Penanggal


by Anne Sharp



As a horror fan and longtime inhabitant of a female body, with all the wonders and dangers this entails, there's something about this particular piece of body horror cinema that really gets me.


In case you're not familiar with the name, the penanggalan is a traditional monster in Malaysia, her country of origin. Like the Central European vampire, the penanggalan (or "detached one") flies by night, and like the Central American La Llorona preys on children. She especially likes to devour newborn babies as they emerge from their helpless laboring mothers. But this version of the penanggalan legend is both more tasteful and more palpably visceral.

Mastura's Penanggal is a classic horror antihero, trapped in a nightmare world she never made. She wanted a charm to make herself beautiful, not realizing until the awful transformation actually took place that this would entail being cursed to spend a portion of her life as a screaming, moaning, bloody bag of viscera. What she makes us feel about our own bodies, we might not want to think too much about.



(c) Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.


Amy Mastura as the title entity in Michael Ang's 2011 horror film "Penanggal."

The penanggalan isn't a full-body monster in the traditional sense. Most of the time she presents as a biologically normal living woman. But when it's time for her to feed, her head detaches from her body, along with her internal organs, and flies through the air head-first with the contents of her thorax trailing below. As you can imagine, it would take a certain amount of technical finesse to make this work onscreen, and Ang does an amazing job of it. His Penanggal is not only anatomically but dramatically convincing, a credit to the combined skills of himself, his practical and CGI effects staff, and Amy Mastura's heart-twisting performance, especially as the semi-disembodied version of her character, where she comports herself eerily in the same manner as her fully physicalized self. Suspended in the air, her head hovers at the same height where she would have been if she'd been standing on her feet, or kneeling in front of the sinister saffron-robed mystic who cruelly doomed her to be what she is.