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Monday, April 15, 2013

Fearful Interlude (1975) review


Wang Chung (Li), Szu Wei (Zhou), Liu Lu-Hua (Wang), Lin Wei Tu (Zhang Songen), Wang Hsia (Detective Wang), Kang Kai (Song Li-he), Chen Shu Yi (Pei Fang), Liu Hui Ling (Feng Zhen), Jennifer Liu Ya Ling (Feng Ying), Wong Ching Ho (Shun Lai)

Directed by Kuei Chi Hung

***WARNING! This review contains nudity***

The Short Version: This minor effort from Kuei Chi Hung bears a title that's an apt description of its contents. Built around 45 minutes of an abandoned production the director began working on in late '74, this 'interlude' is stretched to feature length via the anthology format. The second story is the best, while the third -- the aborted feature -- is the most polished of the trilogy. Sporadically effective, the stories deal with two men spending the night in a spooky mansion; a young man's dead mother returns from the grave; and a period tale about a horny young scholar and his servant encountering ghouls on his way to take an imperial exam. Even for Shaw fans and those of the underrated director, this lower tier terror tale is like your favorite Chinese food -- it leaves you wanting more not long after you've digested it.

This anthology presents three tales of horror -- the first is about a haunted house and a bet between three men. The second depicts an old woman who haunts her son after death; and the third concerns the ghoulish encounters of a young man and his servant lost within a fog enshrouded forest. Ghouls, ghosts and hopping vampire zombies populate these three doom-laden yarns.

Kuei Chi Hung was among a clutch of Hong Kong filmmakers that never quite got the recognition they deserved outside of Asia; or even a lasting impression in their home territory for that matter. His versatility is spotlighted in a few dozen films during the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Only in Hong Kong could a director formulate critically acclaimed works such as THE TEAHOUSE (1974) only to balance the spectrum the same year with supreme sleaze like THE KILLER SNAKES. By comparison, it would be akin to Martin Scorsese following up BOXCAR BERTHA (1972) with LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972).

To put the film being reviewed into context, 1974 also saw the release of Kuei's intriguing semi-vampire spooker GHOST EYES and the spectacularly lowbrow VIRGINS OF THE SEVEN SEAS. 1976 had the directors brutal take on STRAW DOGS in the form of KILLERS ON WHEELS and his uniquely baroque segment in HOMICIDES: CRIMINALS 2. Wedged in between these (and others) is FEARFUL INTERLUDE. And that's exactly how this movie feels -- like an interlude -- a simplistic piece of entertainment bridging a more epic composition.

FEARFUL INTERLUDE is harmless fluff, although not recommended for children. Gore is kept to a minimum (mostly just moldy corpses and a bit of bloody violence in the second and third stories), but there's also a good amount of nudity found in the last segment. 

Asian anthologies never seem to have wraparound segments, and this picture is no different. Things get started with 'The Haunted House'. It's basically a condensed, modified version of the Italian Gothic horror classic CASTLE OF BLOOD (1964). Li and Wang make a bet with their friend Zhou they can survive an entire night in his great grandfather's spooky estate. Of course, things don't go so well for the two friends left alone in this creepy domicile with a murderous former resident

The screenplay by Szu Tu On skimps on certain details (such as a book Wang is reading about a haunted house that contains details that happen for real; and the reasons Zhou's great grandfather was beheaded is never revealed), but finds time to cram a couple of twists into this 20 minute creeper. One of these twists -- as absurd as it is -- feels inserted last minute resulting in this poetic justice motif ending on an ambiguous note in relation to the alleged spectral evil lurking within the house.

Not to disappoint those expecting it, the typical haunted house tropes are also accounted for -- creaking doors, hidden passageways and ominous footsteps are heard around the house. The crew also did a fine job of making the mansion set look decrepit and suitably decayed. Had some things been expanded upon a bit more, we'd of had a much better segment to kick things off with. As it stands, 'The Haunted House' is adequate, with a modicum of suspense, but nothing worth spending the night in a big creepy mansion for. Compared with the other two, it's mediocre at best.

The second story in Kuei's trifecta of fear is the best of the three and definitely turns things up a notch. It's a poignant, and very sad tale about a mother and son who live on top of a mountain where they grow and sell flowers in the village below. Both mother and son have a strong bond between them. One day the mother gets seriously ill. Before she dies, she tells her son that after she's gone, she'll come back to keep him company -- literally.

Titled 'The Cold Skeleton', it refers to the bond of love being broken after death -- that the returning spirit means harm to those who loved them when they were alive. This is a fascinating bit of superstitious folklore that fits well within the isolated, sporadically situated hovels in and around the hill-capped regions of Southwest China. It's also interesting to note that Szu Tu On's screenplay counters the superstitions of the villagers by inserting some psychological banter by way of a young intellectual who claims that Songen must surely be suffering from somnambulism; that it is he who is digging his mother up!

Lin Wei Tu (LEGEND OF LUST, THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN) is exceedingly believable as the lovelorn son distraught over his mother's death. That he keeps having to bury her again and again (she rots more and more each time she comes back) drives him to the point of insanity. But is she really coming back, or is it all in his mind?

This story lasts a little over 30 minutes and would have made a solid character study if stretched out to a full length feature. The score is solemnly haunting and the cues perfectly chosen. Made up of piano and violin, there's also a modified version of a Morricone cue from THE ROVER (1967) included. A fine piece of filmmaking, it's a love story at its heart, albeit a bleak one. With that said, Kuei (who has orchestrated some truly grotesque scenes of brutality) cannot resist inserting a gruesome scene even here; punctuated by a grim coda that may bring a tear to your eye.

'A Wolf of Ancient Times' is a period piece, and one that is of interest on a few levels. It's about a brash, bucktoothed young master who gets lost on his way to take an imperial exam. Perpetually horny, he desires to have sex with a female ghost -- apparitions of the opposite sex have great respect for scholars according to him. Both he and his much wiser servant happen upon an isolated mansion situated near a graveyard. The young man believes this home to be owned by spiritual entities and upon entering, he takes every opportunity to ogle and fondle the beautiful daughter of the house. When things don't go quite the way he expects (the inhabitants turn out to be quite human), they're lashed dozens of times then thrown out.

Moving on with not only hurt pride, but also a hurt backside, the impertinent fool and his servant end up encountering a pit of snakes and a severed head in a stream! With the fog growing more and more thick, they are found by an old woodsman who takes them back to his small home where he lives with his two beautiful daughters. 

Up to this point, 'A Wolf of Ancient Times' has been an erotica laced comedy similar to the period sex films of the renowned Li Han Hsiang. During its last ten minutes, the story morphs into full blown horror capped off with a bit of cruel irony. It's also an early look at China's unique hopping vampire-zombie creatures that wouldn't become de rigueur till the 1980s. These peculiar creatures were utilized throughout the 70s in numerous other Asian horror films, but these offbeat bloodsuckers caught on in a huge way with the release of MR. VAMPIRE in 1985.

What makes this segment of special interest is that it's a comedy horror piece. As far as Shaw Brothers are concerned, their horror output was always of a serious nature. It would be five more years before comedy and horror (as well as kung fu) would become a uniformly successful box office formula with Sammo Hung's SPOOKY ENCOUNTERS (1980).

In addition, this segment originally started in late 1974 as a full length feature under the working title of THE SEX WOLF. To speculate, Shaw, or possibly Kuei felt this film wouldn't work as a stand alone feature and decided late in the game to shoot two more segments and turn it into an anthology. It actually works quite well in this format. This also wasn't the only time Shaw films were aborted, or recycled as part of another movie. Despite a static first segment, the other two have some additional qualities lying under the surface.

The first story is the weakest, and most commercial of the three. The second and third are of the most interest mostly because of the subtext buried within them. Both these yarns are striking dichotomies of one another presenting opposing views of societal archetypes -- superstition versus modernization. The second story shows traditionalism to be both outmoded and dangerous in lieu of psychological advancements -- that those who cling to superstitious beliefs isolated from the industrialization around them can have dire consequences.

The third story, however, presents the same scenario, but subverts it to show intellectualism embracing folklore as factual. The student is so obsessed with sex, he believes that intercourse with a ghost will be a satisfying conquest simply because some scholarly author had written about it. However, the young master scoffs at his elder servants wish for him to wear an amulet to protect him from said evil spirits. The way the film plays out, the young student does have his ghost-lore correct, but is misguided in his initial assertion. This story also presents a polarizing view of societal classes -- that things are not always what they seem whether you're rich or poor

Many Asian horror films of this vintage were very heavy-handed in the treatment of the material, often opening and concluding as a morality tale warning the young, easily influenced, and the desperate of the consequences of their actions. This third story teeters on that, but again, it's left as an underlying theme that's never made explicit.

The music score heard here is specific to each tale and they all fit nicely. The score of the first story suits the haunted house motif and some of these tracks will be recognizable from other Shaw horror pictures. The second is of a decidedly more melancholy design that likewise suits the material. The third being a period set story, the music is of the traditional Chinese style. Some of these Asian flavored cues also turned up in the classic HEROES OF THE EAST (1978).

Taken as a whole, the film is a minor footnote in the career of its director. It's merely a product that entertains for 94 minutes. FEARFUL INTERLUDE offers up some curious themes and ideas that aren't sufficiently realized nor do they ever allow the film to rise above average. The second story alone is enough to recommend this; although upon first glance, causal viewers may not find a whole lot to be fearful of.

The FEARFUL INTERLUDE poster image seen above from this site HERE.

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