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