Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Red Spell Spells Red (1983) review

Poon Lai Yin (Stella Lok), Ga Lun (Stephen), Kent Tong Chun Yip (Mr. Liu), Hussein Hassan (Dairoma, the Longhouse Master), Stanley Tong Gwai Lai (Ah Chai), Man Yiu Wah (Ah Chow), Eling Chan (Satali), San Sin (Taoist Priest)
Directed by Titus Ho Wing Lam (Ho Yung Lin; He Yong Lin)
The Short Version: The film crew for a Chinese RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT type show get more than they bargained for when they disturb an ancient evil in Titus Ho's  sole film as a director. His lone HK grue-fest (and a messily scripted one) blends THE EVIL DEAD and THE OMEN with MONDO CANE-style animal death and bizarre rituals. Showstoppers include a possessed villager chowing down on a live chicken, a man having his hand ground into pulp on an editing room table, and a wild exorcism sequence involving wizards, Taoist priests and an army of scorpions. Lacking logic and continuity in the traditionally insane HK style, RED SPELL SPELLS a ghoulishly chaotic good time for Hong Kong horror fans.
Stephen is a filmmaker shooting sensationalist documentaries hosted by his girlfriend Stella Lok; depicting bizarre customs and paranormal legends from around the world. High on his list is to film in the tomb of the Red Dwarf Sorcerer, a powerful and evil alchemist who was encased and sealed within an urn by four good magicians back in 1919. Unable to enter the sacred burial place during the day, Stephen and his crew decide to break in late one night. Foolishly opening the urn, they unknowingly release the evil spirit back onto the world. 
Sending his crew to Borneo to shoot additional footage of the Iban people and their local rituals, the Red Dwarf Sorcerer follows them there, picking them off one by one. It's later learned that Stephen's girlfriend Stella had a deadly curse placed on her family two decades earlier. Back in Hong Kong, Stephen realizes what he has done and tries to find a way to destroy the evil spirit. He discovers the Red Dwarf Sorcerer intends to become the Devil if it can unite with a Gold Buddha statue that he added to his collection of historical oddities. Stephen, Stella, her spellcasting grandfather and a gaggle of Taoist priests converge on a temple to battle the evil sorcerer for the last time.

Back in 1975 when Ho Meng Hua's BLACK MAGIC cast the first spell, the notion of filming multi-cultural movies for Asian audiences wasn't entirely due to the idea of exploiting rural superstitions. The year 1975 was the worst for Hong Kong productions after the loss of some of their markets including Vietnam. This affected other markets like Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines who decided to focus greater attention towards building their own local film industries. The result was restrictions on the number of Mandarin-language movies exported from Hong Kong. In a bid to appeal to foreign markets, HK film companies sought to either set their films in exotic locales or co-produce with them.

One such movie was the obscure MAGIC CURSE (1975), a movie that was shot in the Philippines. It was similar in ways to BLACK MAGIC, but differentiated itself by injecting jungle adventure into its script and having a Filipino vibe akin to the movies of Eddie Romero. There were zombie-like lepers, cannibalistic creatures, kung fu, romance, and ancient curses.

Fast-forward eight years and HK filmmakers continue to film in mysterious lands and danger-ridden jungles to tell their horror stories.
The second of two movies by Nikko International Productions (watch for the CENTIPEDE HORROR poster cameo; see above) has Stephen Chan producing solo while company co-founder Keith Lee was likely too busy finishing up THE SUPREME SWORDSMAN (1984) to participate. Amy Chan, the writer on CENTIPEDE HORROR (and the actress playing Amy, Kay's doomed friend in the movie), returns to the land of curses to pen a similar supernatural picture, and a frenzied one at that. Instead of a vengeful man becoming a sorcerer and placing a curse on his enemies, it's a powerful demon who seeks to kill those that desecrated his resting place. Well, that's one of the film's two plotlines. 
RED SPELL plays out like two movies have been combined; as if the filmmakers started out with one story, then changed it along the way and tried to tie it all together at the end. It's a good deal of fun, but be prepared for new details to appear like new scripting pages being handed out to the actors on a daily basis.
At the last minute we learn the reason Stella has scorpions emerging from her body isn't due to the Red Dwarf Sorcerer's evil powers, but a Scorpion Spell placed on her over a wrong 20 years earlier. A man from China came to Borneo and entered into a trial marriage with a sorcerer's daughter... only he left out a most important detail that he was already married. The sorcerer's daughter then begged her father to activate the Scorpion Spell she placed on him should he betray her and off we go. 
Also last minute, we're told that should the spell be lifted, the Red Dwarf Ghost, who has been wiping out the members of the film crew and periodically assaulting Stella, will kill her. This culminates in a finale that riffs on THE BOXER'S OMEN (1983), the Alpha and Omega of HK gut-busting horrors, that was filming at the same time. RED SPELL also bears resemblance in plot to Lo Lieh's BLACK MAGIC WITH BUDDHA (1983) released earlier in the year. That movie also has a similar Chinese title--BRAIN DEVIL--to RED SPELL's RED DEVIL.

It's also not explained how Stephen obtains the Golden Buddha statue. A priest that trains him in a very quick training montage in the last 15 minutes throws the question his way but he never responds; likely because the scriptwriter didn't know either. However, you'll notice at the very beginning, the Red Dwarf Sorcerer (who looks like a normal-sized man) has the statue and is in the process of turning himself into the Devil when the quartet of masked magus's enter his underground temple to stop him.

The gore effects are crude but more ambitious then the Nikko Company's previous CENTIPEDE horror picture. The filmmakers have seemingly been influenced by THE OMEN (1976) and THE EVIL DEAD (1981) in how some of the death scenes and moments of horror play out. The movie even has music cues from the former, in addition to ALIEN (1979) and even FIRST BLOOD (1982). 
It isn't explained but the evil sorcerer demon thrives off spilled blood. When a person (or, in one instance, a bird) is cut, the blood boils up as if it's summoning the demon. The film's powerful antagonist can also command the environment to kill--whether that be bamboo trees, jungle vines or even their leaves. 

Amy Chan's messy script even finds room for some Chinese-style PORKY'S (1982) hijinks involving some of the members of the TV crew who are all horned up upon their arrival at the Borneo Longhouse. Some of it is funny. One bit has future box-office champ director Stanley Tong (PROJECT S; POLICE STORY 4) believing he's being coaxed into having sex with an old lady. He, the woman and her husband use hand signals to depict an erect and limp penis. To his relief, he quickly learns it's actually the couples daughter. This leads into an unusually well-shot love scene utilizing lots of dissolves that would've been better suited for a drama than a gory horror flick.

Much of the film is set in the wilds of Borneo. This gives the filmmakers many opportunities to crank up the exploitation value to a much trashier degree than other movies of this genre. Shockumentaries like the SHOCKING ASIA series were possibly an inspiration as the movie occasionally feels like a documentary when its depicting rural customs of the Iban people living in longhouses by the riverside. Formerly cannibals and headhunters (presumably formerly so), we see them killing pigs, chickens and other animals as offerings to local Gods as well as for their entertainment. 
In the film's biggest shock moment, and one that rivals Margaret Li regurgitating half a dozen live centipedes in CENTIPEDE HORROR, an Iban villager rips into a live chicken with his teeth, gleefully consuming it for the camera, downing the fowl's entrails as if they were spaghetti noodles. It recalls bizarre scenes of live animal eating in Liu Kuo Hsiung's PRINCESS AND THE TOXICANT (1977). Titus Ho's visuals of animal slaughter and assorted other jungle violence could compete with any of the like-minded Italian offerings.
It's unusual seeing Ga Lun (Stephen Leung; Liang Jia Lun; Leung Ka Lun; Callan Leung) playing a non-policeman role. Billed as Leung Chi Hung, he was a popular actor yet decided to call it quits in 1987. Before entering the industry, he worked as a mechanic. Director Leung Po Chi discovered him and invited him to star in a movie for Bang! Bang! Films, an independent outfit. The inaugural motion picture was JUMPING ASH (1976), the top hit of the year in 1976. 
While we're on this subject, some Chinese sources today list JUMPING ASH as being the #3 hit of 1976; but according to accumulated stats in magazines from that year, the top three hits of 1976 were JUMPING ASH with HK$3,875,745 after 21 days of theatrical play; PRINCESS CHANG PING with HK$3,448,498 in 21 days of exhibition; and KILLER CLANS earning HK$1,996,557 after 14 days in theaters. Those records were established on December 20th, 1976 for publication deadline.
Going back to Ga Lun, unlike other production companies, Bang! Bang! only made roughly one movie a year. When they produced the international production FOXBAT for 1977 release, the lead was reportedly intended for him, but the company decided on Henry Silva in the hopes of garnering attention on the global market. Ga Lun would terminate his contract with the company and freelance from that point onward. That same year in 1977 he formed his own company and co-produced GOLGO 13: KOWLOON ASSIGNMENT starring Sonny Chiba. FOUR ROBBERS (1987) was his last movie. Moving to America afterward, Ga Lun lived the remainder of his years in autonomy, dying in 2019 of liver failure. 
His portrayal of a TV producer filming a TV series on the bizarre and paranormal around the world may have been influenced by then popular American program, RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT (1982-1986). 
The leading actress, Poon Lai Yin (Pan Li Xian), was a Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant contestant in 1982. A beautiful woman, her participation in the pageant (she reportedly placed fourth in the contest) was likely what caught the eye of someone involved in the production. She's topless once from the side, but the filmmakers find ways to show off her assets and almost always in wet clothing. 
Sadly, Ms. Pan had a very short career as an actress. The script gets a lot of mileage out of her character with all the running, screaming and abuse she suffers. Even though it isn't explained in detail, the Red Dwarf has taken up residence inside of a red birthmark on her back in a potential allusion to 1978s THE MANITOU. Halfway through the movie, not only is she the recipient of a Scorpion Curse and the Red Dwarf's wrath, she becomes the target of the longhouse residents after she's blamed for a few deaths in the community by scorpions that exit from Stella's body at inopportune times.
Hussein Hassan returns in a familiar role; only instead of a vengeful sorcerer he's a retribution-thirsting master of a longhouse. This type of communal dwelling held dozens of families living in exactly what the name describes--a very long house.

Just like with CENTIPEDE HORROR, RED SPELL features one of the soon-to-be-crowned 'Five Tigers' of TVB among its cast. But where Michael Miu Kiu Wai had the lead in CENTIPEDE, Kent Tong is the co-lead with Poon Lai Yin and makes less an impression than Michael did; likely because RED SPELL has an ensemble cast. 'The Five Tigers'--Michael Miu, Kent Tong, Felix Wong, Andy Lau and Tony Leung--were formed in late 1983, roughly a month before RED SPELL SPELLS REDs release.

Kent Tong had a troubled history in the industry. A short few years into his burgeoning popularity, his then girlfriend, Barbara Yung Mei Ling (herself a popular TVB actress), committed suicide May 14th, 1985 at just 26 years of age. Many felt foul play was involved. When Kent's contract expired in 1986, he left TVB and couldn't find substantial work for a few years. In 1992, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in THE TIGERS (1991), the one film that featured 'The Five Tigers' together on-screen. 
Incidentally, Barbara Yung participated in the same Miss HK pageant with Poon Lai Yin in 1982, but placed further down in the 8th spot.

Cohesion isn't RED SPELL's strong suit, nor does it flow in a casual manner like CENTIPEDE HORROR. Nikko Production's (Sunshine Film Production Company) last known picture is pure gonzo Hong Kong cinema done independent style. Chock-full of themes and ideas from a multitude of movies foreign and domestic, the film is of historical value for having early roles for future big names. Having been given a stellar restoration, it's never looked as good as it does here. RED SPELL SPELLS exploitative entertainment of the grotesque kind.

This review is representative of the Limited Edition Error 4444 blu-ray with slipcase. Specs and extras: new 2K restoration from the uncut film elements; 1080p 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; animal cruelty-free version; How To Make a Successful HK Black Magic Movie featurette; teaser and trailer (not original trailers but newly made by Error 4444); Cantonese and Mandarin audio; English subtitle option; running time: 01:33:46

Friday, January 13, 2023

Centipede Horror (1982) review

Michael Miu Kiu Wai (Pak Wai Lun), Yau Pui Ling (Kay Pak), Margaret Lee Din Long (Yuk Chee), Wang Lai (Mother Pak), Hussein Hassan (Evil Sorcerer), Stephen Yip Tin Hang (La Rong)
Directed by Keith Lee (Li Pai Ling)
The Short Version: Unusually well-crafted, low-budget and independently made HK horror is sure to frighten centi-phobes, gross out casual viewers, and possibly bore to death some fans expecting a more rapidly-paced trash-fest. The script brings together EXORCIST-style possession, spell-battling child ghosts, reanimated chicken skeletons, a cobra bursting from a man's head, and a puke-pourri of a dozen live centipedes being thrown up in the closing minutes. Ho Meng Hua set the BLACK MAGIC benchmark in 1975 and Keith Lee's CENTIPEDE HORROR both carries on, and expands, the cursed tradition.
Kay Pak decides to take a week-long vacation to Malaysia with a friend, despite her mother's warnings that their dead grandfather forbade any family members from going there. Initially refusing to let her go, her brother, an executive running the family business, recommends she wear a protective medallion in the hopes that would pacify their mother should she find out. Out jogging, the two girls stop at a food stall for a bowl of grass jelly sold by a sinister-looking man. Unknown to her at the time, Kay leaves her headband behind and has a deadly curse placed on her that takes effect once she removes the medallion. Kay's brother, Wai Lan, flies to Malaysia to find out what happened and watches her die a brutal death. Learning of ancient curses and witnessing bizarre exorcisms, Wai also discovers that a terrible act was committed by his grandfather 50 years earlier that is responsible for the Centipede Horror plaguing his family and anyone close to him. 
Ho Meng Hua set the Asian Curse movie trend in motion with 1975s seminal BLACK MAGIC. The movie was designed to play on people's fears and superstitious beliefs of backwoods curses lurking in the wilds of Malaysia, Borneo and other places far from the modernized confines of Hong Kong. A sequel was released the following year that expanded on the exploitation potential of the original, but kept the bulk of the action occurring in the city of Hong Kong. Other films aiming to mine the same formula came, but differed in that the crew would film extensively in foreign locales--taking greater advantage of the surroundings. Particularly in the independent outings, the tribal rituals of these isolated settings were expounded upon for further authenticity.
By 1981, gritty filmmaker Kuei Chi Hung took Ho's template even further with the movie BEWITCHED. In that film, the curse is placed upon the victim in the foreign land and is activated once they return home--leading to the obligatory battle between good and evil wizardry. In Ho's movies, what was behind the placement of the curses was love, sex and the desire for both. For these later movies, it was generally applied out of revenge for either a past transgression or a desecration of a sacred place.

CENTIPEDE HORROR brings both men's techniques together for an interesting take on the formula. Director Keith Lee (Li Pai Ying) films in a Chinese style, but with an obvious Anglo influence. Many Chinese horror films end like morality plays. CENTIPEDE's shock ending is traditionally seen in American horror pictures of the time. 
Furthermore, there's no manic pace like in the Curse movie classic THE BOXER'S OMEN (1983); so that may put some viewers off expecting a non-stop ride of grotesque shenanigans. Historically, the film's few reviews during its prior languishing in bootleg purgatory gave the impression it was that type of film. Instead, Li builds his story, periodically punctuating it with moments of gross-out shock and horror till the final 10-15 minutes when the title insects lead an assault on our hero and his possessed girlfriend. The final moments are as spectacularly revolting as anything seen in all your finer carnival sideshow attractions.
The gore is crude but will likely churn the stomachs of even the heartiest viewer. For example, one sequence with a fully naked, spell-entranced woman has the victim with what looks like a fried omelet glued to her belly. When the rural necromancer frees the woman of the black magic plaguing her, she pukes up blood and several enormous scorpions. 
The multitude of wizards are as much oddities as the spells they cast and eradicate. You have the familiar Taoist priests popularized in movies like MR. VAMPIRE (1985). There's a sequence where the evil sorcerer takes control of Yuk Chee's body. While a priest attempts to exorcise her from another location, her soul leaves her body to battle the Chinese padre. Then there's the backwoods alchemists--one of whom steals the corpses of children to employ their souls in the fight against evil; while another spellcaster uses a quintet of chicken skeletons to duel with the main villain--causing a cobra to rip through the top of his head. 
Director Li Pai Ying was an underrated talent whose career was far too short. He worked at Shaw Brothers the bulk of his time in the industry, joining the company in 1973. Li's first job was reportedly an un-credited gig as a script supervisor on Chu Yuan's HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS (1973). He then became Chu's AD, collaborating with him on numerous swordplay movies. Li began directing his own in late 1978. While CENTIPEDE HORROR is Li's first completed movie as a director, his actual first directing job was a movie whose original title was 'Sword of Old Eagle'  before becoming 'The Eagle's Sword'. An ambitious Wuxia feature in the spirit of Li's mentor Chu Yuan, it was promoted as being about "Gods of the Sword, Swordsmen, and Slaves of the Blade". By April of 1980, the movie remained unfinished. Lee was still with the company, writing the script for the underrated Kung Fu picture KID FROM KWANGTUNG (1982) in the interim.
While 'The Eagle's Sword' remained sheathed, Li formed Nikko International Productions and Films (HK) Limited (aka Sunshine Film Production Company) with former radio actor and producer Stephen Chan Chue Kwong (Chen Shu Guang). The duo financed two films (the other being RED SPELL SPELLS RED) before closing down. Upon completion of CENTIPEDE HORROR (1982), Li Pai Ying returned to Shaw's in late 1983 and set about finishing his long-in-the-making swordplay adventure. Questions arose as to whether or not the film would be outdated considering it was shot several years earlier. Li had re-shot most of the movie and retained old footage where necessary.
By the time the film was completed, the production had utilized three cinematographers and five martial arts choreographers including Yuen Wah and Yuen Bun. Unfortunately, Shaw Brothers was nearing the end of their time as a producer of motion pictures. The movie bears a copyright date of 1984 but was never screened in Hong Kong. It did see a theatrical release in Taiwan in 1985. The film was released in HK for the first time on DVD in 2007. Sporadically active in the industry from the late 80s onward, Li would die at his home on July 22nd, 2020. He was 68 years old.

Top-billed Margaret Li Yen Ping (Lee Tin Long; Li Yan Ping) steals the show in the last few minutes alone. Called upon to puke up around a dozen live centipedes, it's one of the most amazingly disgusting things you'll ever see in your life. It's all the more astonishing in that Margaret Li is the daughter of famous film director, the revered Li Han Hsiang. Coming from a prestigious family only to barf up a mouthful of bugs in an early acting role is truly dedication to ones craft. 

In the late 70s, her father sent her off to Great Britain to study fashion design. A four-year tenure amounted to only a few months. Ms. Li returned to HK to work behind the camera on her father's movies like THE ADVENTURES OF EMPEROR CHIEN LUNG (1977). She would also experiment in being an assistant director to Mou Tun Fei on his 'Gun' segment of THE CRIMINALS V: THE TEENAGER'S NIGHTMARE (1977). Her fashion sense was put to use in the costume department for her father's pictures such as THE GHOST STORY and RETURN OF THE DEAD (both 1979) to name two. 
In 1977, the 15 year-old had been dating rising superstar Danny Li Hsiu Hsien (Danny Lee) during the year-long filming of THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977). The two were often in the papers for their off-screen drama. Unsurprisingly, the relationship didn't last and Margaret eventually found herself in front of the camera as well. Incidentally, one such role was in Keith Lee's long-gestating, above-mentioned swordplay film that eventually became known as THE SUPREME SWORDSMAN (1984).

If leading actor Michael Miu Kiu Wai looks familiar, you likely know him as one of TVB's Five Tigers--along with Andy Lau, Kent Tong, Tony Leung, and Felix Wong. Miu was also a fixture in some of Hong Kong's cop and gangster movies of the late 80s and throughout the 1990s. Films such as HERO OF TOMORROW, THE DRAGON FAMILY (both 1988), FINAL RUN (1989), FATAL TERMINATION, THE OUTLAW BROTHERS, MAGIC COP (all 1990), and THE TIGERS (1991). 
That last title is one of the movies starring all five of the group together in a dark and gritty plot about five CID officers who foolishly decide to steal money taken in a drug bust. The gangster they took it from shows up to blackmail the cops and lead their lives into ruin. The film ends with a battle inside a mall and a depressing coda that will stay with you long after the movie has finished. Shaw stars Chen Kuan Tai, Liang Chia Jen and Lo Lieh have supporting roles.

Michael Mui was a graduate of TVB's Actors Training Academy and became a popular small-screen star. He would meet his future wife, Jaime Chik Mei Chun, on the 20-episode Fantasy-Drama YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1982). The two would appear in movies together as well. The role of Yang Kang in the 1983 TVB series LEGEND OF THE CONDOR HEROES is considered among his best work. Miu also had a primary role in MEN FROM THE GUTTER (1983), an underrated modern-day crime thriller from Shaw Brothers written by CENTIPEDE's Keith Lee.

Although her part in the movie is small, actress Wang Lai adds some gravitas to Lee's tale of Chinese voodoo. In her day, she was a popular, in-demand actress, appearing in over 200 movies. She entered the industry in 1951 and worked for virtually every company during Asian Cinema's Golden Age. Known as the 'Actress with a Thousand Faces', she won the Golden Horse Award for Best Supporting Actress multiple times; the last being for 1992s PUSHING HANDS. She performed in similar capacity in Kuei Chi Hung's delirious CURSE OF EVIL (1982), a movie originally started by Wang Feng (Wong Fung) and given a radical alteration in tone when Kuei took over. Wang Lai retired in 1992 for health reasons. She died aged 89 in 2016.
The man playing the vicious black magic sorcerer is Hussein Hassan. He's the lead conjurer in Kuei Chi Hung's excellent spooker BEWITCHED (1981). He's something of a tragic character in CENTIPEDE HORROR in that his descent into evil is due to a tragedy occurring 50 years earlier involving the Pak family, who have since become wealthy over the years. We learn that Pak Wai's grandfather committed adultery, leading to a 'crime of passion'--style double-murder; one of the victims being his pregnant wife. Pak decides the best course of action is to try and cover up his crime by setting fire to his house with his now dead mistress's screaming infant in the room. To make the crime even more horrendous, the entire village goes up in flames. The father of the dead child swears revenge and becomes a powerful sorcerer, awaiting the day his vengeance can be set into motion. 
Hussein Hassan appeared in virtually the same role in the following years RED SPELL SPELLS RED (1983); and disappeared from the industry after one last known credit a decade later.

Keith Lee was a talented filmmaker who never got to fully show his capabilities at length. His small body of work does show what could've been a good career if he'd further explored directorial avenues beyond the three movies that bear his name. If ever there's a list of the greatest Asian Horror Movies, surely somewhere lurking among them would be the creepy-crawly clas-sick, CENTIPEDE HORROR.

This review is representative of the Error 4444 Limited Edition blu-ray. Specs and extras: new 2K restoration of the uncut version from the OCN (Original Camera Negative); 1080p 1.85:1 widescreen; animal cruelty-free version; featurette on the future Cat III rating; CENTIPEDE HORROR censored and uncensored comparison; teaser and trailer (not original but newly made from Error 4444); Mandarin and Cantonese audio; new English and Chinese subtitles; running time: 01:34:58
Related Posts with Thumbnails


copyright 2013. All text is the property of coolasscinema.com and should not be reproduced in whole, or in part, without permission from the author. All images, unless otherwise noted, are the property of their respective copyright owners.