"Gusto ko man o hindi, nandun na eh. Hindi ko naman ipinagyayabang, pero kung binibigay sa akin yung titulo na ‘Horror Queen of the Philippines’ eh tatanggapin ko na lang.”
An icon of Pinoy television and cinema passed away on Saturday, August 20. Dubbed the "Queen of Philippine Horror Movies," Lilia Cuntapay, 80, succumbed to a spinal cord illness. You may or may not have heard about it because unlike her contemporaries, there was no grand funeral or extensive media coverage.
Nanay Lilia was the quintessential "yung babaeng yun" of Philippine Cinema. Though a bit player in almost all of her films, she's probably one of the most recognizable faces ever caught on film. But when someone asks you what her name is, you'll realize you actually don't know. Antonette Jadaone's Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (2011) revolved around this fact.
Lilia Cuntapay was first discovered by film directors Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes for Shake, Rattle and Roll II (1990). Before she was in show business, Nanay Lilia was a school teacher in Tuguegarao, where she hails from. After teaching, she went into the buy-and-sell business and eventually had different desk jobs, including a stint at the National Police Commission. She was supposed to be just an extra in the background but Peque and Lore were so impressed with how authentic Lilia looked that they allotted her more than a bit player's usual screen time. As Direk Peque himself said, "Hindi siya parang aswang eh. Aswang siya!"
With her long gray hair and toothless grin, Lilia Cuntapay had a hair-raising look that soon became her trademark. When asked about her legendary mane, she said: "Every month ko pinapaputulan ito. ’Di ko po kasi afford bumili ng maraming shampoo. Humingi [pa nga] nito si [fellow actor] Mon Confiado."
Some people might find it offensive being told that they look like a witch, but Lilia Cuntapay reveled in it—heck it was one of her most indelible legacies. For most millennials like myself, Shake, Rattle and Roll III in 1991 was probably our first memorable encounter with Nanay Lilia, where she played an evil spirit that's haunting Kris Aquino's daughter. There's even a scene in the movie where they had her hanging on top of a moving car as Kris and her daughter try to flee their house. (According to Nanay Lilia, she does her own stunts.) Her portrayal in Shake III made me deathly afraid to be left alone—so my yaya had to accompany me EVERYWHERE.
In the years to come, the actress would appear in countless horror movies and television shows. You all remember the yearly Halloween special of Noli De Castro's Magandang Gabi Bayan, right? As a kid who didn't care much about the news and Noli De Castro, it was my only reason for watching that show. Nanay Lilia would always play the role of the witch or the white lady so convincingly in the story reenactments that I distinctly remember having nightmares about her as a child.
But if you think she had it easy because all she needed to do was look and act all scary (which didn't seem to be that hard for her), well that couldn't be farther from the truth. According to showbiz lore, Lilia Cuntapay was the consummate professional, arriving a bit earlier than her call-time so she could rehearse her lines and get into character. As a bit player in movies, she also had to deal with the bureaucracy that big-time actors are spared from. She once recalled that there were many times when those in the production would slash her pay or replace her with a different actress minutes before the shoot was to begin. She was supposed to have a role in the movie the Bourne Legacy and talked to the director himself. But she was supposedly scrapped from the movie at the last minute by the local casting director.
Nanay Lilia in a gray hair-off with Bubble Gang's Tata Lino
But she was also no one-trick pony, appearing in other local productions where she didn't have to scare the wits out of people. She'd done comedy (Enteng ng Ina Mo) and drama (Babae sa Breakwater). She actually had around 40 movie roles and 30 TV roles under her belt. Lilia Cuntapay, believe it or not, also did nude scenes despite her old age. Sure, you're probably wincing at the thought, but it just goes to show how someone who's often relegated as an extra can be dedicated to her craft.
Jadaone's Six Degrees gave Nanay Lilia the recognition she deserved. The old woman was supposed to quit from showbiz but Jadaone was able to convince her to do the mockumentary. It's one of the most unique Pinoy films to come out and it all centers around Lilia Cuntapay. In the movie, she gets nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Award. Although she doesn't win, she gets to have her moment under the sun when she is asked to come up on stage and be recognized.
The film showcased Nanay Lilia's acting chops. She didn't have to be someone scary for a change; she just had to play a fictionalized version of herself. She laughed, cried, and impressed audiences here and abroad. In an example of life imitating art, she won her first Best Actress award for her portrayal of Lilia Cuntapay in the movie.
Lilia Cuntapay in the role of her life
Like most of her movie roles, Nanay Lilia slowly faded away into the background as her health slowly deteriorated. Her last appearance was in Coco Martin's Ang Probinsyano.
She may have never been the star, but nobody else could have done what Nanay Lilia did with the roles given to her. Like Dolphy (the Comedy King) and FPJ (Da King), her contributions to Philippine Cinema will never be matched nor duplicated. I, for one, am forever grateful for having been scared by this showbiz royalty. I'm sure many feel the same way as well. Lilia Cuntapay, will always and forever be known and remembered as the "Queen of Philippine Horror Cinema."
Long live the Queen!
Rey de la Cruz Jr. likes talking about films as much as he likes watching them. He runs www.reyview.org, a site that provides Filipino moviegoers with reviews written in a voice that is uniquely Pinoy.