Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Early Action Heroine: Liza Belmonte in ‘Beast of Blood’

Liza Belmonte as Laida in ‘Beast of Blood’
I first saw Eddie Romero’s Filipino horror film Beast of Blood (1971) on TV, on a local station’s late-night “Creature Feature,” when I was in high school in the 1970s. The film was lots of fun — if a bit cheesy in places — and it stayed in my memory for 30 years or more. It did so for one reason: the saronged, machete-slashing character of Laida, played by Liza Belmonte. Because the movie inhabited my brain for so long — and was embellished by my imagination as it did — I recently sought it out on DVD. Having now seen Beast of Blood again, I’d like to write something about it. Only I'm not sure if I want to write about the film that actually exists or the film as I remember it.

Although I can recall watching the TV shows Honey West and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. in the 1960s, I can’t recall any images of female heroism from them. Beast of Blood’s blade-flashing Laida was the first time I remember seeing a woman — and not only a woman but a traditionally garbed denizen of the Pacific Islands — struggling against the bad guys as an equal with the male heroes. She wasn't just a damsel-in-distress allowed a single act of heroic agency (a role filled in Beast of Blood by Celeste Yarnall’s ostensible female lead Myra Russell). Instead, she was a woman warrior who stood shoulder to shoulder with her male comrades and who went into battle as unblinkingly as they did. As a teenager in the mid-1970s, I had never seen a character like this before.
 
Laida springs into action.

I don’t remember if it was because my local TV station had cut out her introductory scene or because I missed the beginning of the movie, but Laida seemed to come out of nowhere in the story. The purported hero of the movie, John Ashley’s Bill Foster, is chasing one of the monsters through the jungle, when Laida steps out from behind the trees and slashes the baddie to bits. “Whoa,” I remember thinking to myself, “where did she come from?” Laida riveted my attention for the rest of the film, as she totally overshadowed both Ashley and Yarnall. By the end of the movie, Laida was the most heroic character, dispatching the majority of the arch-villain Mad Scientist’s henchmen and freeing his prisoners.

Laida gets ready to throw her machete at a henchman.

Bull’s eye!

Now that I've seen Beast of Blood again for the first time in 30 years, I realize just how different my memory of the movie has been from the movie itself. I remembered Laida as being a much more lithe figure, when in fact she’s rather non-athletic. I remembered her dynamically leaping out of the jungle, when in fact her body movement is quite minimal for an action hero. I also remembered her as being more fluent in English, when in fact Liza Belmonte seems to struggle with the language almost as much as Laida struggles with the bad guys. And my mind had also blocked out that stupid floral lei that she wears around her neck in every scene. But the character still held my attention. She still easily outshone the two romantic leads, Ashley and Yarnall. Indeed, I was puzzled that the character was introduced so unceremoniously that the viewer needs to prick up his or her ears in order to ascertain the character’s name: she is called Laida only sparingly in the film (and Belmonte is given an undeserved fourth billing). 
 
Laida helps to free the Mad Scientist’s prisoners.
Needless to say, when I first saw Beast of Blood, the TV station cut out its nudity, thus excising Laida’s unsuccessful seduction of Foster. (In fact, there’s more nudity in Beast of Blood than you would expect from a film rated PG.) This explained a later scene, where Foster tells Laida why he couldn’t make love to her, a scene which seemed to come out of the blue without its censored set-up. But by putting Laida in the role — however momentarily — of Foster’s love interest, Beast of Blood seems to be trying to rein in her hard-to-control female energy, and the scene seems forced. Strangely, Laida isn’t a character in the film to which Beast of Blood is a sequel: 1969’s Mad Doctor of Blood Island.
 
In the movie’s denouement, Laida, Myra, and Foster
watch the Mad Scientist’s fortress burn.

I suppose that unflinching, no-nonsense action heroines like Laida in Beast of Blood have become commonplace by now, from the vampire-slaying Buffy to Uma Thurman’s Bride to super assassin Mrs. Smith: heroines who show off as much butt as they kick. But I hold a special place in my personal pop-culture pantheon for the woman who beat them all to the punch (or at least to the machete slice). And I’m a little bewildered why most Internet commentaries about Beast of Blood give the character such short shrift. In fact, I think it would be a terrific idea to make an action film today with a Laida-like character as its central heroine: a stoic-faced, blade-wielding, sarong-clad, cinnamon-skinned goddess of the jungle. Only this time around, the character could be played by a more athletic actress and given flashier fight choreography. And she wouldn’t need a John Ashley to help her defeat the bad guys.

‘Beast of Blood’s’ virtually Laida-free trailer

Originally published on Amazon.com in 2005.  

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