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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Xi shen bao chou (1983)

... aka: 撞鬼
... aka: 喜神報仇
... aka: Attack of the God of Joy
... aka: Attack of the Joyful Goddess
... aka: Attack of the Venoms
... aka: Five Venoms Attack
... aka: Ghost, The
... aka: Zhuang gui

Directed by:
"Chang Chih" (Cheh Chang)

According to the opening scrawl, the "joyful goddesses" of the title are doll props used in traditional Chinese theatrical productions. According to tradition, the dolls are not to be placed facing upright in trunks or else disaster will occur. After a bit of kabuki theater featuring elaborate costumes, dancing, flipping, jumping, hair whipping, overuse of a fog machine, sword play, blood and a real chicken having its neck twisted and head ripped right off we're whisked away to the Spring Breeze Teahouse in "a (nameless) small southern country" (this was filmed in Taiwan) where a Chinese opera show being put on by a traveling troupe of Hong Kong actors is taking place. From here, the story becomes so convoluted and involves so many different people that the plot breakdown I'm about to provide may be even more confusing for you to read than it was for me to write. You've been warned.

The powerful Commander Tam (Yung-Hsiang Chin) shows up and is instantly smitten by the graceful, delicate actress performing on stage. Embarrassingly for him, it is theater tradition to have men play the roles of female warriors and the actress he's just been admiring is actually Choi-Won Yu (Sheng Chiang); a heavily made-up, effeminate man in drag. He immediately swings his affections over to Yuk-Yung Fa (Bi Fung Chen), the troupe's sole female member, whose beauty is admired by most of the tea house's male employees. However, Yuk-Yung has been the inseparable childhood sweetheart of the troupe's most handsome actor, Yuk-Lau Bak ("Li Chung-I" / Chung-Yi Li), so she's not exactly on the market. Not that the Commander cares about any of that. He's powerful, rich and is used to getting whatever he wants.









Commander Tam invites scheming theater owner Fung-Sang Suen aka Big Boss (Shih Chen) and his actors to his home for dinner, where he offers up a gold watch to his actress crush. She tries to refuse it but is forced to take it as not to offend him. Big Boss is then pulled aside by the Tam's chief henchman Chu (Yun Lan) and informed that if his female star doesn't submit to the Commander then none of them will leave town alive. He gives the director 100 dollars for his assistance. Big Boss then goes to Yuk-Yung with the proposal but she quickly shuts him down ("I'm an actress, not a prostitute!") When her boyfriend finds out what's occurred he threatens Big Boss and then he becomes even more enraged by his flamboyant male co-star, who's always hitting on him. Yuk-Lau demands he be replaced. Thinking he's getting a bit too big for his britches and knowing the Commander may make good on having them killed, Big Boss decides he needs to have Yuk-Lau silenced.

As not to implicate just one or two of them, Big Boss and the show's director, Kam-Kuai Cho ("Lu Fong" / Feng Lu), devise a scheme where every member of the troupe must take part in Yuk-Lau's murder. They stage it during a bloody show before a live audience as a prop knife is replaced by a real one, Yuk-Lau is stabbed once on stage, carried off backstage and then strangled, suffocated in a sack and stabbed by each and every member of the troupe to ensure everyone has blood on their hands. Literally. The only member in the know unwilling to take part is Tiger Ngai ("Lee Chien-Sheng" / Chien-sheng Li), a struggling young bit part actor Yuk-Lau befriended. However, they snatch him up, put the knife in his hand and force him to take a jab, too. This all goes down while an oblivious Yuk-Yung is on stage performing. His body is hidden inside a trunk before they relocate it beneath the floorboards.









Meanwhile, servant girl Chan (Chung-Fei Hsu) flips a joyful goddess upright in a trunk, a mistake that gets her bitch slapped by den mother Madam Fuk (Yin-Shang Liu). As a result, Chan goes mad and starts walking around alternating between acting like a giddy child and being in some kind of zombie-like trance. An examination by a doctor shows that she's somehow managed to get herself pregnant despite being a virgin. As the pregnancy rapidly advances (she's like 9 months along just days later), Big Boss instructs Madam Fuk to get rid of her. Late one stormy night, she tries to do just that when the crazy girl is conveniently struck dead by lightning! That enables Big Boss and the other guilty actors to frame the dead Yuk-Lau for her rape and murder. And just like that, they've successfully covered up their murder. At least as far as the authorities are concerned. Yuk-Yung still doesn't believe he had anything to do with it and continues to reject Commander Tam.

Yuk-Lau's vengeful ghost returns for revenge. The actor picked to replace him as the production's lead warrior "Phoenix" dies on stage from a minor fall. And then two more members of the troupe are found dead: one hanging by flimsy strands of paper, the other stuffed in a trunk along with a doll. The group perform an exorcism ritual that doesn't look much different than their usual stage shows and involves (admittedly impressive) acrobatics, dance, incense, fire and a large paper vase. It's unsuccessful.






Top-billed "Chen Tien-Su" / Ricky Cheng Tien-Chi appears at around the fifty minute mark as Yuen-Hing Siu, a new actor / expert knife thrower unwittingly brought onto the cursed show. During a performance, the ghost hits his hand and makes him throw his dagger into his co-star's throat. The ghost then kills two defectors in a graveyard, using its intestines (which he shoots out of an open wound in his stomach) as a weapon! Several characters suffer from hallucinations (including a large doll hand bursting out of the pregnant girl's stomach) and, at one point, the joyful goddess grows to large size, levitates out of its trunk, floats over to an altar and then pisses all over it (!?)

Not weird enough yet? Just wait until the last ten minutes when a supernatural brawl erupts during a stage show at the commander's home. A man is chased around a room by a levitating couch, stuffed deer head, miniature sail boat and fruit bowl (!!) before being hung by a ceiling light fixture. War paint forms over the actor-warriors faces before they do battle with armed guards. Gunshot wounds and sword cuts heal themselves and the dead are resurrected as a zombie army. The ghosts of some earlier victims return, including the gay diva, who transforms into a female vampire with huge fangs, claws, an Exorcist tongue and stretchy arms. A fire eater's head explodes and his body evaporates. A man is dissolved by white foam. A corpse turns into a paper doll. And the doll itself turns into a fighter who shoots blue lasers out of her fingertips, spits acid, fights with a fire hoop and blows people up. As if this isn't disorienting enough already, it's shot with constant fog, poorly-done jump cuts and time lapse effects and kaleidoscopic red, green and blue flickering lighting. Yow.









Still not strange enough? Well, this is also so homoerotic that it could probably take on new life as the FREDDY'S REVENGE of Hong Kong kung fu movies. The portrayal of the flaming queen, who wears gowns and heavy make-up, speaks in a high-pitched / whiny girl's voice and hits on basically anything in pants with no discretion whatsoever, could certainly be viewed as offensive. However, the camera otherwise spends an awful lot of time lingering on good-looking, bare-chested young actors while the few female characters (including the lead) are always conservatively-dressed and pushed off into the background.

The guys never button up their shirts and always seem slathered with baby oil. The male characters come on to one another and jokingly hit on each other. Ricky Cheng's character walks around shirtless with suspenders holding his pants up, invites the gay queen to his room for drinks so he can scare him and is constantly shown suggestively sucking on the tip of his daggers (!?) And then there's Yuk-Lau's heartwarming relationship with bit player Tiger. You kind of just have to see it unfold and watch their scenes together, but let's just say he gives him more loving glances, and touches him more, than he does his own girlfriend. At the end, Yuk-Lau is proudly standing shirtless next to his "amigo" in the afterworld perfectly content seeing his woman walk off with another man. Was this fully intentional or was someone dealing with some unresolved sexuality issues here? I guess we'll never know.













I have no clue how to rate this one. On one hand, I would call this something of a misfire... only I have no clue what they were even shooting for in the first place. It makes little sense, has too many things going on at once, too many characters and cheap-looking sets, poor editing and highly variable (and typically pretty damn bad) special effects. On the other hand, it's filled with Shakespeare references, usually pretty entertaining and interesting (even the backstage drama has moments to enjoy) and has plenty of off-the-wall nonsense going on at most times. The costumes are great, it's unpredictable and, though there is less action than in many similar films, it kind of makes up for that with all the gymnastics. You could very well hate this one and I would fully understand why. Then again, you could be like me and find just enough to latch onto to make it all worthwhile.

The director (who also produced and supervised) is perhaps the best known director to ever work for Shaw Brothers and has a number of classic film titles on his resume, including The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), The Brave Archer (1977), The Crippled Avengers (1978), The Five Venoms (1978) and the delightfully bloody Five Element Ninjas (1982), which enjoyed frequent U.S. TV airings under the title Super Ninjas and was one of my favorites as a kid. Chang was also tapped to co-direct Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), a bizarre kung fu vampire collaboration between Shaw and the then-on-the-decline British Hammer Studios. Goddess marked a split between Chang and Shaw as he and some of his frequent collaborators, including several Five Venoms alum, went on to form a new production company called Hong Kong Chang He Motion Picture Co. Ltd. This was the new company's first release of around half a dozen.


Goddess didn't set the box office on fire back in the day and is seldom viewed nowadays, despite being easier to find than a number of other similar films. It was first given a VHS release by Ocean Shores in the early 80s under the title Attack of the Joyful Goddess. It later made the DVD rounds under the new title Attack of the Venoms. By that name, it was released on a 2005 double feature DVD with Monkey Fist, Floating Snake (1980) by EastWest and then made its way onto another double feature DVD as part of BCI/Eclipse's "Kung Fu Theater" line. There, it was paired up with Men of the Hour (1977; aka: Black Hercules vs. Yellow Tiger).

Though the print I viewed from online distributor Digital Media Arts / Asian Crush, which is in Mandarian with English subtitles, lists only Chang as director in the credits, many sources also list stars Feng Lu and Sheng Chiang as additional directors. That's entirely possible, though they are officially credited only as "action directors," along with Cheng. There's also an English-dubbed version available on the market that renames all of the characters but that's probably best avoided.

1/2

Films by country: Norway


NORWEGIAN HORROR [1950-1990]

Like in most other countries, the Norwegian film industry sprung up in the early 1900s, with the first short (about fishing) produced in 1907, the first silent feature filmed in 1911 and the first sound feature made in 1931. What there wasn't much of until here recently was horror films. The first genre film didn't crop up until the late 50s but at least it was a good one: director Kåre Bergstrøm's wonderfully-shot and eerie De dødes tjern / "Lake of the Dead" (1958). While it was a success in its home country (and later subject of a 2019 remake), it wasn't distributed here in America nor in most other countries and failed to build up any kind of reputation over the years outside of Norway. Following that, I could find just one horror film from the 60s (Klokker i måneskinn, also from Bergstrøm), one horror film from the 70s (Et lite grøss?; listed on IMDb as a TV miniseries) and two horror films from the 80s, one of which (Noe helt annet / "Something Completely Different") was a vampire comedy and the other, Apprentice to Murder, a Canadian / U.S. co-production starring Donald Sutherland that was filmed in Norway but shot in English.


In addition to the above was a late 80s video collection of four amateur, camcorder-shot gore films from someone named Jon Christian Møller, who is probably akin to a Nordic Todd Sheets. These have enticing titles like Cannibal Massacre and The Norwegian Drillbit Massacre and were self-distributed on the label "Videogore Inc." complete with xeroxed black-and-white cover art. While most certainly awful, these are possibly the very first Norwegian horror films made specifically for the video market and I certainly wouldn't mind them being leaked online so I could at least take a look.

Many later Norwegian films have had crossover commercial appeal here in America, like the Dead Snow (a revival of the Nazi zombie theme), Cold Prey and Dark Woods series'. Director André Øvredal is another recent success story. After receiving a lot of attention for his found footage mockumentary Trollhunter (2010), he came to America to make the well-received The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) and then the Guillermo del Toro-produced wide release Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2018).

__________________________________________________


1950s

- Lake of the Dead (De dødes tjern) (1958; Kåre Bergstrøm) ▼



1960s

- Watches in Moonlight (Klokker i måneskinn) (1964; Kåre Bergstrøm)


1970s

- A Little Horror? (Et lite grøss?) (1974; Bob Williams, Kent Nilssen, Henning Mankell, Bernt Christian Middelthon) [TV miniseries?]


1980s


- Something Completely Different (Noe helt annet) (1985; Morten Kolstad) ▲

- Apprentice to Murder (1988; Ralph L. Thomas) [co-Canada, USA]
- Cannibal Massacre (Kannibal massakren) (1988; Jon Christian Møller) [SOV]
- I Hate You (Kill or Die) (Jeg Hater Dere (Drep Eller Do)) (1988; Jon Christian Møller) [SOV] [short]
- Norwegian Drillbit Massacre, The (Den Norske Drillbor Massakren) (1988; Jon Christian Møller) [SOV] [short]
- Oslo Terror (1988; Jon Christian Møller) [SOV]


__________________________________________________


TOTAL:
8

NOTES:
- While Et lite grøss? is listed as a miniseries on IMDb, the fact it has four different directors and the "episodes" they directed hints that this was some kind of short-lived anthology TV show.
- The 1978 3-part TV miniseries Blindpassasjer ("Blind Passenger") is a potential entry. Based on what I've read, it's a whodunit set in space. Many viewers have commented they they found it scary.
- I'm leaving off the 1987 film Turnaround (dir: Ola Solum) for the time being. While it was marketed as a horror film, many viewers claim it's not. I'll decide whenever I watch it.
- Oddvar Bull Tuhus 1976 "thriller" Angst (aka: Anguish) involves a babysitter receiving strange phone calls. It may qualify.
- The 1972 film Et Forlatt Hjem / "An Abandoned Home" features a detective investigating the titular residence and is described as "chilling" on a Norwegian film site. Also a possibility.
- I've ruled out Bortreist på ubestemt tid / "Away Indefinitely" (1974) after skimming through it. While it involves a man killing his wife, putting her body in the freezer and then deciding on what to do with said body (he eventually opts to hide it in the concrete foundation of a house being built) it's mostly mild suspense / drama.

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Questions? Comments? Additions? Send me a note below.

Manden der tænkte ting (1969)

... aka: Czlowiek, który wymyslil zycie (The Man Who Invented Life)
... aka: Dr. Holst fantasztikus esete (Dr. Holst's Fantastic Case)
... aka: Mannen som tenkte ting (The Man Who Thought Things Through)
... aka: Man Who Thought Life, The
... aka: Mies joka pohtii elämää (The Man Who Reflects on Life)

Directed by:
Jens Ravn

Renowned brain surgeon and psychiatrist Dr. Max Holst (Preben Neergaard), who works at a state mental hospital and specializes in the central nervous system, receives a phone call from colleague Robert Klausen (Lars Lunøe). An older man was found wandering around a bridge and behaving like a madman so he was picked up by police and then involuntarily committed to the hospital. Robert informs Max that the man - who goes by the name of Steinmetz (John Price) - claims to know him and refuses to talk to anyone else other than him. The name doesn't ring a bell, but he assumes it's a patient from long ago that he's forgotten about. Upon arriving at the hospital, he realizes that's not the case. He has no clue who this man is.

Steinmetz has already broken hospital rules by sneaking in cigars and cognac (both forbidden there) but just how did he possibly sneak that stuff past the hospital staff? He claims that he's been following Max and his work for awhile but refuses to give any further details. And he claims to be perfectly sane and tries to coerce Max into signing his release; promising to show him "a new science" and "a world you could never even have dreamed of" if he helps. Dr. Holst instead decides to keep Steinmetz right where he's at until he can examine this man further.

Soon after, the bizarre patient manages to vanish from his room despite his door being locked and there being bars over the windows. Nothing seems to have been tampered with. The cigars and cognac which were taken away from him earlier are back on the table. A mysterious duplicate key that has to no reason to really exist is found hanging from the lock. A note is left behind for Max. Steinmetz urges him to meet him at a bridge at dusk. And to come alone. Max decides to take him up of the offer and finds Steinmetz waiting for him on the bridge with a chauffeured car.









During the ride, Steinmetz reveals that he knows all about Max, including when he was born, that he's an orphan, that he was part of the Resistance during his youth, that he studied in America and that he's divorced from his first wife, has no children and is now dating young actress Susanne Plesner (Lotte Tarp). Steinmetz takes him to his home, where he finally shows him some of what he was blathering on about in the hospital. Max sees with his own eyes how Steinmetz is able to create a box of cigars simply by concentrating and willing it to happen. In other words he has created a tangible object using only his mind.

However, the rational, stubborn Max is a little difficult to convince. He initially assumes Steinmetz is a hypnotist who has somehow put him in a trance. Steinmetz promises to prove otherwise, but on two conditions: One, he's never to tell anyone else about any of this. Two, he's to perform brain surgery on him. He's even "willed" himself the most high tech operating room imaginable, which is tucked away in his home; hidden behind a secret door in the wall. Max's refusal to cooperate soon has Steinmetz tossing niceties out the window ("You'll do what I tell you to!") but things will get much worse than Max ever could have imagined.









Steinmetz has managed to unlock parts of his brain that the rest of us cannot access. However, his ultimate goal is to be able to use his mind to produce organic matter; life itself. His sights are especially set on creating a human being. He's already managed to create three mice, but each of them has dissolved into thin air after a short while because he can't maintain the level of concentration necessary to keep them. Hence his desire for the surgery. Max remains resistant, prompting Steinmetz to start stalking him and using his powers to mess with both his mind and his memory, which starts to have a detrimental effect on his career, studies and relationships.

Steinmetz's approach to coercion is so abstruse yet so potentially devastating, Max has to no choice but to keep dealing with him on a continual basis. He arranges for him to get a new apartment, which gets Max out of his tiny hospital apartment, gets Susanne away from her nosy, bitchy landlady and finally allows them to live together. However, word keeps getting back to Max about things he's said, things he's done and interactions he's had with various people that he has no memory whatsoever of. As it turns out, Steinmetz is mind-creating a doppelgänger of Max to cause chaos and confusion in his life... and the copy is actually much more agreeable than the real thing! His "better half" if you will.









The double cashes his paychecks, takes his identification and belongings, does his job better, gives more passionate, persuasive speeches, starts wearing suits, puts on a more "respectable" clean-shaven face for the world at large and even has a healthier relationship with his girlfriend! Soon enough, everyone thinks he's the impostor and the double is him, which gets him arrested for "stealing" his own car. Max breaks out in time to crash the wedding reception only to realize that no one, not even his former lover, believes he is who he says he is. They prefer the new and improved Max. Steinmetz also informs him that he no longer needs his assistance as he's managed to sustain the length of his creations long enough to just have the double do the surgery. Max now finds himself without a job, money, a home, friends, a girlfriend... Will there be any way for him to get his life back again?









This was a Palme d'Or nominee at Cannes in 1969 and then fell into obscurity almost immediately afterward. So how in the hell does something this good just get swept under the rug and then forgotten? Doesn't anyone care? If I had to venture a guess I'd say this all boils down to the sci-fi and horror elements both being very understated and the absence of marketing gimmicks. It's simply easier to sell an audience special effects, fantastical creatures and more overt horrors than it is to woo them with technical proficiency and subtle psychological mindfuckery. There's no violence, no monsters, no elaborate visual effects (the only effect is a split screen used so Max and his double can share a single shot) and no overt shocks in this one.

Instead, we get an intriguing story that hooks you right from the start, an understated creepiness and superb direction, production design, lighting and grainy black-and-white photography. The art direction is purposeful, amazingly uncluttered and quite striking in its restraint. The architectural designs are very eye-catching throughout. Parallel lines, various geometric shapes and symmetry are all used creatively within shots to arresting effect. There's tasteful use of zoom shots (often pulling back from mirrors, windows and doorways) and blurred images plus lots of pans, tracking shots and gliding back and forth between people and things. From a visual standpoint, this maintains total interest throughout but it's also very interesting content-wise. There's plenty of food for thought in the strong, thought-provoking script plus excellent acting from the two male leads.




The cast also includes Kristen Rolffes (The Kingdom) and Elith Pio (Häxan). This was based on a 1938 novel of the same name by Valdemar Holst. The English-language title ("The Man Who Thought Life") seems more than a little bit awkward at first but makes perfect sense once you watch the entire film. Translations of the other European release titles give us slightly altered versions of that like "The Man Who Thought Things," "The Man Who Thought Things Through" and "The Man Who Pondered Life." There was a digitally remastered DVD release through Palladium Film.

★★1/2
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