Before I descend into the madness of another Movie Challenge Month, I should probably talk about one of the movies I did manage to watch during my burnout from the last one: Human Lanterns, a piece to 80s horror nastiness from the Shaw Brothers. It is on The List, after all.
When the craze for Asian movies started up again in the 90s, I was right there with it, searching out movies in an age when the Net was just starting out and a person in my position had to make do with books, magazines, and mail order. I still have a ton of VHS tapes in boxes in my garage, most of very iffy quality and downright scurrilous sources. But one of the movies spoken of as a sort of HK video nasty was Human Skin Lanterns, later amended to Human Lanterns. And here it is, in my hands, in a pristine DVD.
A company named Celestial Pictures started putting out remastered, gorgeous DVDs of the Shaw Brothers back catalogue in the early 00s, and again, there I was. The American Dollar was very strong against the HK dollar, and I was importing close to 20 discs a month for under $200. There were movies I thought I would never see in my lifetime, movies familiar only in their cropped, dubbed versions on Saturday afternoon TV, and movies I took a chance on and was rewarded handsomely.
As all good things must, the contract I was working on at the time ended, and I was back to my duller, more financially strapped state. But then domestic American editions of the Celestial discs began appearing, and look, there it is in my hands: Human Lanterns. With the Image Entertainment logo.
So here’s your plot: There are two kung fu bigshots in town, Tan (Chen Kuan Tai) and Lung (Tony Liu). There is the usual rivalry between the two, but the difference here is that both men are real douchebags, and their antics are the sort of things that make their friends look away uncomfortably. Their latest achievement is wrecking a party at Tan’s over a prostitute both men frequent.
The upshot of the evening is that both men swear they are going to win that year’s Lantern Competition, and Lung journeys to the town’s market to find out who has really been making lanterns for Lung in past years – the merchant he actually pays for them doesn’t have the skill. To his surprise, Lung discovers this masterful lantern maker is none other than Fang (Lo Lieh), a man Lung beat in a duel seven years before, leaving him with a facial scar and a brooding hatred.
Lung beseeches Fang to let bygones be bygones, to make him a truly beautiful and unique lantern that will beat Tan’s entry. In return, Lung promises riches and a way out of the hovel in which Fang lives and works. Fang agrees, as this is the spark that will power a vengeance seven years in the building.
Fang begins by kidnapping the aforementioned prostitute and skinning her alive. There are gorier instances of this in genre cinema, but this particular version is low-tech and pretty nasty. Tan and Lung cast suspicions on each other for the woman’s disappearance, and the local policeman (Sun Chien) is pretty ineffective, as in all horror movies.
Fang continues his plan apace, eventually kidnapping Tan’s younger sister, and finally Lung’s wife, who we discover was the cause of that duel seven years before. Things build to a massive kung fu fight and a fiery finish, which only one of the characters will survive.
There are, as I said, gorier movies of this sort, but Human Lanterns manages to be unpleasant in its own, personal ways. Thankfully, we only see two of the women being skinned, but Fang, in the full throes of his villainy, has to rape the woman who caused his defeat and disfigurement. We never see Tan’s younger sister go through this, only Fang’s gleeful playing of cat-and-mouse with her in his hellish underground workshop. We entertain a bit of hope that she might still crop up, unharmed toward the end… but no. This is a horror movie, a slasher film in period garb. Don’t let the accouterments of an action movie fool you.
There is a special kind of chill when Lung finally finds that underground charnel house and sees the completed lanterns, and is held transfixed for a moment by their beauty, not realizing that the one he is admiring features the “beautiful red mole” on his wife’s back that he so treasured.
The cast is quite good. Chen Kuan Tai, a superb martial artist and star of many a Shaw Brothers blockbuster, seems pretty wasted in his role; Tony Liu is given much more screen time and fills it well enough, but neither of these men are given any way to truly gain audience empathy; the only people we feel for are the victims. Poor Sun Chien never got a break – we always see him playing second fiddle to other members of the Venom Gang, and here he has to play the Asian version of Barney Fife.
Lo Lieh was a very versatile performer; he could certainly handle hero roles – witness King Boxer/Five Fingers of Death – but where he really excelled was playing villains, and Human Lanterns gives him more than adequate atrocities to sink his teeth into. While doing his wetwork, Fang wears some sort of hairy ape suit with a skull face ,and watching this figure, swinging through the trees, loose-jointed and cackling, is pretty chilling.
Human Lanterns has its share of fight scenes, but none are dynamic enough to cement the movie as a kung fu flick – and the horror segments are memorable enough, but often seem imported from another movie. It’s an odd creature to be sure, worth a watch from horror fans, but probably not action-packed enough for martial arts mavens.