Human Lanterns (1982)

HumanLanterns_GoldenSwallow_SC36Before 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.

Human-LanternsAs 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.

human-lanterns-2_webFang 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.

lantern25The 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.

lantern17Human 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.

Hunting Halloween, Part 1

While things moved around and clicked and cackled over the last week or so, I would find myself with some time, but not a lot of time, or if it was a lot of time, it was at the waning end of a long day, So what to do with that time? Watch movies, but not have time to write about them. That’s the cartoon snowball rolling down a mountain and growing into a giant all-devouring globe of hungry ice that is my life.

I’m staring down the barrel of beginning of a new writing project in the next week or so – in fact, the first step of that was what rolled over my Sunday. So pretty soon, my time for staring at a blank piece of virtual paper is going to be spent in the service of another master. Sorry. But this one will be paying me money.

So I better write about that growing list while I still can.

First there was the run-up to Halloween.

In any book or article about Hong Kong movies in general, or Asian horror movies in particular, you’re going to run into Black Magic (1975) a lot. This was an attempt to catch the wave of Western horror that was sweeping the markets in the wake of The Exorcist, a movie that moved HK cinema beyond ghost stories and into the land of the extreme. Black Magic kicks off a cinematic trend that would eventually lead to outrageous stuff like Centipede Horror and Seeding of a Ghost. As I started exploring Asian cinema in the early 90s, I had to take what I could get, so Seeding was one of my first experiences; it’s no wonder that Black Magic seems tame by comparison.

It starts strongly enough, with our Black Magician slicing off pieces of a corpse (handily stored in his hut) and burning them in a ritual to send a death spell at a philandering husband and his lover. Our White Magician shows up at the murder scene, immediately deduces who did this horrible thing, and starts a spell that sends horrible things back at Black Magician, who manages to escape while his hut collapses and burns.

Well, enough of that, though. In the big city, a youthful Ti Lung plays an architect who is being stalked by an incredibly horny (but rich) widow played by Lily Li. Ti wants nothing to do with her though, planning to marry his sweetheart. When a spurned gigolo (played by Lo Lieh, no less) hires the Black Magician to put a love spell on Lilly so he can get his hands on her money, Black accurately sizes up the Gigolo’s character and only applies a one-night spell. Lilly forces the Gigolo to tell her about the Black Magician, and visits him to place the Architect under her spell for a year. The love spell is applied on his wedding day, and Ti leaves his bride at the reception.

When the spurned bride and Ti’s friends try to find out what the hell is going on, Lilly pays the Black Magician to put the Death Hoodoo on the bride; Her landing in the hospital, her body riddled with parasitic worms leads an old retainer to remember the White Magician of his youth. White cures her by ramming a bamboo straw in her back so the worms crawl out (ew), and the battle for Ti Lung begins in earnest.

The trappings of the various spells are intriguing: pieces of corpses, human breast milk, centipedes (White has the best line when Ti Lung is recovering from his first bout of bewitchment: “Feed him these centipedes in the morning. He’ll come to his senses for a while.”). The structure is a bit repetitive, though, with Ti under the spell, then rescued, then put under the spell again, to pad out the running time. The climactic battle between the Black and White Magicians is supposed to wow you, of course, with Black pulling out all sorts of skull mirrors and a rotting head that shoots green laser beams, but all it really does is convince you that William Girdler saw it while working out the ending for The Manitou all cartoon ray blasts and lightning. As the first of its kind, it commands some respect, but make sure you see it before any of its weirder and grosser and more insane progeny.

Next up was Ravenous (1999) yet another movie on my list of Stuff I Hadn’t Seen But It Was High Time I Did. In its heyday, it had lots of Internet buzz, many of my friends positively love it, I’ve had this copy forever. So. Time to watch it.

Ravenous is a deuced odd movie.

Disturbed Mexican-American War veteran Boyd (Guy Pearce) is exiled to Fort Spencer, a remote, ramshackle frontier outpost populated by damaged individuals. He arrives just in time for a horror story from a bedraggled refugee  (Robert Carlyle) whose wagon train, trapped in winter storms, turned to cannibalism. The commanding officer (Jeffrey Jones) states, rightly enough, “This is what we’re here for,” and leads most of the fort – five men – to investigate. Things go rather downhill for everyone from there, and half the fun of Ravenous is watching these berserk circumstances develop.

I had a general idea of the subject matter and how the story would develop (and as two of the characters at the Fort are Native Americans, you just know the Wendigo legend is going to pop up); but what I wasn’t prepared for was how it developed. The Wendigo legend states that whenever a man turns to eating the flesh of another man, this is all he ever wants, forever. Another thread of cannibal legend – that by eating another person, you gain their strength and vitality – is also laden all through the movie, and presented as absolutely true – characters are saved from mortal wounds by the rapid healing engendered by a diet of long pig. That kind of caught me unawares.

It was like watching that episode of Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos that presents voodoo black magic, including voodoo dolls and zombies, to be absolutely real, which is not the sort of thing you expect in a children’s cartoon. That sort of disconnect.

(Where else can you find a discussion about cannibalism, Chuck Norris, and cartoons? The Internet, ladies and gentlemen!)

It is amazing Ravenous exists at all, given the oddness of the story, and its troubled history. The original director was sacked two weeks into production and replaced by Antonia Bird, largely a TV director, who rises to the challenge magnificently. I daresay having a woman at the helm helped to punch up the black comedy quotient quite a bit, because this is truly what this is: jet black comedy wrapped in a horror movie masquerading as a Western. I can’t say I love it as much as my friends, but it is a unique movie, well worth seeing.

Saturday morning belonged to Drive Angry (2011), another movie that had gotten good buzz. As I recall, I bought this Blu-Ray at a Black Friday sale last year for $5.00.

And finally, here is a movie I can be enthusiastic about.

Nicolas Cage plays the appropriately named John Milton, a hardass felon who breaks out of Hell because the Satanic cult who murdered his daughter is now planning to sacrifice his infant granddaughter during the next full moon. Milton teams up with Piper (Amber Heard). a similarly hardass ex-waitress who’s not afraid to throw a punch or shoot a gun. Besides the apparently limitless number of murderous cult members standing in his way, there’s also the small matter of a demon named The Accountant (William Fichtner, who is having a grand time) sent to bring Milton back to Hell. Fortunately, Milton also stole an arcane weapon called The Godkiller…

It has been a long time since I’ve seen a movie like this deliver on all its promises. Action-packed, dripping with sardonic humor, gory, loud, profane. Why in the hell this movie was not a bigger hit is beyond me, but then I also have to admit that my tastes are somewhat more rarefied than that of the rest of the movie-going public. The fact that its smart enough to give Tom Atkins an extended cameo only enhances it in my eyes.

If I have two cavils about Drive Angry, it’s these: the movie seems to owe a debt to author Richard Kadrey’s punk-occult-neo-noir Sandman Slim novels; and the sex-during-a-gun-fight scene was done in one of my other favorite stupid over-the-top action movies, Shoot ‘Em Up. Then, Hollywood has always rather been like Ravenous, anyway: constantly eating its dead. So why I should be surprised to find DNA from other movies is a measure of my naiveté, I suppose.

Anyway, yeah, I dug Drive Angry. Much better Ghost Rider movie than either of the flicks bearing that name.

I haven’t even hit Halloween yet, and we’re already over 1500 words. We’ll leave on a high note, and pick this up later.