How horrors like the Manananggal influenced a Filipino American director’s bloody new teen vampire film

How horrors like the Manananggal influenced a Filipino American director’s bloody new teen vampire film
Maina Chen
October 1, 2021
Halloween season is here, bringing along “Welcome to Blumhouse” and its latest set of anthological thriller-horror films. In a conversation with NextShark, Filipino American director Maritte Lee Go sinks her teeth into what childhood legends inspired her to pursue horror and why she feels like now is the time for Asians to create and tell their stories.
Her film “Black as Night” is a whiplash-quick coming-of-age story about four teens hunting down vampires preying on New Orleans’ displaced and homeless population, who are still hurting from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago. Armed with “Legacies” and “Shameless” writer Sherman Payne’s script, the film bites into systemic racism, colorism and gentrification while balancing a story set during a summer full of growing pains and teenage angst.
Others might shy away from the production company’s nightmare-inducing films, but for Go, it’s a dream come true.
Blumhouse is a cornerstone for producing arguably some of the most influential horror films in modern American cinema, such as Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” (2009), James Wan’s “Insidious” (2011), James DeMonaco’s “The Purge” (2013), Mike Flanagan’s “Hush” (2016) and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019).
Go was star-struck by the filmmakers she was to be included among the ranks of. An honor compared to her early days as an actress shoehorned into parts like “the geisha,” “the nail technician” and “bit roles” that required her to speak with an accent, she told Gizmodo.
She realized early on that these one-dimensional and typecasted roles weren’t representative of what she could achieve and decided to pursue filmmaking to create her own stories.

Enter: the realm of monstrous horror

Go grew up listening to her immigrant parents telling her stories of macabre creatures from the Philippines, like the vampiric “manananggal,” which she described as “a monster that sucks the unborn child out of a pregnant woman’s belly” and is thought to detach itself from the torso-up to fly around as it hunted. Another was the “White Lady,” a ghostly specter in a long, white dress that would seemingly materialize anywhere, at any moment and usually for a vengeful purpose.
While others would say these beings are part of myths and ghost stories used to scare children, Go genuinely believed as a kid that they existed and that belief ignited her imagination for what could be out there in the unknown. The Philippines is also home to “human-sized” fruit bats, which she thinks may have contributed to stories of the manananggal soaring through the night.
“Vampires are always going to exist,” she told NextShark. “They’re kind of sexual in nature, they represent power and eternal life, and [that] is very attractive to many people.”
This also played into her casting; she spoke of the constant awe she and her crew would be in while watching three-time Emmy-winning actor Keith David being “very method” on set.
“When he walks into a room, everybody looks to him, because he’s got this energy and this power about him that is nothing I’ve ever seen before,” she said. “He’s like a mythical creature, basically. Everybody was just in awe of his presence, of his talent.”
“He’s amazing and I hope to work with him again,” she added.
One of the reasons Go is drawn to the horror genre is that she likes “being able to bend reality and suspend belief.” It combines her passions and her purpose in life.
“I’ve always felt that I need to make a greater impact on the world. To create empathy and understanding for people who’ve been suppressed for so long through filmmaking and Sherman’s script has such an impact and greater message and something I truly believed and wanted to support,” she said.
One such instance is the constant stream of degrading comments protagonist Shawna hears as a dark-skinned Black teen. Go wanted to mirror how in the Filipino culture there are lightening soaps, bleaching lotions and the preexisting thought that “if your skin is too dark you are known as a ‘worker’ or you are lower class.”
“I’d always been told growing up, like, don’t be in the sun because your skin’s gonna get ugly,” she said.
The director opts instead to drive a stake into colorism within the cultures and to embrace self-love in her film.

Opening doors for Asian creators

“We’re on the precipice of something big here,” the director said.
Being able to create a film like “Black as Night” and have it be a part of “Welcome to Blumhouse” meant another opportunity to prove that diverse stories want to be heard, Go said.
“When you can prove that movies like ‘Get Out’ and ‘Us’ are financially viable — that there’s an audience waiting to hear these stories, waiting to be represented, it says to studios that there are other voices that still need to be heard,” she continued. “I see slowly that they’re opening opportunities for Asian American stories. To get the validation that people of color need to be heard — it really just is going to give me the stepping stone that I need to tell my own personal stories.”
The success of her short film “Illipino,” based on Go’s adolescence when she was a young Filipina girl “who loved to battle” in street dancing, also gave her the confidence to persist on the path to tell the story of her Filipino American experience. Her next movie will pivot from horror as she pursues another of her passions: musicals. She is set to direct one for production company Miramax, and she’s currently writing a musical feature version of her short, based around dance and her life.
“I just feel like everything that I’ve been dreaming of is kind of coming true,” she said with a laugh, “and that’s a scary yet satisfying kind of experience.”
Go’s “Black as Night,” alongside Gigi Saul Guerrero’s “Bingo Hell,”  is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video starting Oct. 1. They will be followed by Ryan Zaragoza’s “Madres” and Axelle Carolyn’s “The Manor” on Oct. 8.

Featured Image via Character Media (left), martygo (right)
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