As you'll notice from these screenshots, 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 masterful 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 guru who cruelly doomed her to be what she is.

Mastura's Penanggal is a classic horror antihero, trapped in a nightmare world she never made. She went to the creepy guru for 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.


In terms of body horror, I've seen nothing in world cinema that matches the situation of the lady played by Amy Mastura in Michael Ang's 2011 film "Penanggal."

The penanggalan is actually quite 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, a process depicted in some Southeast Asian penanggalan films (and yes, they are a thing) with an explicitness that would make most American audiences lose their popcorn.