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
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