06 Oct FIVE BONE-CHILLING MONSTERS AND VILLAINS FOR OCTOBER
Here are five Shaw Brothers villains to repulse and frighten for the autumn holidays. If you are looking for something on the spooky side, this is a great selection of madmen and vengeful spirits to watch during October.
Putting this list together was actually quite a challenge. My initial list looked quite different. There are a lot of movies and characters I wanted to talk about but because this is a more focused list, I decided to establish some criteria for selection. First, the movie the characters are selected from must be horror films or enormously atmospheric films from other genres (for example a wuxia film with a horror flavor). Second, while the villains need not be literal monsters, they must be figurative monsters and if I am torn between two equally good examples, I will pick the more supernatural of the two. Third, I am aiming for a broad sampling of directors. It would be very easy to load this list up with characters from Kuei Chih-Hung films, for example, but I wanted a list that reflected different approaches to horror.
These appear in chronological order of release.
RUYU (THE ENCHANTING GHOST 1970)
Ruyu is a ghost who takes time to become terrifying. At the beginning of The Enchanting Ghost, she is just a normal woman who marries a diligent but poor scholar when they both seek refuge in a haunted house. Early in the movie Ruyu is regularly mistaken for a ghost and eventually gets kidnapped by an enemy of her husband. Taken in by this cunning villain, then poisoned by his wife so she loses her hair and beauty, she drowns herself in a pond and rises as a vengeful spirit. After the transformation, she haunts the people who wronged her and brings justice to a brutal conclusion.
The Enchanting Ghost is a classic horror story, with an old-school feel, directed by Chou Hsu-Chiang. What I think makes the movie work is its pace. It slips slowly into the supernatural, and most of the film is devoted to building the relationships between the characters. It got me to care about Ruyu, so by the time she falls victim to a wicked man’s schemes, I desperately wanted her to make it out safe and sound. When she becomes a ghost, it is both heartbreaking and horrifying.
One of the things I love about The Enchanting Ghost is how you never quite know when the horror begins. It starts out with a scholar named Lang Yu Zhu (Yang Li-Hua) forced to live in haunted house after he loses his home. There he meets, Ruyu (Chang Mei-Yao), whom he marries. We get a lot of hints and false starts, where we think maybe Ruyu is a ghost who has enchanted the scholar. Right from the beginning locals mistake her for a spirit. The whole time you are waiting for her to be revealed as a ghost. Just when we’ve accepted that she is human, she proves most vulnerable, having been kidnapped by Master Shi. A mere mortal with no ghostly powers, she has no means of defending herself and falls victim to his violent advances. Later, she is poisoned by Master Shi’s wife. As she wanders home, with poison shredding her hair and flesh, we once again think she might be a ghost. But it isn’t until she drowns herself that that the supernatural truly takes hold. You know it is coming at some point, and the film does a wonderful job keeping you guessing. The effects, particularly for the time the film was made, are quite effective and menacing once Ruyu becomes a ghost.
ZHI HONG (KILLER SNAKES 1974)
Zhi Hong is creepy and unsettling in Killer Snakes. A scrawny madman armed with serpents and lizards, he vents his anger at society through the fangs of his pets. He is an unnerving villain because, in any other movie, we’d be rooting for him to succeed. He’d be the downtrodden hero. Here, his story takes a deep turn into darkness and Zhi Hong takes perverse delight eliminating his enemies through elaborate methods. This is a well-drawn and believable villain, whose excesses will turn off some viewers.
Directed by horror great Kuei Chih-Hung, Killer Snakes was released in 1974. It follows the daily life of Zhi Hong (Kam Kwok-Leung), from his failed ventures into love and his disastrous run as a delivery man. Zhi Hong is both protagonist and villain. Beaten, robbed, bullied and humiliated, he nurses a bed of wounded cobras to health who return his kindness by envenoming his enemies. This is not a movie for everyone. Kuei Chih-Hung films can be graphic and intense, and I decided to pick a movie from his catalog that seemed like an accurate representation of that. Despite the orgies of violence and sex in his movies, Kuei Chih-Hung brings atmosphere and an expert-hand. Killer snakes is scary in a way that so many 70s horror films are; it is a gritty and gruesome presentation of human evil. And it all comes down to the unwavering focus on the deeply disturbed Zhi Hong.
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SHAN CHIEN MI (BLACK MAGIC 1975)
Ku Feng is magnificent in so many different kinds of roles, and here plays Shan Chien Mi with sleaze and laidback charm. Beneath the long-flowing hair, Chien Mi is a cruel sorcerer willing to inflict harm to further his own worldly gains. For a handful of gold he can captivate someone’s love, but he will just as easily use his magic to kill.
Black Magic is a gruesome Ho Meng-Hua horror fest that spawned a whole genre. While many of its cinematic descendants, like Yang Chuan’s Seeding of a Ghost, are more extreme, Black Magic still packs a lot of stomach churning parasites and gore. Still I think it is the story and its two chief villains (Chian Mi and Mrs. Luo) that really carry it. When the wealthy and amorous Mrs. Luo (Tanny Tien) sets her sights on Xu Nuo (Ti Lung), she recruits Shan Chien Mi (Ku Feng), a practitioner of black magic, to compel his affection. With a potent love spell, she wrenches him from the arms of his bride, Chu Ying (Lily Li). Chu Ying and Xu Nuo’s friends find a priest of their own to battle Chien Mi’s charms, and a spiritual battle ensues between them.
No matter how sinister, creepy or wicked, with Ku Feng there is always an underlying likeability and I think that is why I find Shan Chien Mi so disarming as a villain. As villains go, he can be quite reasonable to work with. But he has his deceptions and his blood worm magic is disgustingly effective if you cross him.
Watch Black Magic with Prime Video: http://amzn.to/2yNInt7
CHAO CHUN FANG (HUMAN LANTERNS 1982)
Lo Lieh has a knack for playing great villains. It was hard not to include him on this list twice. His role in Web of Death was definitely worthy of inclusion (and his performance as Pai Mei is worthy of any list). But I think the character he plays in Human Lanterns, Chao Chun Fang, is remarkably suited to October. This character is a human monster and the only supernatural elements in the story are conventional wuxia features like lightness kung fu. But Chao Chun Fang manages to be quite frightening without the aid of demons or spirits. Like many on this list, he wants revenge. Years ago, he lost a duel to an arrogant swordsman who scarred his face and took the woman he loved. Now he works as a lantern maker and has been patiently crafting a plan to take away everything he can from the swordsman: his wealth, his reputation, his wife, his courtesan and even his enemy. Armed with a skull-mask and bear-like claws, he employs an animalistic of Kung Fu to work around his foe’s sword skill and make lanterns from human skin.
Directed by Sun Chung, Human Lanterns is a blend of wuxia and horror. It can be uncomfortable to watch at times, but isn’t overly intense. It is notable for its almost complete lack of likeable characters. None of the three main leads could be described as heroic. The main character, Master Lung (Lau Wing), is arrogant and treats people like means to an end. Lau Wing plays him brilliantly though and despite his shortcomings, we are willing, even eager, to follow him as he battles wits with the equally distasteful Master Tan (Chen Kuan-Tai) and is pitted against Lo Lieh’s menacing and invincible, Chao Chun Fang.
SHUI TIANJIAO (THE ENCHANTRESS 1983)
Shui Tianjiao is a ferocious blood-sucking ghost with a talent for swordplay and murder. She can take possession of people’s bodies or turn them into zombies to do her bidding. She also creates illusions to disorient her foes, tricking them into killing their loved ones with their own hands. Betrayed by her lover 18 years ago, she returns for vengeance against the entire martial world. She uses their daughter, Shuiling, to advance her revenge and will drag everyone into hell with her if she must.
Directed by Chor Yuen, The Enchantress is a wonderful blend of wuxia and horror done with Yuen’s unique visual style. Its gorgeous fog-filled sets give the movie a fitting mood. It verges on the fantastic at times, like a lot of later Shaw Brothers films, and fully embraces its magical conceits. It is the kind of movie one half-expect to reveal mundane explanations for seemingly supernatural developments. But in the end, it turns out the ghost is quite real, and extremely powerful.
Shui Tianjiao (Bonnie Ngai Chau-Wah) is a vicious and cruel ghost at the heart of a strange martial arts film, from an unusual era of movie making. In style, it falls somewhere between Holy Flame of the Marital World and the Bride From Hell.