Saturday, October 21, 2023

Ren pi deng long (1982)

... aka: 人皮燈籠
... aka: 인피등롱
... aka: Das blutige Geheimnis (The Bloody Secret)
... aka: Human Lanterns
... aka: Human Skin Lanterns
... aka: Yun pei dung lung

Directed by:
Chung Sun

Egotistical, mule-stubborn and ancestrally wealthy Master Shu Ai Lung ("Liu Yung" / Tony Liu) and his demure wife, Lee Ching (Tanny), are invited to a lantern unveiling / banquet at the home of his long-time rival, Master Fu Tan (Kuan-Tai Chen). Not content with just rubbing it in Shu Ai's face that he's recently acquired a lantern that took six months to construct, Master Tan has another thing to publicly reveal: Local prostitute Yen Chu (Linda Chu) has been secretly having an affair with Shu Ai. The two men get into a verbal altercation and trade insults, which ends with an angry and humiliated Shu Ai storming out. In order to one-up his competitor, Shu Ai decides he's going to win the upcoming Lantern Festival by whatever means necessary. He goes to the old drunk (Ching-Ho Wong) he usually gets his lanterns from, who reveals that he hasn't actually been making them himself and has been purchasing them from somewhere else. That leads Shu Ai to the home and workshop of the real lantern maker, Chun Fang Chao (Lieh Lo - THE POSSESSED)...

It turns out that Master Lung and Chun Fang also have a history. Seven years earlier, they were both competing for Lee Ching's affections and got into a swordfight (initiated by Lung), which left Chun Fang both heartbroken and physically and emotionally scarred. He has since moved to the outskirts of the city and into a large old abandoned mill, where he's been anonymously perfecting his craft ever since. Master Lung pleads with him to forget the past and forge a mutually-beneficial union with him. In exchange for helping him win the festival, Chun Fang can finally come out of the shadows and reap the financial benefits of being celebrated for his artistic skills.

Prostitute-mistress Yen Chu reveals that the only reason she betrayed her lover was because he refused to marry her and make her one of his official concubines. That will all soon be a non-issue when an extremely agile skull-masked killer with furry boots and clawed paws shows up and kidnaps her. He drags her back to an underground lair, ties her to a pole, sinks an axe blade into her skull, drizzles molten silver into the wound and then skins her alive. With Yen Chu now missing, Constable Poon (Sun Chien) and his men start looking into matters. Local gossip implicates Master Lung in her disappearance since witnesses saw the two of them arguing the night prior. As a result, Master Lung's reputation takes such a hit that no one in the village wants anything to with him. Making matters worse, Poon posts guards outside his home to keep tabs on him at all times.

The elusive killer, and I'm not revealing any big secret here plot-wise since it's revealed early on, is master lantern maker Chun Fang, who's been driven mad due to his tragic past and social isolation. Now he's delighted to be able to kidnap and mutilate his female victims, drown town drunkards in vats of blood and decapitate villagers with shovels and string their severed heads up like lanterns overnight to terrorize the denizens of Phoenix City. His main objective though is to construct beautiful lanterns using the most soft and supple of human flesh, which, of course comes from young female victims. After he kidnaps and kills Master Tan's hunter sister, Ching-Hua (Hsiu-Chun Lin - PORTRAIT IN CRYSTAL), Tan is put on the radar of the investigators himself. Lung and Tan constantly being at each other's throats is something else Chun Fang is able to use to his advantage.

This is one of the most popular, and viewed, titles in Shaw Brothers' extensive horror catalogue; second only to THE BOXER'S OMEN (1983) in popularity going by the current stats on most movie websites. It's easy to see why this one has endured. Fast-paced and entertaining, this is filled with loads of bloody, expertly-choreographed action / fight scenes, which are sometimes in slow motion, utilize a lot of stunt and wire work and often bring in nifty weapons, like razor-sharp hooks, fans made of blades and a giant golden axe. In addition to that, there's quite a bit of gore thrown in, including decapitations and two pretty graphic skinning sequences. Add Shaw's usual pristine production values and high quality photography and you've got a film that's also quite easy on the eyes, though this one's not quite as bold and visually imaginative as some of their more colorful efforts.

As is usually the case, the film's Achilles heel is the script. What little story there is isn't always engaging and centers around the expected soap opera-style conspiring and backstabbing between the main characters as they run around trying to kill each other while giving their best evil mastermind impersonations ("Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!"). Some story elements, like assassin Szu-Yi Kuei (Meng Lo) dragged into the fray to try to kill Master Lung, are not here because they're crucial to the central plot but because it's an easy way to set up even more action set pieces. On the plus side, the story here is at least coherent, which one cannot say for many other Shaw productions.

One thing that detracts somewhat from the fun are the uncommonly unlikable characters. There's no one to root for here. Asian genre films are often (rightly) championed for letting the female cast members play as much a part in the action as their male counterparts, but that's not the case here, where they're around simply to look pretty, show some flesh (in more ways than one!) and die. Only Ching-Hua puts up anything resembling a fight and even then it's not much. The two smug "masters" (even our "hero") are both arrogant assholes, with only veteran Lieh Lo getting to make much of an impression as he camps it up in crazy mode. He, Chu and Chen would all be reunited for the HK / Thai co-production THE BLACK MAGIC WITH BUDDHA (1983), the following year, which was also directed by Lo.

The cast also includes brief appearances by Teresa Ha Ping (brothel madam), Lao Shen (innkeeper), Susan Yam-Yam Shaw and Fei Ai (CURSE OF EVIL) (banquet guests) and many other regulars in other Shaw productions. The director mostly worked in the realm of action / martial arts but also made a few other genre films like The Devil's Mirror (1972), FANGS OF THE COBRA (1977) and Revenge of the Dead (1981).

This wasn't widely available here in America until an English-subtitled DVD was released by Celestial in the early 2000s. The film was re-released numerous times on the same label and one of the releases came with a 58-page guide to Shaw Brothers films from Total Film. In 2022, there was a Blu-ray release from 88 Films, which comes with a commentary track, interviews with Chu and Shaw, a profile on male star Liu and other extras.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Errand, The (1980) [short]

Directed by:
Nigel Finch

At some gated top secret military post, Captain Garrett (Edward Kalinski, who was apparently dubbed by Andy Milligan movie regular Berwick Kaler) is tapped for a special assignment. A warrant officer tells him he's just going "out for a spin," while his superior (Peter Howell) informs him that it's "little more than an errand." Nothing to get all worked up over. He's to drive into the country and retrieve some papers and then return. Simple as that. After arriving at his destination, a crumbling old home out in the middle of a wheat field, he meets up with a suspicious-acting female contact (Philomena McDonagh), retrieves an envelope and starts to head back to his Land Rover. Immediately after realizing someone has tampered with his vehicle, a man with his face painted black (Brian Attree) jumps out of the backseat and starts garroting him with a wire. Garrett is able to temporarily distract the attacker with a wrench blow to the head but as soon as he exits the jeep, the woman contact shows up and starts attacking him with a knife, landing a few good stabs to his midsection. The terrified and confused Captain then takes off running down the road with his assailants in hot pursuit.

Though able to elude his attackers in the woods, Garrett is now severely injured and out in the middle of nowhere. He's also without transportation as the assassins circled back around and stole his jeep after they were unable to locate him. A weakened Garrett ends up falling over by a road. An old man riding a bicycle spots him and crouches down, as if to administer some help. Nope! He steals Garrett's watch and raids his pockets instead. Mustering up just enough strength to drag himself to a nearby farmhouse, he's met with a mixed response from Maurice (Ray Roberts) and Sarah (Dorothy Alison) Clemens, the elderly couple who live there. While she insists they "get rid of him" and suggest they "take him down to the road and dump him," Maurice refuses to mistreat a dying man.

Refusing to involve herself in the situation due to a similar bizarre occurrence she and her husband observed earlier, Sarah jumps in her car and takes off, leaving Maurice without a vehicle. He instead promises to go retrieve help by foot, but just as he's preparing to go Sarah returns with Lieutenant Barnard (Timothy Morand), who claims he and his men have been out looking for the fallen soldier. Along with him are some other military officers and a couple of doctors, at least a few of whom look awfully familiar.

While 28-minute short looks cheap and grainy (not necessarily a bad thing), the locations are good, the atmosphere is there, the score is eerie and it's entertaining and well made, though the twist at the end (which at least adequately explains nearly every character's peculiar behavior) is a bit predictable. This was written by self-described "prolific hack writer" David McGillivray, who not only has a fine sense of humor but is also well known to us classic horror lovers for writing some of Pete Walker's best films, like FRIGHTMARE (1974), House of Whipcord (1975) and THE CONFESSIONAL / House of Mortal Sin (1976). McGillivray was also one of the executive producers.

Director Finch's most lasting work would be as a producer on Jennie Livingston's documentary Paris Is Burning (1990), which chronicles the New York City drag subculture, was met with widespread critical acclaim and a boatload of awards and was selected as important and culturally relevant enough to be preserved in the National Film Registry in 2016. He also made a Stonewall (1995), a dramatization of the events leading up to the Stonewall riots which sparked the gay rights social movement. That film was released after the director sadly passed away from AIDS in 1995.

The Errand made the rounds at film festivals (including the Chicago International Film Festival in 1981) before vanishing into obscurity. It's recently been remastered and given a second chance at life as the ninth and final short included in BFI's 2 disc "Shock Sharp Shocks" Blu-ray collection. Preceding it on the set are Lock Your Door (1949), The Reformation of St. Jules (1949), THE TELL-TALE HEART (1953), Death Was a Passenger (1959) and PORTRAIT OF A MATADOR (1959) on disc 1, and Twenty-Nine (1969), THE SEX VICTIMS (1973) and THE LAKE (1978) on disc 2. Even though this one isn't bad, The Lake is the only short from the set that I'd consider mandatory viewing for horror buffs. Of special interest in the special features is A Crazy, Mixed-Up Kid, a great 43-minute interview with McGillivray. This is also given script and short story galleries.

BFI followed their first set with a second: "Short Sharp Shocks: Vol. 2" in 2021. It includes the shorts Quiz Crime No.1 (1943), Quiz Crime No.2 (1944), The Three Children (1946), Escape from Broadmoor (1948), Mingaloo (1958), Jack the Ripper with Screaming – Lord Sutch (1961), The Face of Darkness (1976), Hangman (1985), The Mark of Lilith (1986) and one I'd already seen and reviewed here prior to that release: THE DUMB WAITER (1979), which I'm sure looks a hell of a lot better than the copy I ended up viewing!

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