As I said way back when in our first review of a Chor Yuen film, and likely in every subsequent review of a Chor Yuen film, discovering his body of work was one of the best cinematic things to happen to me in years. Since that day I first brought home the then newly released DVD of Killer Clans, I’ve made it a point to purchase any of the wuxia films he directed for the Shaw Brothers Studio. Needless to say, the films are not as surprising as they were during those heady first few dates, but I can say we’ve definitely settled down into a very comfortable and happy relationship. His films still prove immensely entertaining, and the more familiar I become with it, the more I notice the differences that occur from one film to the next within what I reckon we should refer to as Yuen’s Martial World.
Bat Without Wings, for example, takes the now familiar Chor Yuen wuxia trappings and injects an element of the horror film into them. Yuen’s style has always seemed somewhat informed by a combination of horror films and old mystery serials, packed as they are with sinister cults, trap doors, secret identities, and hidden chambers. Added to that was generally a splash of colored lightning courtesy of Mario Bava’s early work in films like Hercules in the Haunted World. So it wasn’t much of a stretch for Bat Without Wings to find itself inhabited by all that, with the addition of a headless ghost, requisite “spooky green supernatural” lightning, lots of fog, and a crazed masked villain. It’s almost as if Chor Yuen got tired of films based on Jin Yong novels and instead turned to Edgar Wallace for his source material.
The story is relatively straight-forward…for a Chor Yuen film. For years, the Martial World was plagued by the notorious Bat Without Wings, a heinous villain who hid his identity behind a Gene Simmons mask. When the Bat’s villainous streak of murder, theft, rape, kidnap, and plundering finally got to be too much, the greatest heroes of the Martial World banded together to kill him. All but two of the heroes died in the process, but in the end, they finally managed to kill the Bat Without Wings…or did they?
Years later, beautiful young Lei-feng (Ouyang Pei Shan) is the head of a security escort that is attacked by a man who appears to be the Bat Without Wings, returned from the grave. The security detail is slaughtered, and Lei-feng herself is kidnapped to endure a considerably worse fate at the hands of the Bat. Only the woman’s maid (Liu Lai Ling) survives to report that, to the astonishment of everyone, the attack seems to have been perpetrated by the Bat Without Wings.
Lei-feng’s father (Wong Yung) is hesitant to believe the Bat Without Wings is really behind the crime. But when his daughter’s ghost, followed closely by her dismembered body, shows up on the doorstep, he joins forces with wandering swordsman Xiao (Derek Yee, handsome and bland as always) and Lei-feng’s fiancee (Ku Kuan Chung) to solve the mystery and avenge the murder.
From that point on, the movie hits you with the usual cast of characters “who are not what they appear to be,” and while plenty confusing and complex for a newcomer, anyone accustomed to Chor Yuen films will find this one of the director’s slightly less tangled webs of mystery and intrigue. It’s not a classic in the same way that the director’s work with Ti Lung was, but it’s still a deliriously fun wuxia outing that showcases some of the weirdness the Shaw Bros. studio was so fond of in it’s waning days. The best sequences are those infused by horror. The appearance of Lei-feng’s ghost and discovery of her body is suitably chilling. The eventual reveal of the Bat Without Wing’s underground lair looks like a set borrowed from an old Roger Corman Edgar Allen Poe film. And the sequence in which our trio of heroes wind their way through an increasingly gigantic labyrinth of secret passages is a lot of fun.
The Bat Without Wings himself is a pretty classic Edgar Wallace villain (for more info on that, check out any of our krimi film reviews), right down to the sinister lair, secret identity, and “but I thought he was dead” conceit. The truth about the identity of the Bat is not that incredible a mystery, but as is often the case, Chor Yuen makes the journey so much fun that you don’t really mind if you’ve already figured out the destination. A secret treasure and copious employment of esoteric poisons only further the similarities between this movie and the krimi of the 1960s.
A few things work less well than others. There’s a bit where the three heroes investigate a mysterious prison island surrounded by bamboo and rigged with traps. It’s pretty cool for the most part, but when the “this whole island will explode” trap is triggered, it ends up being a much of sparklers firing off while Derek Yee and company try to look mildly terrified. Additionally, part of the reason the Bat Without Wings has that name is because he can fly. Unfortunately, this is realized by having the actor howl and waggle his tongue while flapping his cape up and down as he is hoisted around on some wires. It’s one o the points at which this film falls prey to the goofball (though charming) campiness of other late-era Shaw productions.
Finally, the movie is sorely lacking in compelling heroes. The three heroes are shallow sketches, at best, and none of the actors have the talent and charisma of Ti Lung to help flesh out a one-dimensional character. Derek Yee is nice to look at, but I don’t think anyone ever accused him of being an engaging performer. Even with three guys sharing the leads, they get lost in the shadow of the Bat flapping around and hollerin’ like a monkey.
But still, it’s a pretty fun movie. Not up to the standards of Yuen’s films from the 70s, but a whole lot of fun regardless. It has pretty much everything you want from such a film, plus a little more. If you’re a fan of krimi, I think this is an interesting grafting of the style onto the wuxia genre. And if you like this movie but don’t know who Edgar Wallace is, it might be worth your while to check out a few of the classics of the krimi sub-genre.