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
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