Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Devil Woman (1974) review


Rosemarie Gil (Manda), Tung Li (Hsu Wen), Yukio Someno (Lu Po), Romy Diaz, Cherie Gil (Manda as a young girl), Johanna Garcia (Tina), David Yau, Lito Legaspi (Manda's friend)

Directed by Albert Yu (Yu Chik-Lim) and Felix Villar

The Short Version: One of the strangest Asian movies ever made (and that's saying something), DEVIL WOMAN is a slithery tale of supernatural revenge, kung fu, and a bit of unrequited love thrown in centered around a woman born with a scalp full o' snakes in her head. The first of two Hong Kong-Filipino co-pro's, you'll see some exotic locations, familiar faces, and hear some of the worst dubbed dialog imaginable. An unusual venture, the greatest appeal will be with Asian cult film fans and cinematic fringe addicts. If you're allergic to bizarre, low budget Asian movies; or are Ophidiophobic, you'll want to avoid this one.

During a terrible thunderstorm in a remote village in the Philippines, a woman gives birth to Manda, a baby with a head full of snakes instead of hair. Seeing this as a bad omen, Anno, the husband, intends to kill the child but his wife begs him not to. As a young girl, Manda keeps her head covered, yet she is tormented by the other children in town who know the slithery hell that lies underneath. When members of the community begin turning up dead, victims of snakebite, the superstitious villagers fear the Devil is in their midst. Armed with torches, the townsfolk murder Manda's parents, but she manages to escape. Upon growing into a woman, she returns to her home town to seek revenge against those who killed her parents using both her power over snakes as well as commanding a notorious gang of thieves and rapists to do her bidding. Meanwhile, a Chinese man visiting a friend becomes entangled in Manda's snaky grasp and must stop the Devil Woman.

Asia is steeped in ancient serpentine legends, folklore, and superstitions that were ripe for exploration in their respective country's pop culture lexicons. There had been mythical snake movies in the Philippines as early as the 1950s. Other Asian territories like Cambodia and Indonesia produced outlandish reptilian horrors of their own with Indonesia's THE SNAKE QUEEN (1982) and THE HUNGRY SNAKE WOMAN (1986) being two of the more elaborately nutty ones. The Shaw Brothers of HK produced one of the more bizarre entries in 1976 with the Fantasy-musical giant snake movie, THE SNAKE PRINCE. 

While many of these were adapted from local legends and intermixed Mythologies from other countries, some were more down to Earth and seemed to be inspired by an American horror movie from 1971.

WILLARD (1971) was a lucrative success and it wasn't long before similar movies emerged both here and abroad showcasing disgruntled outcasts commanding various creatures to kill their enemies. The Shaw Brothers responded with the grimy exploitation sickie, KILLER SNAKES in 1973 wherein a tormented young man living in squalor finally snaps and uses snakes and other lizards to get revenge on those who've wronged him. A few years later the Shaw's produced another similar movie, but this time with a sympathetic protagonist in the trashy schlock of COBRA GIRL (1976), aka FANGS OF THE COBRA.

In the middle of those two scaly samples of Asian exploitation were two wild n' wacky co-productions between Hong Kong and the Philippines. The first was DEVIL WOMAN in 1974.

This collaborative effort between the two countries (including its 1975 sequel) seems to base its title Medusian on the main antagonist from the popular, long-running Filipino comic book 'Darna'. A Wonder Woman styled super-heroine, the main nemesis was the Gorgon-esque Valentina, born of human parents who were later killed by superstitious villagers. BRUKA, QUEEN OF EVIL (1975), the sequel to DEVIL WOMAN, features a giant snake with a hag's head (a character in the comic series named Kobra) as Bruka, the Devil Woman's grandmother. Numerous movies and TV series's were produced about Darna and Valentina, including one in 1973--the year prior to the release of DEVIL WOMAN. The comics ran from 1950 up to the early 2000s.

DEVIL WOMAN isn't a particularly good movie, but there's traces of one hidden away among the exploitation and stretches of film that could've shaved about 10 minutes for a more linear experience. Yu and Villar are clearly making an effort, though, with a stylish touch or two, while including dramatic elements; these being two relationships presented via a dichotomy of triumph and tragedy. One between Manda the snake girl and her childhood friend; the other is a triangle linking Hsu Wen the traveling Chinese with Tina the Filipino lady. Tina falls for him but she is, likely against her will, attached to a local martial artist and ruffian; so fists are definitely going to fly.

Strangely, the latter thread is explored better than the other; however, since this is a co-production between two different Asian countries, it's possible the Filipino release has different footage to suit that market.

As for the lady with the Ophidian locks, Rosemarie Gil is quite beautiful (even more so in the sequel) as the tormented Manda, a lady born with a particularly nasty deformity--a head full of writhing snakes for hair. Much like Christopher Lee in his Dracula movies, she's not given a great deal to do aside from walking around waving her arms to command her venomous pets. She's not given a great deal to say, either. Manda's supposed to be a tragic figure, and the film does a decent job of exploring that in the early scenes when Manda is a little girl (played by Ms. Gil's daughter, Cherie). The editing is kind of sloppy, but one instance is well done where the child Manda is kneeling at the graves of her parents. When she stands the camera reveals that it's now years later, and Manda, now an adult, has returned to her hometown.

Curiously, Manda's revenge isn't limited to the use of serpents; she uses human instruments of evil in a local gang of bandits led by the murderous Lu Po. They kill townsfolk and kidnap women, taking them back to Manda's cave where they rape them. This takes away a lot of the sympathy derived for her up to this point--basically turning Manda into an outright villain; which, if sourced from Velentina in the 'Darna' comics, is accurate in that respect anyway. It also gives plenty of opportunities for Kung Fu fights, and likely the reason the gang of thugs was in the movie to find a reason for the action quotient.

Tung Li, a star of over 20 Shaw Brothers movies, is the main hero Hsu Wen, who inadvertently finds himself battling both a brutal gang and the evil snake woman. He's traveled all the way from China to the Philippines to visit, and cure, a wealthy friend whom the occasionally indecipherable dubbing refers to as "Mr. Crispin".

Dressed like Bruce Lee in THE CHINESE CONNECTION (1972), Tung Li (billed as Alex Tang Lee) looks good in the fights; especially those towards the end. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the face of a leading man. The swordplay movies he did for Shaw Brothers suited him like a glove, though. Most often made up with a goatee, he was more believable as a gruff protagonist in such movies as the eccentric and uniquely plotted THE IMPERIAL SWORDSMAN (1971); and the incredible, gore-soaked THE BLACK TAVERN (1972), a quasi-sequel to THE LADY HERMIT (1971).

Filipino producer Jimmy Pascual and his Empire Cinema Center Limited did over a dozen movies--most of which were produced in Hong Kong during the Kung Fu boom of the early 1970s. Some of his well-known works on the international market include Ng See Yuen's THE BLOODY FISTS (1972) and Pascual's own FISTS OF THE DOUBLE K (1973).

The former, while a sizable box office hit at the time (HK$1.7 million), lost its lead villain (Chen Kuan Tai) to Chang Cheh as the lead hero in the blockbuster Shaw Brothers movie THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972). Much to his displeasure, director Ng was unable to convince Chang Cheh to relinquish Chen to finish his remaining scenes. With production shut down, Ng later hit on the idea of getting a stunt guy to wear a mask for the remaining days of filming.

The latter began as a movie directed by erotica specialist Ho Fan to be shot in Spain. According to Mr. Ho, the production ran into trouble when Pascual reportedly lost money gambling and was unable to finish the picture. Pascual went back to the Philippines to raise money for the movie which, by the time production resumed, ended up being directed entirely by him. Some of the actors were retained along with Yuen Woo Ping as martial arts director and John Woo as assistant director.

Some of these Empire Cinema films were co-productions, DEVIL WOMAN being one of them; and like the two Kung Fu features mentioned above, this pseudo-fantasy horror fist and kick flick has a minor following attached to it. Probably the most attractive attribute of Pascual's resume is his frequent working relationship with the Yuen clan, including the two most well known on the international scene, Yuen Woo Ping and Corey Yuen Kwai. For DEVIL WOMAN, Brandy Yuen Chun Wei, Yuen Bun, and Corey Yuen handled the martial arts action.

The fights are average and nothing overly spectacular. There's not a great deal of variance in the move sets and no blood and gore to enhance them like in any of your finer Shaw Brothers productions during this period. When the two plot lines finally intersect a little past the hour mark, acrobatics are added to the mix when Hsu Wen battles both Manda and Lu Po's men inside her snake cave headquarters. Snakes "fly" through the air on wires and leap at the hero. The fights are more or less non-stop in the last reel and Lu Po's gang seems to get bigger even when it appears most all of them have been wiped out.

During the last five minutes, we finally get a gander at Manda's Medusian hair when she briefly tangles with Hsu Wen. Instead of fighting, she simply disappears via a cheap camera trick and reappears to toss big snakes at him.

This was one of the very first jobs for the Yuen's that worked on the film. All three would go on to productive careers in stunts and choreography. Of the three that toiled on DEVIL WOMAN and its sequel, Corey Yuen amassed the most fame, working on a number of high-profile American movies beginning with LETHAL WEAPON 4 (1998), and continuing with such works as X-MEN (2000), ROMEO MUST DIE (2000), KISS OF THE DRAGON (2001), and THE EXPENDABLES (2010). 

Aside from a productive working relationship with the Yuen's, Pascual used popular old-school martial arts actor Yukio Someno in many of his pictures. A Japanese, Yukio had a healthy career in Hong Kong Kung Fu films for a ten year stretch. The bulk of his resume consists of classy Shaw Brothers swordplay epics and Fist & Kick pictures including the one that started the KF craze, KING BOXER (1972). He was also particularly memorable as a Japanese commander who, along with a regiment of Chinese stuntmen standing in as Japanese soldiers, took on a lone Alexander Fu Sheng in Chang Cheh's 137 minute epic THE BOXER REBELLION (1976).

A real martial artist, Yukio Someno was adept at screen fighting and a natural at playing a villain. DEVIL WOMAN (and its sequel), however, was a challenge of a different sort for him. "We shot those two movies in Manila. I think the filming lasted from 1972 to 1973. It was a difficult shoot for me because I dislike snakes. The lead actress Rosemarie Gil was fine to work with, though. She had real snakes on her head, too. Out of my entire career I think I loved working in Manila best, I just hated working with snakes (laughs)!" 

Regarding the Ophidian menace, there are quite a lot of them used in this movie, and more than enough cobras. The Philippines are home to some of the most deadly snakes on the planet--the Philippine Cobra being among the species with the most toxic venom capable of killing a victim within 30 minutes. The bulk of the snake scenes have nary an ounce of suspense behind them, but for some, just the mere sight of a bunch of poisonous serpents is enough to give you the shakes.

Whereas DEVIL WOMAN is a standard, if thoroughly bizarre revenge movie, its sequel takes the scenario to an entirely different level of absurdity and outright wackiness. Along with the encoring Manda, there's an army of maniacal midgets, stone men, bat men, walking trees and, of course, kung fu to entertain you. 

Some viewers are sure to rebuke DEVIL WOMAN since it's not entirely successful as either an exploitation movie or a kung fu film. It's a bizarre oddity in a crowded genre of thousands of similar product. It has elements to stand out, but isn't a good enough representation to be more than a minor cult footnote. Still, it has some good qualities in its cinematic compositions and some great local flavor. The atrocious dubbing and a scene where 'The Stars and Stripes Forever' is dubbed over a birthday party ramps up the camp qualities. Released in America in 1976 on a great Drive-in double bill with DRAGON'S NEVER DIE (1974), another Pascual production, the film's trailer narration tells you exactly what you're getting: "DEVIL WOMAN! Don't cross her path unless you're tired of living! In cursed color!" So if you're a fan of the wackier side of Asian cult cinema, you'll have a helluva time with DEVIL WOMAN.

This review is representative of the Code Red bluray. Specs and Extras: New 2.35:1 (box says 1.78:1) widescreen HD scan from the last known surviving print; paired with the film's original co-feature, DRAGON'S NEVER DIE; trailer; running time: 01:34:45

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