The Pontianak series of films began with Pontianak (1957), which premiered at the Cathay cinema in Dhoby Ghaut on the midnight of 27 April 1957, coinciding with the Hari Raya Puasa celebrations. The film’s success spawned two other sequels by Cathay-Keris Productions and other films of the same theme by its competitor Shaw Brothers, thus establishing the horror genre in the local film industry.
A pontianak, according to Malayan myth, is a vampire and the ghost of a woman who had tragically perished during childbirth. The spirit appears as a beautiful woman who entices her victims before turning into a ghastly creature and attacking them. The Pontianak series is based on this legend. The first film, Pontianak, begins with an abandoned child, Chomel, who grows up into an ugly hunchback. She consumes a magic potion and transforms into a beauty – on the condition that she never tastes human blood, otherwise she will become a vampire. Unfortunately, in an attempt to save her husband from a snake bite, she tastes blood and becomes a pontianak. She is a beauty in daytime, but becomes a vampire at nightfall and kills many people in her village. She can only be stopped when a nail is put through her skull.
Pontianak was originally slated to be screened at the Cathay for only two days before being distributed to smaller cinemas. However, the film was so well received that it even appealed to the Indian and Chinese communities – a first for a Malay film. A possible reason could be that the film was released in both Malay and Chinese versions. It was screened in major cinemas for almost two months, an unusual occurrence for a Malay film at the time. On 13 May 1957, the last day of its screening at the Cathay, lead actress Maria Menado was given an award for her “outstanding performance” as the titular character. The film was also dubbed into Cantonese for viewing in Hong Kong audiences, and subsequently into English for American television as an entry for the Asian Film Festival.
In 1953, famous Indian director Balakrishna Narayana Rao, more popularly known as B. N. Rao, was specially recruited to join Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Productions. By 1957, however, he had left to join Cathay-Keris, where he soon began work on Pontianak.
Rao quickly followed the success of Pontianak with two sequels: Dendam Pontianak [Revenge of the Pontianak] also released in 1957, and Sumpah Pontianak [Curse of the Pontianak] (1958). The trilogy set the benchmark for the horror genre in the local film industry.
Pontianak launched Menado’s career, who came to be known as the most beautiful woman in Malaya, making her ghostly role as the pontianak even more impactful. S. M. Wahid, who only played the minor role of a satay-seller in the films, began a career in comedy following the popularity of his screen character. Wahid’s screen name in the Pontianak movies – Wahid Satay – subsequently became his stage name. Menado’s then husband, Abdul Razak, was the scriptwriter for all three films. The series featured the music of Zubir Said, who later became known as the composer of Majulah Singapura, the Singapore national anthem.
The Pontianak trilogy used trick photography, makeup and even humour unique to this horror series. The realistic makeup in Pontianak was commended, although it restricted Menado’s facial movements.
The success of Pontianak and Dendam Pontianak, both produced in 1957, spurred the more established Shaw Brothers to do a similar series. Thus Shaw produced its own trilogy of pontianak-themed films – Anak Pontianak [Son of Pontianak] (1958), Pontianak Kembali [The Pontianak Returns] (1963) and Pusaka Pontianak [The Pontianak Legacy] (1965) – all of which were directed by Filipino Ramon Estella.
The Pontianak films by Cathay-Keris registered several firsts in Singapore: Pontianak is the first Malay film to be dubbed into Mandarin, while Sumpah Pontianak is the first local CinemaScope (wide-screen) film. In 1964, B. N. Rao made Pontianak Gua Musang [The Pontianak of the Cave], the last of his Singapore-made Pontianak films.
Subsequently, other films about the pontianak were made, including Roger Stutton’s Pontianak (1975), Shuhaimi Baba’s Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam I (2004) and its sequel in 2005 and Yusof Kelara’s Pontianak Menjerit (2005).
Although Pontianak established Cathay-Keris as a strong player in the local film industry, the fallout between its partners, Loke Wan Tho and Ho Ah Loke, led to the loss of this important film. Ho eventually gained the rights to the film, but subsequent screenings were prohibited because Menado was at the time married to the then sultan of Pahang. In frustration, Ho threw away the original film reels.
1. Page 9 Advertisements Column 2. (1957, April 26). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Barnard, T. P. (2011). Films of change in early Singaporean film history (p. 46). In Y. Michalik (Ed.), Singapore independent film. Marburg [Germany]: Schuren. Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 SIN; Barnard, T. P. (2008). The Shaw Brothers’ Malay films. In P. Fu (Ed.), China forever: The Shaw Brothers and diasporic cinema (p. 165). Call no. RSEA 791.43095125 CHI.
3. Millet, R. (2006). Singapore cinema (p. 45). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet. Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 MIL.
4. Groom, P. (1957, May 18). The truth about Pontianak. The Singapore Free Press, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Barrie, S. (1957, May 3). A hag to beauty then kampong vampire. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Millet, 2006, p. 124; Mustafar A. R., & Zaini Yusop. (2012, October 9). Pontianak (1957). Retrieved September 29, 2014, from Filem Klasik website: http://filemklasikmalaysia.blogspot.sg/2012/10/pontianak-1957.html
6. Barnard, 2011, p. 46; Mustafar & Zaini, 9 Oct 2012, Pontianak (1957).
7. Millet, 2006, p. 124.
8. Barnard, 2011, p. 46.
9. Page 12 Advertisements Column 2. (1957, May 13). The Straits Times, p. 12; ‘Pontianak’ cup for Maria. (1957, May 14). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Barnard, 2011, p. 46.
11. Rajadhyaksha, A., & Willemen, P. (1999). Encyclopedia of Indian cinema (p. 1994). London: British Film Institute. Call no.: RART 791.430954 RAJ; Millet, 2006, p. 44.
12. Chen, J. (2012, October 29). B. N. Rao – Man behind the Pontianak. Retrieved September 27, 2014, from Ghetto Singapore website: http://www.ghettosingapore.com/b-n-rao/
13. Millet, 2006, pp. 44–45, 52–53; Chen, 29 Oct 2012, B. N. Rao – Man behind the Pontianak.
14. Mustafar & Zaini, 9 Oct 2012, Filem Klasik.
15. Millet, 2006, p. 126; She was Pontianak. (2005, August 3). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Chia, H. (1987, November 17). Mr Marikita: Shy, humble and well-loved. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Groom, P. (1957, May 6). A new café pest. The Singapore Free Press, p. 4; Barrie, S. (1957, May 2). Old is new in fashion. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Millet, 2006, pp. 45, 125, 133, 135; Chen, 29 Oct 2012, B. N. Rao – Man behind the Pontianak.
18. Chinese films by Cathay in Singapore. (1959, June 20). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Millet, 2006, p. 45; Chen, 29 Oct 2012, B. N. Rao – Man behind the Pontianak.
20. Millet, 2006, p. 45.
21. Barnard, 2011, pp. 47–48.
The information in this article is valid as at 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.