Thursday, August 29, 2013

Spirit of the Raped (1976) review



Liu Wu Chi (Liu Miao Li), Wong Yu (Chen Ling), Tung Lin (Li Bang), Wang Chung (Wang), Wang Hsieh (Fan Wei Jian), Tien Ching (Rong, head of prostitute ring), Liu Hui Ling (Xia), Li Wei Tu (Chen Liang)

Directed by Kuei Chi Hung

"...When the door to hell is opened, there's no turning back."

The Short Version: One of the nastiest productions from the the directorial hands of Kuei Chi Hung is this tale of vengeance from beyond the grave. Inventive in its gruesomeness, this gory ghoul-ash was the directors last superstition fueled film for a few years; and boy, did he make it count. You'll see numerous bloody instances of ocular carnage before Fulci made it fashionable; a "ghost ulcer" grows into a monstrous head and erupts out of a man's shoulder ala THE MANSTER; and demonic possession and double decapitations are also featured. A final coda masquerades the films sleaze as a morality fable warning against the dangers of greed and deviancy. The lurid title aptly describes the proceedings. It's yet another low budget achievement by the late director.

Two newlyweds and a host of others aboard a minibus are harassed by three hooligans. The young husband is killed while the wife is fated to end up in a string of horrific misfortunes that lead to her eventual suicide. Prior to taking her own life, the distraught woman purchases a red shroud. The superstitious believe that a woman who dies horribly in a red shroud will come back to avenge the wrongs done to her. A short time later, the three men involved in the murder, along with a few other insidious characters, all meet gruesome demises at the hands of the dead woman's vengeful spirit.

Out of all the famous directors that came out of Shaw Brothers studio, Kuei Chi Hung is arguably the most under-appreciated, and least represented on DVD. He rivaled, and, to a degree, surpassed the equally nasty delicacies served up by his colleague Mou Tun Fei. The sort of darkly disturbing movies Kuei made are a testament to his reported tyrannical style of working with actors. To say SPIRIT OF THE RAPED is a vile movie is an understatement especially where this director is concerned; especially when so many of his films fit that description.

This one's not only vile, but the spectral revenge that unfolds is so spectacularly repugnant, you can't help but marvel at the creativity of it all -- thanks to scriptwriters I Kuang and Szeto An. Each segment contains gruesome examples of the aphorism, 'Let the Punishment Fit the Crime'. This isn't an anthology, but by segment I am referring to the episodic nature by which the retribution is meted out. With that said, there are three sets of scum who meet their doom at the hands of the title victim.

The first set are the main antagonists who put the spiritual vengeance in motion -- three small time crooks who make a living robbing random people. On this particular occasion, one of the three commits murder. This portion of the revenge derives the most suspense with some choice camera shots and a nice buildup to the nasty death scenes (including a demon head growing out of a man's shoulder and geyser-ific noggin lopping). This section is the main arc of the film and acts as something of a "framing device" -- familiar to countless anthology movies. The film begins and ends with these three characters.

The second perpetrator is a swindler played by Wang Hsieh; one of Shaw's go-to stable of gruff bad guys (although he did play protagonists at times). His "payment" is possibly the most grueling and disturbing of the entire film. Kuei's fascination with the fish-eye lens is in overdrive during this segment of the movie. The savage ocular violence seen here foreshadows Fulci's fascination with eyeball destruction from the Italian directors horror films like ZOMBIE (1979) and THE BEYOND (1981).

The third is a slimeball named Rong, a low-level prostitute racketeer, and his equally complicit wife. The vengeance visited here is possibly the most outrageous. After being the final nail that sends the poor Liu Miao Li to her death, Rong comes home and finds his wife with an ever expanding stomach. Boils then pop up all over her face while the sound of growling dogs can be heard. She then becomes possessed, eats a bowl of vomit, and chases her husband all over their house. This segment concludes with a satisfyingly gruesome example of poetic justice.

Playing the dirtbag of this portion of the movie, Tien Ching was one of Shaw's most celebrated character actors whenever a movie required top quality, low-level scum. He was extremely good at it, and possessed the perfect look for those sorts of roles. He made a career of it, and can be seen in numerous Chang Cheh movies playing weasels of the highest order. One of his most famous such roles was in Chang's classic THE WATER MARGIN (1972) where he played a scheming philanderer.

Liu Wu Chi was a fine actress, but her performance here as the seemingly perpetual bad luck girl garners sympathy specifically from the constant stream of brutality brought against her person. She's not in the movie all that long, but from her first scene to her last, she's mercilessly oppressed and violated so excessively, one wonders just what she might of done in a past life to earn such suffering. She loses her husband in a cruel manner, her money is stolen, and finally she's blackmailed into a prostitute ring. Rarely has a female character suffered as much as Liu's character, and rarely has the impending vengeance been as satisfying as it is here.

Wong Yu (or Huang Yu) has a role as one of the three miscreants who set the calamity in motion. His character is the youngest, and most pitiable. Superstitions and luck play a big role in his character arc.We never learn how he got mixed up with his two partners in crime, but they obviously have no compunction about killing people while Wong's character shows no interest in it. 

Wong Yu got his first major role the previous year with Liu Chia Liang's THE SPIRITUAL BOXER (1975). He also had a convincing, more effective supporting role in Ho Meng Hua's THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975).

The cinematography of frequent Kuei collaborator Yu Chi is quite effective for what was obviously a low budget exploitation movie; and one designed specifically to satiate an audience hungry for a quick fix. There are a number of nice segues that, while artistic in conception, ultimately prove to be ingeniously crass upon execution. 

For example, one instance of self-mutilation sees an individual ferociously stabbing himself in his extremities. Later, when his corpse is pulled from the morgue slab, there's a bit of (and the only instance of) black humor as one of the attendants notices what looks like a large penis jutting up under the blanket. As the camera pans in on the erect implement still sticking out from the wound, the camera dissolves to an "erect" gas pump hose! 

The script may rely on numerous ways to gross out the viewer, but it also plays on Chinese fears and superstitions. Many of the Asian horrors of this time period were often built around folkloric examples of foreboding horror and SPIRIT OF THE RAPED taps into that. When BLACK MAGIC (1975) proved a major success, numerous other films followed in that vein. Kuei had actually touched on the superstitions of those residing in isolated, rural locales in a segment of his anthology FEARFUL INTERLUDE (1975); which was out in theaters a month before BLACK MAGIC -- only it didn't resonate in quite the same way as Ho Meng Hua's iconic HK horror favorite. However, Kuei did eventually embark on his own string of movies built around the Asian black arts.

Kuei's movie -- like his other squalor driven, sleaze-infested modern day efforts -- posits a city that is rampant with crime and barbarity. Like a lot of Asian genre fare of this vintage, some of Kuei's films (including this one) attempted to justify the graphic nature of the proceedings as metaphoric of societal rot. These warnings against the loss of human values end up feeling out of place and unnecessary in an attempt to suddenly say the previous 80 minutes were really a PSA masquerading as a trashy exploitation picture. Possibly this was an attempt to get more violence passed the censor if they passed it off as a morality tale?

SPIRIT OF THE RAPED (1976) is an efficient gross-out HK horror film whose creativity belies it's low budget. It's a nice bridge for the directors savage crime pictures and his astoundingly perverse horror movies. The level of violence is high, and its over the top insanity foreshadows Kuei's BEWITCHED (1981) and its sequel, the directors magnum opus, THE BOXER'S OMEN (1983). If you've seen some of his other movies, you'll recognize Kuei's signature mean-spiritedness in spades here; along with some experimental touches that allowed his movies to rise above commerciality, but never leave the realm of cinematic insanity.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Payment In Blood (1973) review


Yueh Hua (Fang Chi Kien), Liu Wu Chi (Fang Chow Yuen), Lu Tan (Lt. Chang), Chiang Tao (Deputy), Tung Lin (Hsia Ta), Chan Shen (Hsieh Tai Cheng), Li Ming (rotten toothed thug)

Directed by Kuei Chi Hung

The Short Version: This gritty revenge thriller resembles a big city version of STRAW DOGS (1971) and a bit of the later DEATH WISH (1974). Yueh Hua is on fire as the good Samaritan who puts his life and that of his family in danger upon going to the police after witnessing a brutal murder of a police informer. You'll notice themes from later 70s movies explored here; and Kuei cuts loose in ways that show a director embracing a distinctly brutish style he reveled in unlike any other Asian director from that time period. It intermittently goes off the rails during the finale, but this is definitely a breakthrough actioner for a versatile filmmaker who has been grossly over-looked for far too long.

A police informer is viciously murdered by a gangster. A young mechanic named Fang is the sole witness and puts himself in danger after identifying the killer at a police lineup. Unable to buy Fang's silence, the underworld syndicate goes after him and targets his family in the process. After numerous attempts to kill him, this everyday citizen must become ruthless himself in order to protect his life, and that of his wife and daughter.

Those who know his name associate Kuei Chi Hung with down and dirty HK movies of the crime and horror variety. Before he was unleashed on his own, Kuei worked on a variety of films featuring non-gruesome subject matter; these included a handful of dramas, comedies, musicals and fantasy pictures. After working as an AD for Chang Cheh on IRON BODYGUARD (it's debatable how much, if any of this film he worked on, but Kuei was announced as working with Cheh on the picture [1973]) and THE DELINQUENT (Kuei is billed as a co-director [1973]), he was assigned a film that allowed him to fully traverse the lascivious and loathsome landscapes he carved throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s.

Highly touted was both this film and its director at the time -- and with good reason. Shooting throughout the early part of 1973 under the title of 'Blood Witness', this was Kuei's first stab at a modern day crime thriller. He showed traces of his twisted genius in THE DELINQUENT (1973), but that wasn't all his work -- and when compared with his later films, that picture resembles Kuei's style more than Chang Cheh's as a whole.

From beginning to end, PAYMENT IN BLOOD is all Kuei Chi Hung. It's hard to fathom that the same man who assisted on, or directed movies like THE MONKEY GOES WEST (1966), HONG KONG RHAPSODY (1968) and A TIME FOR LOVE (1970) could helm such violent movies like the one being reviewed and other revolting wonders such as KILLER SNAKES (1974) and SPIRIT OF THE RAPED (1976) to name only two.

The director's signature filmmaking style is cemented here, and remained in evidence throughout his career. You knew a Kuei picture when you saw one. For PAYMENT IN BLOOD, he packs in a number of innovations that defined that style. The ones that grab your attention are his fascination with squalor, criminal elements, grimy locales, nerve-jangling editing, odd camera placement (he had a fascination with mirror or implemental reflections of actors) and a persistently oppressive aura of brutality. The opening murder for example -- Yueh Hua witnesses Chan Shen run over a man four times with his car! Once would have been enough in somebody elses movie, but for Kuei, four times was the charm. Pregnant women, children and pets aren't immune to the heartless cruelty of the villains here, either.

It would be redundant to say Yueh Hua is exceptional here playing the stoic, yet humble mechanic, Fang. He was magnetic in just about everything he ever starred in. But by 1973, he began appearing in movies outside the swordplay spectrum he was most associated with. For this movie, he channels Dustin Hoffman's David Sumner from Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS (1971). However, as Fang, Yueh Hua is a bit less resistant than his American counterpart. He willingly goes to the police to see justice is done by participating in a line-up to point out the killer. This is where his troubles begin. By the end of the picture, Fang has went insane with rage. He turns into something of a modern day Ogami Itto during one sequence where he's surrounded by thugs at a dyeing factory and he obliterates them with the sharp end of a shovel.

Kuei Chi Hung would make a more literate version of STRAW DOGS in 1976 with the rape-revenge movie KILLERS ON WHEELS. That film contains elements familiar with the Biker and Juvenile Delinquent genres of previous decades leading up to the 1970s.

The police are generally perceived as perfunctory players in these kinds of movies. In Kuei's film, the cops have a larger, more cogent presence. Oftentimes the authorities are shown to be virtually useless paving the way for the protagonist to go it alone. Here, the police are almost always close by. Fang is assigned a bodyguard in the form of Chiang Tao's apple loving agent. But it's Fang's stubbornness against being constantly watched and trailed that makes him vulnerable to the villains grasp. 

The bad guys of PAYMENT IN BLOOD are relentless, too. Whether it's sending a large cake box filled with a dozen cobras and other serpents, or rigging a car to explode, these evil people -- who have ties in high places -- will not stop till Fang and his family are lying dead in a morgue, or scraped up off of a highway. The principal characters are unusually well defined and the director gets good performances out of the entire cast.

This was Liu Wu Chi's first starring role. She'd been in a handful of films prior, but this was her first big role playing a housewife whose life is turned upside down once she, her husband and daughter are targeted for execution. She was quite a good actress and her fear displayed during the snake sequences looked and felt palpable. Another notable role for the attractive actress was as Chen Kuan Tai's wife in the classic THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975) from director Ho Meng Hua. She had also signed on to reprise her role in THE FLYING GUILLOTINE 2; but shortly after filming began, she literally left the industry and no one knew where she was at that time.

Perennial villain of a few Chang Cheh films, Chiang Tao had officially signed with Shaw's in February of 1972. He plays a rare good guy here in Kuei's movie as an eccentric policeman. He's assigned to protect Yueh Hua's character at all costs. He gets the best fight scene in the movie when he and Fang battle two of the gangsters in Fang's home and demolish the place in the process. Chiang's character may be a supporting one, but the script carves a good persona for him -- much like everyone else. He doesn't talk much, but loves apples. In many of his scenes, he's seen indulging in a red apple or two. A couple instances of low-key humor are derived from these moments as well.

Just like in a Sergio Leone western, Kuei populates his movie with some memorably barbaric faces. He even shoots much of the film in suitably grubby locales for maximum effect. In all of his modern set productions, Kuei made sure to capture some of the grimiest, scuzziest places in Hong Kong showcasing a city that looked hazardous to your health should you decide to live there. The bad guys living in it reflected this, too. The devious looking Tung Lin (KING BOXER; pictured at top) had a face made for villainy. Ditto for Li Ming (THE BAMBOO HOUSE OF DOLLS) who is seen in the insert photo. He's one of the gangs killers who has a mouth full of rotten teeth and enjoys wielding a cleaver. 

Chan Shen is likely Shaw's ultimate slimy bad guy. He's been in dozens upon dozens of movies. He was extremely loyal to the studio and remained there till his death in 1984. Chan didn't always play villains, though. He did play good guys on occasion -- such as the South Shaolin teacher in Chang Cheh's influential INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN (1978). But it's his antagonists that are the most memorable and he essayed some of the most reprehensible examples of cinematic scumbags the movie world has ever seen.

On the technical side of things, Kuei's picture is filled with frenetic camerawork and some inventive camera placement (most likely the work of Kuei's frequent cameraman Yu Chi-- there are no credits on this German version). There are numerous close-ups and that all important 70s cinematic device -- the zoom in and zoom out. The zooms aren't nearly as excessive as they were in other HK movies of that era.

Lu Chuan's (Shikamura Ito) action choreography is typical modern style, but it's inventive and varied. Grappling, throws and Western boxing are implemented into the fight scenes that often incorporate choppers, wrenches, shovels and guns as weapons of mass bodily destruction. The action itself is spread out all over Hong Kong; from Fang's apartment (there are at least two assaults that take place there), to a back alley, a construction yard, a moving car, a dyeing mill, and a swimming pool. The final shootout takes place at a crowded stock exchange.

Speaking of shootouts, one of the best action scenes is punctuated by a riotous visualization of that classic saying about 'bringing a knife to a gunfight'. It had this reviewer laughing and clapping heartily.

PAYMENT IN BLOOD (1973) premiered in theaters around the same time as Chang Cheh's POLICE FORCE (1973) starring Wang Chung, Wang Hsieh and Alexander Fu Sheng. While Chang's movie felt more like a violent recruitment film for the HK police force, Kuei's movie was far more visceral and better. Both films performed to lukewarm business, but Cheh's picture edged out Kuei's ever so slightly.

PAYMENT IN BLOOD is among the directors best pictures of his career. If there's one area that's lacking it's two scenes where car stunts could have been utilized. But instead of seeing them, we simply hear the crashes. Aside from that, this film is representative of what the man was capable of as well as being the movie that defined his style for the remainder of the decade. It provides a sadistic segue into the wild excess of THE BAMBOO HOUSE OF DOLLS (1973) and the sickening THE KILLER SNAKES (1974); which led up to his bigger success with the CRIMINALS series and on to disgustingly imaginative black magic displays with BEWITCHED (1981) and its sequel THE BOXER'S OMEN (1983). As for his debut crime thriller, it's a shame there's not a better version of the film available.

***A NOTE ABOUT THIS REVIEW: PAYMENT IN BLOOD was not released to DVD in Hong Kong during IVL's five year license with Celestial Pictures. It wasn't announced for release, but is listed on some of the DVDs of Kuei's films as being available from Celestial Pictures. This review comes from a rare German tape in German language only in 1.85 widescreen. There are no credits save for a German main title card. This version runs 80 minutes and appears to be missing bits and pieces here and there so a proper assessment can be made if and when this movie becomes available in a better presentation. Plot details come from vintage HK magazine articles prior to the films release in 1973.***

Monday, August 19, 2013

Shoot First, Die Later (1974) review


Luc Merenda (Lt. Dominic/Dominico Malacarne), Delia Boccardo (Sandra), Richard Conte (Mazzanti), Raymond Pelligrin (Pascal), Gianni Santuccio (Chief of Police), Vittorio Caprioli (Serafino Esposito), Rosario Borelli (Garrito)

Directed by Fernando Di Leo

The Short Version: Crime cinema kingpin Di Leo's grim tale of a crooked cop and all the lives he inadvertently destroys was rarely seen till now. The incorruptible, righteous cop of HIGH CRIME (1973) and other similar movies is corrupt and self-centered in SHOOT FIRST, DIE LATER. An angry, controversial film in its day, its subject matter seems passe in this day and age, but Di Leo's direction is inspired, if aggressively cynical.  

Lt. Dominic Malacarne is a well respected, much loved Milanese cop; a hero to the people, the media, his father and his department. What no one knows is that Dominic is a cop on the take -- employed by the underworld to keep their operations running smoothly. When a minor complaint involving a quasi-neurotic Neapolitan threatens to expose him and his shady employers, a string of tragic events sends Dominic down the path for revenge.

Famed and controversial writer-director Fernando Di Leo has a few genuine classics under his belt like the superb MILAN CALIBER 9 (1972) and its two follow-ups MANHUNT (1972) and THE BOSS (1973). SHOOT FIRST, DIE LATER (1974) can now join those signature works as one of the directors best, and one of the best examples of the genre itself. Previously available via bad quality bootlegs and non-English friendly versions; and never released in pristine quality till now, Di Leo's once rare movie had long been one of the most sought after titles in the Italian crime film canon.

The 'Violent Cop' movies exploded onto the scene when 1973s HIGH CRIME got the ball rolling with no-nonsense policemen battling all manner of scum with guns and excessive force. Maurizio Merli instantaneously perfected this type of heroic figure; but in Di Leo's movie, this sort of civic authority is anything but noble. There are actually a couple of times during the picture where you think Malacarne will redeem himself, but it never comes. 

Whereas Merli's (and other similar roles played by different actors) cop characters battled a flawed judicial system and corrupt officials while trying to make crime pay, Merenda's Dominic goes in the opposite direction. The righteous cop lives a simple life while the self-absorbed Dominic reaps the benefits of his criminality. But in both cases, the ethical and the dishonest eventually implode and crumble by the consequences of their actions -- whether good or bad.

Unlike Merli's signature movies, Di Leo's film isn't technically an action picture. It's interested in being more than escapist entertainment aligning itself more in the company of a film like EXECUTION SQUAD (1971); and, to a degree, THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS (1973) -- which also starred Luc Merenda and Richard Conte.

Luc Merenda's frozen acting style suits the role, although less so during the scenes where he has to emote. His crooked cop is supposed to be cold and detached, and Merenda handles those traits admirably. The characters moments of poignancy are few, and carried effortlessly by Salvo Randone, who plays Dominic's father. These scenes -- such as when Dominic is forced to admit to his father he's been unfaithful to his profession -- are among the strongest in the film; and this is a film bolstered by powerful moments.

Merenda didn't get by on good looks alone while starring in Sergio Martino's Giallo favorite TORSO (1973), the aforementioned THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS (1973) and the ambitious political crime movie SILENT ACTION (1975). Merenda did a few other tough cop roles like the rollickingly silly A MAN CALLED MAGNUM and the entertaining DESTRUCTION FORCE (both 1977).

As in some of his other works, the directors leftist politics are lying just under the surface occasionally making their presence known both visually and audibly. In Di Leo's law and order world as presented here, no one achieves their success legitimately. Somebody along the way suffers for it. This is the antithesis of the upright, stoic public service figure as famously represented in Maurizio Merli's cop interpretations. Granted, Merli had another year before he appeared on the cinematic beat, but his films are the benchmark of the 'Violent Cop' style of the Euro crime genre. 

Regardless of your political leanings, the director fashioned a compelling screenplay that's filled with engaging interplay between the good guys, the bad guys and the victims and curious parties. 

One of the films notable qualities is its cesspool of cruel irony emanating from Dominic and his moonlighting as an underworld subordinate. The duplicity and lies of Merenda's rotten cop builds and builds to the point where it becomes near impossible to cover his tracks. The heated relationship, the insulting back and forth between Dominic and his criminal employers is destined to boil over at some point; and when it does, the viewer expects Dominic to see the err of his ways once the picture turns into a revenge-action movie in its latter half. But then Di Leo pulls the rug out from under you yet again leading up to the shocking conclusion.

There's also a bit of nasty animal cruelty on display that will possibly disgust some viewers. The sequence involves two homosexual hitmen who not only snuff out their target via strangulation, but also their quarry's pet cat. Misogyny is also present in Di Leo's film. Violence towards women is a staple of these movies much as it was in the Italian westerns that preceded them. Considering a high quotient of violence enters the fray during the last half, it's all the more potent since Di Leo has spent his time wisely building predominantly insidious main characters whose actions affect the innocents around them.

Luis Bacalov's melancholic musical compositions are modestly derivative of some of his other scores for Di Leo's works, but it's quite good and varied stylistically in its cues.

Now that it can be easily seen, SHOOT FIRST, DIE LATER (1974) should fit nicely among the top tier of Di Leo's earlier works and other European crime classics in general. It's so engrossing and well made, one wonders why it took so long for a restored version to surface. The film had a bad reputation at the time for the approach to its subject matter, so possibly that may have something to do with why it took so long to see a proper release. To that end, it's a powerful motion picture that explores familiar, often mined territory, but does so with a professionalism that covers its topics provocatively instead of sensationalizing them. Fans of the the director, his storytelling style, and the genre will not be disappointed.

This review is representative of the Raro DVD.

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