captive and captor, there is an unmistakable affinity between Farrell and Steinman, one that is well played by both actors. Later in the film, the implications of this are bluntly underscored when Steinman accuses Gordon’s attractive daughter Neva (former Petticoat Junction star Pat Woodell) of having “hot pants” for Farrell. “That makes two of us,” she retorts.
And then, of course, there are the film’s beast people, the most difficult among whom to ignore is Ayesa, the Panther Woman, who is played by Pam Grier. Granted, this was early in Grier’s career, but not so early that she hadn’t already had prominent speaking roles, perhaps most notably in the previous year’s The Big Bird Cage. Nonetheless, the lithe limbed actress is here limited to dialog consisting entirely of overdubbed growling as, clothed in nothing more than an abbreviated shift, she prowls around on all fours. She looks fantastic doing this, of course, even with the cut-rate cat face prosthetics that the make-up department have fitted her with. It’s just that Grier’s status as a powerful screen presence is today so widely acknowledged that it’s a bit startling to be reminded that her status at the time was such that she could be simply tossed into such a supporting role as eye candy.
Also among the movie’s more prominent beast people is a winged bat man played by Tony Gonsalvez, a character whose struggles to take flight make up an ongoing subplot — the final payoff of which makes for, depending on where you stand, either one of the movies most ridiculous or giddily enjoyable visual moments. (Gonsalves does a fine job as an actor here, especially considering that he appears to have been employed more frequently as a sound effects man in Filipino productions.) Then there is the gentle and soft hearted Antelope Man, Kuzma, played by Ken Metcalfe, the Wolf Woman, Lupa, with whom he seems to have formed a romantic bond (Mona Morena), and Primo, the Ape Man (Kim Ramos), who will later show himself to be a little too handsy when it comes to Gordon’s daughter.
All of these critters get the chance to show what they’re made of when Neva, who indeed does have “hot pants” for the generously sideburned Farrell, decides to help him escape, and in doing so ends up taking all of the beast people along with them. From there, the hunt is on, with Steinman and his men tracking the escapees through the jungle surrounding Gordon’s mansion. What Steinman, in all his eagerness, hasn’t counted on, however, is the alliance between the animal people and the people people, and the fierce resistance that those caged-too-long beasties are capable of putting up.
Put simply, The Twilight People is much better than it needs to be, and manages to be so without giving the appearance of trying to compete outside of its class. Not only does Romero know how to tell a story, but he also knows how to make an attractive looking picture on limited means. His camera angles are frequently imaginative, and studiously avoid the kind of nailed down camera work so frequently seen in similar quickie productions. He also combines an eye for striking found locations with an ability to liven up minimal sets with offbeat lighting effects, giving the end product a gloss that’s beyond what most people would expect from what is, in essence, just a cheesy drive-in monster movie. Furthermore, the film’s script — written by Romero with Jerome Small –- is tightly composed, and devoid neither of a fair share of pithy dialog or of interesting character notes, the edgy bromantic tension between Farrell and Steinman being chief among them.
If The Twilight People fails anywhere, it is in its admittedly shoddy makeup effects, which go a long way toward undermining Romero’s attempts to portray the tragic nature of the film’s beast people. Nonetheless, it is to Romero’s credit that, despite that, he still manages to hit some poignant notes, especially in his depiction of the tentative, budding romance between the childlike Kuzma and Lupa. Whether you are affected by that, of course, depends on how much you are willing to cast your lot in with a film of such straight-faced silliness as this. In my opinion, you should. The Twilight People is what it is, but it is also an example of the best of what it is: an outstanding and colorful piece of trash entertainment. Almost makes me wish I could time travel back to those drive-in days and see it as was originally intended.
Release Year: 1973 | Country: Philippines, United States | Starring: John Ashley, Pat Woodell, Jan Merlin, Charles Macaulay, Pam Grier, Ken Metcalfe, Tony Gonsalves, Kim Ramos, Mona Morena, Eddie Garcia | Screenplay: Eddie Romero, Jerome Small | Director: Eddie Romero | Cinematography: Fredy Conde | Music: Tito Arevalo, Ariston Avelino | Producers: Eddie Romero, John Ashley