The Untold Story of The Twilight People, the Popular Filipino-American Horror Film of the ’70s
When discussing the international reputation of Filipino cinema, artists like Lino Brocka and Lav Diaz often take up most of the oxygen. However, Eddie Romero stands as one of the first Filipino filmmakers to take stock abroad. With a career spanning from the late ’40s to the 2000s, Romero went through a few phases in his prime.
The Twilight People was made by Filipino film director Eddie Romero.
He is well known for his war films, such as The Walls of Hell and The Ravagers, which he made with Kane W. Lynn, an American former naval pilot, through their jointly owned Hemisphere Pictures. These war films were not successful, so Romero and Lynn decided to pivot to horror pictures, creating the Blood Island films, which involved black magic, tribes, chiefs, and monsters and starred John Ashley.
Ashley, an acolyte of director Roger Corman, and Romero got along well and ended up cutting out Lynn to create their own company, Four Associates Ltd. They signed a multi-picture deal with Corman, starting with Beast of the Yellow (starring Wonder Women’s very own Vic Diaz), the first film of Corman’s new company, New World Pictures. Of the films Romero and Ashley made together for Corman, perhaps most famous is The Twilight People, a stealth remake of H.G. Well’s science fiction novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Twilight joins a string of The Island of Dr. Moreau adaptations.
A tale of a young man who is kidnapped and brought to an island where the mad doctor, his daughter, and his bodyguard are creating animal-human hybrids, The Island of Dr. Moreau has been adapted a number of times by all kinds of figures, from Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi to Burt Lancaster and even Romero himself, in an earlier attempt (1959’s Terror is a Man, co-directed by Gerardo de Leon). The version most familiar to modern audiences would be the 1996 adaptation featuring David Thewlis, Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk, and Marlon Brando as Dr. Moreau. However, the history of the productions of Dr. Moreau is quite messy.
The Laughton-Lugosi version, titled Island of Lost Souls, was subject to much censorship throughout the U.S. and U.K. The Lancaster picture was let down by poor special effects, the budget not matching up with the film it was making. The Brando adaptation was initially helmed by Richard Stanley until his inability to direct Brando as well as numerous disagreements with Kilmer led him to be replaced by veteran director John Frankenheimer. With that, Romero’s The Twilight People actually has the distinction of being Dr. Moreau’s smoothest and most profitable adaptations.
Twilight’s counterparts were plagued by money and production problems.
From the author’s humble standpoint, it seems that the production problems with adaptations of Dr. Moreau stem from a misalignment of resources and ambitions. The Stanley/Frankenheimer version was budgeted at $40 million (around $68 million or P3.3 billion today), which, on the surface, seemed like a sound budget for an adult-oriented sci-fi fantasy film.
The presence of Brando and Kilmer, both well known as notoriously difficult, was felt throughout, too. At this point in his career, Brando refused to learn lines, preferring to have them fed to him through radio. Kilmer was going through a messy divorce with Joanne Whalley and often took out his anger on the cast and crew. Not to mention, both had problems with Stanley. Stanley was somewhat green for the project, having only done two lower budget films in Australia, Dust Devil and Hardware. This, in addition to the general difficulties of location, turned what would already be a testy production into the worst possible version of itself.
Twilight’s advantage was its Philippine location in Rizal.
When Romero tackled The Twilight People, he had 24 years of directing features behind him and had already tried it once before, the aforementioned Terror is a Man. He also already had a strong working relationship with its star, Ashley, and they ran a set devoid of ego. Additionally, perhaps the biggest advantages Romero had was his lower budget ($150,000 then, about a $1 million or P49.5 million now), as well as shooting on home turf in the Philippines.
While Stanley similarly set up the production at home for him, as well, in Australia and New Zealand, the size and scope of his vision required the construction of complicated sets and accommodating an international crew all in a foreign locale. No easy feat for a production of any level, anywhere in the world. The Twilight People shot on location in Teresa, Rizal, but it’s low budget only allowed for pre-existing buildings and structures. The house of Dr. Gordon, the Moreau stand-in, is your average Filipino provincial McMansion, complete with the wooden stairs, stone blocks, lace curtains, and poor lighting. The more complicated laboratory interiors were completed on soundstages in Manila.
Its creature effects were creepier and more effective.
Another complicating factor in Dr. Moreau was the creature effects themselves. The 1977 Lancaster adaptation’s makeup was done by Thomas Burman. While his credentials as a makeup artist range far and wide, from Planet of the Apes to Phantom of the Paradise, this was his first time as the lead makeup designer, and working with an insufficient budget at that (accounting for inflation, the ’77 Dr. Moreau cost $26 million, while Planet of the Apes, an older film the required an equal amount of effects work, cost $49 million). Reviews for the film mostly settled on the special effects and makeup being unable to match the film's ambitions.
In contrast, the 1996 adaption did not skimp and went all out on the creature effects and makeup. For the human-cat hybrid Aissa, the production used digital motion capture of an actual Bengal tiger. The makeup by Shane Mahan, working at the legendary Stan Winston Studios, was convincing and cutting-edge, but heavy and difficult, requiring hours of application, masks, and full-body suits.
Initially, the idea was to shoot the film at night, where the “creatures” effect would be heightened by playing in light and shadow. However, to support Kilmer’s penchant for nocturnal extracurriculars, the film was rewritten to mostly take place in the day. This, in addition to Brando’s strange hours (he would only spontaneously emerge from his air-conditioned trailer), meant the extras were often left standing in the sweltering, tropical sun in full makeup, that did not even look convincing in the day time.
This is in stark contrast The Twilight People, whose makeup was done locally by Tony Artedia. According to Ashley, “It was not time-consuming. We never seemed to be waiting for the makeup to be put on. And I remember when I first saw the film, I thought, jeez, it worked better than I thought when we were doing it.” Objectively speaking, The Twilight People’s effects have a creepier edge, haggard and truly animalistic—the film’s iconic winged bat creature actually manages to fly a couple of times in the film.
The different adaptions offered various levels of satisfaction.
The respective productions of these films do not say anything about their actual quality. The ’77 adaptation managed to be part of a Lancaster’s career resurgence after a few down years, and he is often described as the perfect Dr. Moreau, a stronger, more pronounced figure than the Brando adaptation, which saw Dr. Moreau as a sort of overweight demigod.
Despite being panned by critics, I’m actually a huge fan of the Brando adaptation, because it makes strong aggressive, narrative choices, has some incredibly psychedelic components I have yet to see replicated in any other film, and, at the end of the day, features an incredible performance from Kilmer. In fewer words, this is a movie that goes hard as fuck.
And on the flip side, The Twilight People, while smooth, removes some meaty plot points from Dr. Moreau, such as the politics of the creature society, in favor of a wiry adventure. As exciting and horrifying as the adventures on The Island of Dr. Moreau are, they are no match for the excitement and horror of making a feature film.