The Deathhead Virgin (1973/1986) **½
Like most aficionados of what Andrew Borntreger of badmovies.org calls “other-than-fine film,” I delight in the discovery of extremely obscure movies. Third-rate, minor-studio kaiju eiga? Let me at it. Some tawdry French softcore flick you caught the last ten minutes of on Cinemax back in 1987? I’ve probably seen it. Forgotten Mexican Jaws knock-offs? Sign my ass up. But I think I’ve outdone myself this time. The Deathhead Virgin is a film so heavily cloaked in mystery that even the internet, the most powerful means ever invented for people with way too much time on their hands to share knowledge that is of no practical value, is almost entirely silent on the subject of it. Just about all I can tell you for certain is that it is of Filipino origin, was made in 1973, and was released on home video in America in 1986. It has to have played U.S. theaters at some point as well, because I was able to track down a picture of an English-language movie poster employing different artwork from the video box. Beyond that, I’m almost completely in the dark here.
Many people reading this probably never realized there were such things as Filipino horror movies. And even those who already knew may be surprised to learn that Eddie Romero wasn’t the only producer making them. The Deathhead Virgin appears to be something of a vanity project on the part of Jock Gaynor and Larry Ward, a pair of Americans with a fair amount of TV experience under their belts, who not only have both of the starring roles, but between the two of them hold the bulk of the creative credits for this movie. (Indeed, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if credited director Norman Foster was really one or the other of them working under a pseudonym, too.) Why Gaynor and Ward chose the Philippines as the venue for their foray onto the big screen, rather than pursuing the more familiar route of cutting costs by filming in Europe (like Sid Pink shooting Reptilicus in Denmark) or Mexico is anybody’s guess. Perhaps it was even cheaper that way. But once there, they seem to have done what was probably the most logical thing, and gotten in touch with Eddie Romero. Or so I surmise, at any rate, on the grounds that much of the cast and crew of The Deathhead Virgin had worked for Romero before, and would do so again.
The surprisingly inventive plot concerns a pair of freelance salvagers named Larry Alden (Ward) and Frank Cutter (Gaynor), who run their operation out of Manila. Both men are discovered dead and badly decomposed in a submerged net when a team of Filipino sailors encounter their boat adrift and out of fuel in the middle of the Sulu Sea. An old acquaintance of Alden’s, named Kapunan (Vic Diaz, from Night of the Cobra Woman and The Big Bird Cage), gets in touch with Janice Cutter (Diane McBain, from Monster and Puppet Master 5: The Final Chapter— hard to believe she’s still working!), Frank’s estranged wife and the only person living with any legally compelling ties to either man, to set the estate in order. It seems not only that Frank had quite a big insurance policy, but that Larry did too, and that because Cutter was listed as Alden’s beneficiary, the other man’s insurance money now devolves to Janice as well. Though the legal issues are pretty cut-and-dried, Kapunan hopes that Janice will stick around for a while, as the circumstances surrounding the deaths are extremely strange. And as you might have guessed, it is when Kapunan launches into the story that the main body of the movie begins.
It seems that one day, while Alden is in Manila wrestling with legal complications from an earlier job, Cutter and Sebastian (Manny Ojeda, of Superbeast), the salvagers’ long-time assistant, are out on the Sulu Sea doing what might best be called prospecting. While diving, Frank makes a remarkable and potentially lucrative discovery: hidden in the crags of a coral reef is the wreck of an 1850’s-vintage Spanish man o’ war, whose hold contains not just a sizable quantity of gold and silver, but a fortune in pearls and plundered native artifacts as well. But it also contains something very unusual, and not a little alarming. While poking around inside the wreck, Frank stumbles upon a locked cabin, in which a human skeleton with flowing, black hair lies shackled to the deck. After breaking in and relieving the skeleton of its valuable-looking jewelry, Frank returns to the surface to tell Sebastian about his discovery. It is Sebastian’s opinion that the ship was part of the fleet of Aquilla, the Spanish admiral who broke the power of the Moro corsairs in the Sulu Sea at about the time that the sunken hulk would have last seen service, before losing most of his ships to a typhoon. Frank then goes back down to the wreck to investigate further, but when he does, he finds the skeleton gone from its cabin. Had he not been overcome by a sudden attack of the willies, and done that exploring he came back down for, he would have learned why. Watching him from the shadows as he high-tails it out of the wreck is a naked girl (Kim Ramos, from Beyond Atlantis and The Twilight People) in a creepy wooden mask.
The next day, Alden goes to see a friend of his (Butz Aquino, from Too Hot to Handle and Ebony, Ivory, and Jade) who runs a museum in the capital, hoping to confirm Sebastian’s theory as to the origin of the wrecked ship. While giving him the information he wants, the curator goes off on a very interesting (and ultimately really important) tangent regarding Aquilla and his interaction with the Moro in the course of his campaign against their pirates. According to the professor, Aquilla didn’t confine his pillaging to silver, pearls, and other valuables— his greatest prize was Leila, the Moro’s virgin princess. Actually, “princess” is something of a misnomer in this case, because Leila’s job description really made her more of a hierodule. If this movie is to be believed, the religion of the Moro could perhaps best be characterized as a kind of Islamic voodoo, in which the islanders’ ancestral pagan religion was tarted up in Muslim drag. Leila, like her predecessors going back hundreds of years, was chosen for the office of princess at the age of fourteen. When she turned 21, she was to have been sacrificed to Allah, while another girl was chosen to take her place. In this way, the Moro kept themselves on Allah’s good side, and the god rewarded his people with military and economic success. But when Aquilla came, he not only vanquished the Moro on land and sea, but captured Leila as well, breaking the cycle of sacrifice and undoing the longstanding bargain between the Moro and their god. And as a final, fascinating tidbit, the curator informs Alden that a tiny remnant of the Moro people still exists. They call themselves the Mananga Bal, and among them is a fanatical religious group known as the Sacal Bar, who believe that Leila isn’t really quite dead, and that she will someday rise up to restore her people to their former glory.
Having heard this story, we now have even more reason to think Frank is in for it when the girl from the wreck starts sneaking around the base camp he has set up on the nearest beach to the sunken ship. And sure enough, Frank starts acting awfully funny, periodically seeming hypnotized by the sea and forgetting entire days at a time. But he also starts drinking very heavily, so Alden (who has by this time come out to the island to start work on the salvaging operation) does not at first suspect anything too far out of the ordinary is going on. And in any event, most of Larry’s attention is taken up by Maria Muchatu (Iraida Arambulo), a pretty, young floozy whom he picked up in Manila and invited along in an alcohol-induced lapse of judgement. (Hilariously, Maria’s main function in the story seems to be to interrupt the action by insisting that Alden take her to get something to eat!) Thus it is a good long while before Alden picks up on the fact that Frank’s odd behavior has extended to murdering and scalping teenage girls by night.
Obviously, this antisocial behavior is Leila’s idea. It seems the girl was raped by seven different Spaniards during her brief period of captivity, and the Moro Allah requires the life of another virgin for each of the rapists as payment for this desecration. Why Leila would choose to go about this by using Frank as a flunky is never really explained, but it probably has something to do with her being pissed off at him for robbing her skeleton of its sacred jewelry. Meanwhile, the plot is thickened at both ends by the appearance of a coven of Sacal Bar cultists on the one hand, and the police inspector investigating the murders on the other. But Leila has no more desire to get caught than the murdering Frank or the scheming Alden (who hopes to avoid the tax man’s reach by salvaging the Spanish ship in secret), and when the authorities get too close to the truth, she forces Frank to drown himself, and then uses his body to lure Alden out to the wreck, where she can deal with him on her terms. And thus it is that the two salvagers end up in that net.
But wait! There may be a rational explanation for everything after all. After going to Frank and Larry’s funeral, Janice Cutter returns to the airport to catch her flight back to the States. Except that she never boards the plane, and sneaks back to the site of her husband’s old base camp instead, wearing a black wig in order to pass for a Filipina. When she reaches the beach, she swims out to Alden’s boat (still anchored not far from where it was discovered in the first scene) to meet with— you guessed it— Alden himself! Evidently, Janice has been having an affair with Larry for years, and the whole business about Frank murdering for Leila (to which, I should point out, Alden and the very superstitious Sebastian and Maria were the only witnesses) was just a cover story for a big scam meant to make Alden and Janice rich off the insurance money. There really is a wreck out there, though, and it really is full of pearls. And with the competition out of the way, Larry and Janice can have all that loot to themselves.
So where, then, do you suppose the amulet that Janice finds in one of the cabins (which looks exactly like the one Frank supposedly lifted from Leila’s skeleton) came from? And why do you suppose it makes Alden so uncomfortable when Janice starts wearing it? Could it be that, even if Larry faked his death, the rest of the story Kapunan told Janice was true? That would certainly explain why Janice keeps going into trances when she looks out at the sea while wearing the amulet. And it would also explain the very nasty end the two conspirators come to when they make their final attempt to bring up the pearls.
It’s unfortunate that The Deathhead Virgin is so goddamned cheap and directed in such an amateurish manner. The serpentine script deserves better, and with a slightly bigger budget and some serious pruning of deadwood scenes and subplots, this could have been a really compelling film. The use of Filipino legendry (however bogus) and ideas about the supernatural (however inauthentically portrayed) makes for a refreshing change of pace from the usual European, East Asian, or American Indian source material. But pacing and narrative focus are real problems. The treatment of the last act, in which we are fooled into thinking the movie is going to turn all “Scooby Doo” on us, is especially in need of tightening up— I appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to do here, but it just doesn’t quite come together. The movie also would have benefited from a bit more of Leila, who rarely appears onscreen in the film’s midsection. A masked, harpoon-wielding, homicidal, aquatic, naked zombie girl is a rare and impressive thing indeed, and it’s a shame Ward, Gaynor, and Foster were content to get so little mileage out of her. But at least she’s in here, and her mere presence will come as a welcome shock to the jaded viewer whose experiences have (rightly) taught him to be suspicious of tag lines like, “The shackled bones of the DEATHHEAD VIRGIN become supple, naked flesh... And Revenge her only appetite!!!!”