Leaks, Penanggalans and Krasues, Oh My!
Hereís an image as flat-out bizarre as any youíre likely to see: the head of a woman floating in midair, bodiless but for a bloody spine, at the end of which dangles a clump of living organs (lungs, heart, intestines, etc.). I think itís fair to say youíll never see anything like this in an American horror movie, but critters like the one I just described have turned up in many South Asian exploitation films (and at least one soap opera). Indeed, floating head movies were quite common in Indonesia and Thailand during the seventies and eighties (with titles like KRASUE SAO, STREET RACING GRASUEH, KRASUE GAD POP, ITTIRITH NUM MUN PRAJ, TAYARD KRASUE SAWASS, etc), although most of them now appear to be lost.
Perhaps even more unbelievable, to
Westerners at least, is the fact that the ďwitch with flying headĒ featured in
those films is a staple of Asian folklore that figures in the mythologies of
several different cultures. In Indonesia the critter is known as a Leak,
in Malaysia a Penanggalan (meaning ďHead with Dancing IntestinesĒ), a
Krasue in Thailand and an Arb in Cambodia. (Thereís also the
somewhat similar but less interesting
from the Philippines, which sprouts
wings that cause the upper torso to detach from the rest of the body; itís
depicted in films like 1989ís IMPAKTITA and two episodes of the SHAKE, RATTLE &
ROLL anthology series).
It shouldnít come as any surprise that Leaks, Penanggalans, Krasues and Arbs regularly turn up in South Asian movies. The six films outlined below represent a small sampling of the floating head film cycle (which apparently numbers in the dozens), being among the few that are still extent. The classics, Iím sorry to report, are slim to nonexistent, but viewers desiring something out of the ordinary will be sated.
The Hong Kong period extravaganza WITCH WITH FLYING HEAD (FEI TAUGH ME NEUIH ) is the earliest film on this list, with a copyright date of 1977 (although the film would actually appear to hail from the late sixties, as evinced by the fact that cast member Peter Chen Ho died in 1970). The title essentially tells the story, as a woman living in some unspecified feudal time is invaded by a malevolent serpent who slithers up her vagina, where it stays for some time (we get periodic close ups of the snake inside her body) and causes her to become a bodiless blood-drinker each night. In this way director Lian Sing Woo combines mythological motifs with the invasive serpents popular in many Hong Kong films of the time (see CALAMITY OF SNAKES, KILLER SNAKES, LEWD LIZARD, etc.).
Of course the flying
witch of this film can do other cool things like shoot lasers from her mouth and
breathe fire. But thereís a cult of magical snake people afoot in the town,
many of whom want the witchís head (pun intended), leading to a final FX
showdown of near-indescribable insanity. Thereís also the requisite eel barfing
and martial arts action weíve come to expect from HK horror flicks, not to
mention quite a few music cues blatantly lifted from other movies. The special
effects are fairly impressive considering the tawdriness of the production--note
the way the title characterís dangling entrails pulsate--and there are some
genuinely chilling moments, especially toward the end. Overall, though, the
effect is one of over-the-top hilarity.
As with any type of film, floating head flicks tend to grow dull and monotonous the more of them you view. Thereís also the fact that a floating head just isnít enough to sustain an entire movie--something MYSTICS IN BALI remedied with its variety of showy transformations--although the makers of these films all try their damndest to make us believe otherwise.
Such problems are especially evident in 2002ís KRASUE (a.k.a. DEMONIC BEAUTY) from Thailand, which even though itís only the third krasue movie Iíve sat through suffers a pretty severe case of the same-old-shit syndrome. Its set in the distant past, with an adulterous princess sentenced to death. Her soul enters the body of an identical twin living in a nearby village, causing her head and organs to float around each night; in this guise the gal kills several animals and pins the suspicion on a local old lady.
To be fair, there are some memorable scenes, such as a krasue-cobra fight and a
gross bit in which the critter sticks its tongue through the bottom of a hut to
lap up a newborn babyís afterbirth. The film also looks good and contains
unusually elaborate CGI effects: we actually see the protagonistís torso split
open--in close up--to disgorge the head and innards. That doesnít mean,
though, that the effects are especially convincing, or that KRASUE overall is
terribly exciting. Itís talky and repetitive, and ultimately brings very little
to this peculiar subgenre.
The same year brought yet another Thai production, KRASUE PUN SIEW, which falls at the opposite end of the spectrum quality-wise. Itís probably the single crappiest film on the list, a dreary piece of unalloyed sexploitation with scary bits that appear to be included solely as an excuse to justify the copious sex scenes. Such scenes, BTW, are crappy and unerotic, done with an excess of dissolves and tacky synthesizer muzak. And then there are the effects, easily the worst youíll see in any Krasue movie: the floating head and organs are accomplished with a mixture of stop motion animation and CGI that manages to pinpoint the worst aspects of both!
But there are some novel twists on the Krasue theme to be found in KRASUE PUN SIEW, such as a blowjob made memorable by the fact that itís given by the title character (who the recipient somehow doesnít notice). The story for its part is standard revenge stuff, with a murdered chick, now a Krasue, looking for vengeance on the assholes that gangbanged and killed her. She ends up possessing the body of one of the perpetratorís girlfriends, and the proceedings grow even more turgid than they were to begin with. For bad movie buffs this is a film of obvious interest, but everyone else should stay far, far away.
Cambodia got into the act with BURN THE WITCH [PLERNG CHES ARB] in 2005.
Here we have an old woman living in an impoverished village whose head and
innards take the expected nightly stroll. In such a guise she haunts the local
swamps, devouring frogs and scaring villagers. The womanís daughter, meanwhile,
is dating a young punk, which makes the village bully jealous. He beats up the
punk, inspiring the old goat to zap him with a psychic meteor; this only
inflames the other residents of the village, who rise up en masse to justify the
Yet there exists an earlier Cambodian production, 2002ís ARB (a.k.a. VAMPIRE), that takes an altogether different approach. The Arb here is very much in the throat-ripping tradition of MYSTICS IN BALI and KRASUE, and if you ask me the film is all the better for it! Another plus is that ARB, unlike BURN THE WITCH, was shot on film and evidently had a respectable budget.
ARB begins with an Arb-afflicted coot who, after imbibing the afterbirth of a newborn, is waylaid by a pack of scumbags, who also victimize a happy-go-lucky young couple. The coot is killed but the female half of the couple survives to take on the Arb duties herself--and, for good measure, bring the old woman back from the dead.
In short order the Arb kills off the scumbags and then sets her sights on a group of college pukes vacationing in the area. Far too much screen time is lavished on these twerps and their dopey misadventures, which are on the level of a lowbrow Hollywood teen comedy--and for that matter the film overall, at a full two hours, is way overlong. But the scenes of the Arb doing its dirty work are among the most effective Iíve seen. While the special effects may not be Academy Award caliber, the lighting and camerawork are superb, and the blue-tinted mist that always accompanies the Arb lends an appropriately eerie touch. If only the rest of the film were up to the same standard!
And that, for better or worse, ends my survey of Penanggalan/Krause/Arb movies from South Asia. I could go on about the wonderful, mind-bending insanity of South Asian horror/exploitation movies--notable examples include the BLACK MAGIC flicks, THE BOXERíS OMEN, THE KILLING OF SATAN, SEEDING OF A GHOST, LADY TERMINATOR, THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC, GINSENG KING and THE RAPE AFTER--but this piece is specifically about floating head movies, so Iíll leave it at that. Those desiring an introduction to Asian cult cinema will do well to check out any of the cinemutations outlined above; these films wonít ever make anyoneís list of the greatest movies ever made, but they will leave you wanting more.