Sunday, January 29, 2023

Ye zhi ji (1980)

... aka: 鬼圖
... aka: 夜之祭
... aka: Devil Design
... aka: Ghost Map
... aka: Gui tu
... aka: Ritual of the Night

Directed by:
Pan Yung Min

1276 China in the setting for the lengthy (nearly 40 minutes long!) prologue. Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, is in the middle of expanding his Yuan dynasty deep into China and ruthlessly massacring any detractor along the way. Though the Mongols have been generally successful, pockets of resisters from the Sung dynasty have sprung up all over. General Ku-Shah (Ying Bai) is tasked with finding these people and killing them before they can pose a threat to Yuan. Upon completion, he's been promised a special reward: Royal marriage to a princess. A battle between Mongol and Chinese armies finds the former easily winning after slaughtering the Chinese troops and decapitating their leader (Chun Ku). The Mongol forces then ride on until they locate an abandoned village and settle there for the night.

There, Ku-Shah and his deputy, Ha-Tou (Han Hsieh), have an interesting conversation about how their spiritual beliefs seem at odds with their constant killing. To Ku-Shah, war is an "inevitable necessity to achieve one's ends" and the creator has made all men to fill predestined roles. God's chess game has but one king and his loyal men. Everyone else is meant to be "dispensable" and thus were created solely to die, which makes it perfectly fine to go around slaughtering them. They're not dead people. They're "destroyed objects."

The arrogant warriors in the midst of celebrating their victory are about to face their comeuppance as the destroyed village they end up in happens to be haunted by the evil spirits of those they'd previously slain. A lumpy-faced, cackling female ghost shows up and men are slashed, impaled with bamboo poles and forced to commit harakiri. Another has his own hand possessed a la Evil Dead 2 (only seven years earlier), which then attacks him and forces him to sever it, yet continues to live on. The Mongol warriors killed return as clawed, hopping vampires in wonderfully atmospheric scenes filled with lots of wind, backlighting and fog. Eventually, all of the Mongolian troopers are either killed or flee, but the narrator informs us that some of them will live on as evil spirits themselves.

We jump ahead 300 years to the Ming dynasty. The country has been led into turmoil due to a corrupt king, a drifting away from Buddhism toward amorality and the rampant use of black magic. The site of the Mongol warrior murders is now the village of Yen-Poi-Yi, which has been haunted by the ghost of Mongol warrior Ku-Shah for the past three centuries. As a result, the village has dwindled down in population considerably and there are only a handful of people still living there. With the arrival of an exorcist comes renewed hope and people start moving back there by the droves. Elder Uncle Lee (Hsiang-Ting Ko) suspects these new arrivals are phonies, especially after they ban mute orphan Lien-Hua (Doris Lung Chun-Erh), whose parents have been killed by the demon, from their festivities due to her presumably being bad luck. Uncle Lee is correct.

While the white-haired exorcist puts on quite a show for the villagers with a lavish parade, chicken blood, fire, smoke, acrobatics and giant spell papers, he's easily blown up / killed by the ghost of Ku-Shah. Everyone flees the village once again, leaving even fewer people than before. Just when things don't seem like they could get any worse, Yen-Poi-Yi is stricken with the plague, killing many of the stragglers. However, traveling monk Ou Ming (Chun Shih) arrives just in time to help. Ou Ming has made it his life's mission to re-introduce Buddhism to the people of China and thus save their souls. He orders all corpses and contaminated materials burned, even if that does upset some of the locals, then concocts an effective vaccine that saves everyone else. After he helps them repair their damaged homes. the sound of playing children laughing is heard around the village; a sign of hope that a new era is about to begin.

Ou Ming has decided that his direct path to Buddha and his final task will be to take on the Ku-Shah demon, thus freeing the tortured, murderous spirit from limbo and setting Yen-Poi-Yi on a path to recovery. In preparation, he shaves his head and then meditates while Lien-Hua gives him a full body tattoo, which will act like a suit of armor during battle. However, he's fully aware going in that this battle is most likely to cost him his life regardless. Sigh. The things we must do for Buddha.

Imperfect, poorly paced and heavy-handed at times, this is still a pretty neat little film which fuses history, religion, war, horror and drama. One thing it is decidedly not is a martial arts or action film as it's categorized on many websites, so don't go in expecting such. Despite the low budget, it's fairly well-made, has its heart in the right place, is often extremely atmospheric (particularly the first half hour) and also boasts some surprisingly creepy distorted sound design and synth music, which may have been stolen from other sources. There are issues with the editing throughout. Some scenes appear to have been clipped short, which may be due to only a heavily-damaged print being available to view. We'll perhaps never know for sure. The chances a 40+ year old Taiwanese genre movie is going to be fully restored at this stage of the game is slim.

Long-forgotten and seldom viewed these days (as of this writing, it doesn't even have the 5 votes necessary to clock a score on IMDb and has just two ratings [including the one I just sent in] on Letterboxd), this was released theatrically in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand and distributed on VHS in a number of countries. There was a U.S. mail order release from World Video & Supply Inc. in 1990, but it didn't come with English subtitles and was falsely promoted as Hong Kong action when it's Taiwanese horror-drama. I also found a Korean video and this was probably also released on VHS in Hong Kong and / or Taiwan. I'm not exactly sure where the English subtitled print came from.


Saturday, January 28, 2023

Chill Factor, The (1989)

... aka: Demon Possessed
... aka: Fator Calafrio

Directed by:
Christopher Webster

The pain begins almost immediately in this amateurish regional production as inappropriately lighthearted fantasy music spills out over the opening credits and unnecessary opening narration from one of the lead characters, which not only telegraphs her fate but also the fates of every other person in this film, plays over grainy slow-mo shots of snowmobiling. Our six primary characters are lead by insecure blonde whiner Jeannie (Dawn Laurrie), who complains about everyone being "smarter than me" and can't believe she's lucked out in dating the equally dull Tom (Aaron Kjenaas), "a college boy so handsome I could have died." Tom's future brother-in-law Chris (David Fields) is in his final year of medical school (something at odds with his affinity for drunken snowmobile riding), while Ron (Jim Cagle) has just been drafted for training camp by the Minnesota Vikings. 

As for the females, they apparently have no real aspirations aside from acting jealous and catty over these eligible bachelors they've sunk their claws into. Karen (Connie Snyder) is Tom's sister and engaged to Chris, but that doesn't quite explain the flirting and sexually-charged banter between the siblings nor the fact he casually rubs his hand up and down her ass in broad daylight... in public... in front of everyone else. Another character later observes that this behavior is "a natural brother / sister thing." The hell it is!

As for the third female character, this is where we get into even more problematic territory indicative of both the era and the place (rural Wisconsin) in which this was filmed. Before we even meet Lissa (Eve Montgomery), the narrator alludes to her by noting that Ron "got engaged to a black girl." When the three couples then stop by a bar for a beer, they get harassed by a local slob who refers to her as Ron's "nigger girlfriend." A character later refers to her as "dark meat" and then her own fiancé listens to her humming and sighs, "I'm in love with the only black girl who sings off-key!" You may be wondering why they'd even bother casting a black actress if all they were going to do was shine a spotlight on the fact that, yes, she is indeed black, but it all makes sense later on when the film needs someone to explain voodoo to everyone else.

After the competitive brothers get into an argument about who's the better snowmobile driver, barmaid Bessie (Bekki Vallin) suggests they go to a two-mile-long frozen lake bed called Black Friar Lake to have a race. There, Tom is seriously injured when he's thrown from his vehicle and hits his head on a tree. Knowing he'll die if they can't get him out of the 20 below temperatures soon, they look around and manage to locate an abandoned, boarded-up old lodge. After breaking inside, they're forced to spend the night due to the weather, nightfall approaching and the unconscious Tom, who's suffered a severe concussion in addition to possible spinal damage and internal bleeding, cannot be moved. The fact he's lost so much blood prompts Ron to make a go at leaving on one of the snowmobiles.

Further exploration of the old building reveals it was a former church camp. The are pews, crucifixes, bibles, an altar, multiple bleeding Christ statues and black-and-white photos of previous campers from way back in the 1950s with an ominous scroll saying "Keep the beast in the field." Apparently at some point, Satanists infiltrated the camp and took over. Not that these people seem to care all that much.

Karen finds a strange "game" with a circular board and a pointer. A OUIJA? Not exactly. Lissa explains it's actually a "Devil's Eye;" a tool commonly used by voodoo practitioners to communicate with the dead. So, yeah, basically a OUIJA. To work this one, everyone has to sit in a circle, put two fingers on the board and touch hands together with the person sitting next to them in order to talk to the spirit. Even though they're in a dire situation dealing with their dying friend in a very creepy setting, they're so bored they decide to give the device a whirl and unleash an evil force that sets in motion a series of supernatural killings.

Someone gets possessed, a cloaked figure prowls around and people are killed off in ways that include a neck slashing via barbed wire, a hanging, getting chopped up by fan blades in a walk-in freezer and an icicle through the eyeball. There are also a couple of hilariously inappropriate PG sex scenes. Would you sneak off to a bedroom and bang your boyfriend with your brother on his death bed in the very next room? And would you have sex with your significant other if they were almost dead one minute, had all of their wounds miraculously and inexplicably healed the next and then was acting extremely weird and saying all kinds of inappropriate things right after you've been trying to summon the dead? Well, the folks in this film certainly don't seem to mind!

There are a couple of OK things here, namely the setting and a somewhat amusing finale featuring a human vs. demon snowmobile chase that ends in someone getting blown up after being crushed under an ATV's snow tracks, but the film is pretty forgettable otherwise. The characters are all bland, the plot is thin and predictable, the pacing is slow, there's limited gore / fx work and both the dialogue and the acting are awful. The only other thing worth pointing out is the film's bizarre aversion to nudity despite the filmmakers' insistence on constantly showcasing the actresses in various states of undress. All three of the lead females strip off multiple times and we get gratuitous cleavage, side ass, side boobs, smooshed boobs, silhouetted boobs, bare backs and shoulders, bras and panties and close-ups of asses in skin tight pants, yet the film amazingly somehow manages to not have a stitch of actual nudity in it.

Director Webster had produced the first two Hellraiser films prior to this and would go on to produce two additional genre films; Trapped Alive (1988) and The Inheritor (1990), for the same short-lived production company (Windsor Lake Studios) out of Eagle Rock, Wisconsin. Afterward, he moved on to the film production wing of Fangoria magazine to produce Children of the Night (1991), Mindwarp (1991) and Severed Ties (1992).

Most reference books and many websites list this as a 1993 release (the same year it made its VHS debut courtesy of AIP under the new title Demon Possessed), but it supposedly received a brief limited / regional theatrical release in 1989 first. In 2019, Arrow Video released it on Blu-ray, which comes with commentary and / or interviews with stunt coordinator Gary Paul, line producer Alexandra J. Reed and special effects artists Jeffery Lyle Segal and Hank Carlson.

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