Many films focus on the glamour of the modeling industry, but it seems that it’s only the horror genre that concerns itself with its dangers. Movies like Horror of Spider Island and Bloody Pit of Horror have shown us how, time and again, models and those charged with tending to them have been called upon to place themselves in harm’s way, like soldiers at the front. And perhaps no more credible presentation of that reality can be found than in 1981’s Dawn of the Mummy — even if that film also asks us to believe that an American fashion magazine would bankroll a whole crew traveling to Egypt just to shoot dresses that look like old lady nightgowns.
Simply calling Da Khwar Lasme Spogmay “a Pakistani film” would likely send any serious minded booster of that nation’s cinema into paroxysms of despair. The Pashto language film industry that produced Da Khwar Lasme Spogmay, which serves an overwhelmingly male audience in the country’s northern border region, is considered to be pretty much the absolute gutter of Pakistan’s film making culture. For Americans, you’d have to imagine meeting a person from a foreign country whose only exposure to American cinema was through seeing Manos: The Hands of Fate, and who tried to characterize the whole of the U.S.’s filmic output based on that.
If you’re in a deploring mood, there is much to deplore in the sexual politics of 1960s men’s magazines. But, putting aside the rather ungainly issue of the representation of women, can it truly be said that our newsstands’ depiction of men has improved all that much in the ensuing years? To my eye, the typical men’s magazine of today features a heavily photoshopped Ashton Kucher on the cover and, inside, an even more photoshopped spread of some skeletal romcom starlet in her underwear, along with a bunch of “fake it til you make it” columns on how to appear like less of an uncultured dick than you really are and some snarky article about how to nail the new temp in your office.
What is it about a sexy woman in a skull mask? Is it that her nubile body makes one pine for his lost youth while her death’s head visage mockingly reminds him of his encroaching mortality? Probably.
Neraka Lembah Tengkorak is based on a series of popular Indonesian novels credited to author Bastian Tito, all of which focus on the exploits of Wiro Sablang, a sort of wuxia-style wandering hero gifted with a wide variety of supernatural powers. Seven films in all were based on the series, all starring actor Tonny Hidayat as Wiro, and the popularity of the books would later also translate into a successful TV series, albeit one with a different actor in the lead.
Eddie Romero is an important figure in the history of U.S. – Philippines relations, or at least he is to the extent that U.S. – Philippines relations depend upon the import and export of quality drive-in fare. As a producer and director, Romero pioneered the practice within the Filipino film industry of tailoring product for the American market, usually with the participation of American producers. Who knows what butterfly-effect-like calamities might otherwise have befallen our great country, denied exposure to the films in Romero’s Blood Island trilogy, or his classic WIP picture Black Mama, White Mama? The mind positively reels.
The Twilight People, like many of Romero’s U.S. releases, began life as a co-production in which Roger Corman had a prominent hand, in this case via Corman’s recently formed New World Pictures. However, the film ultimately saw release in the States under the Dimension Pictures banner, having changed hands in the split between Corman and his New World co-founder, Lawrence Woolner, who had gone on to found Dimension. On the Filipino end, the film was made under the auspices of Four Associates Ltd., a production company formed by Romero and actor/producer John Ashley, who also starred in the picture. As legend has it, Ashley –- who is a familiar face to many due to his appearances in the Beach Party movies and other AIP teen fare –- fell in love with the Philippines during the filming of Romero’s Manila Open City, in which he starred in 1968. Ashley then proceeded to consummate that love by producing and/or starring in a string of Filipino exploitation films, a number of them with Romero, that would keep his career Philippines-bound for the better part of the next several years.
Among the biggest of Romero and Ashley’s Stateside successes was the trio of Blood Island films that started with 1968′s Mad Doctor of Blood Island. The Twilight People, with its monster-fied tale of science gone mad in an exotic setting, could be seen as a spiritual sibling to those films. But it can just as clearly be seen as Romero’s undisguised homage to both The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Most Dangerous Game. Ashley, who seems to have had no qualms about using his grip on the purse strings to secure a flattering star turn, plays Matt Farrel, a figure whom another character in the film at one point describes thusly:
“Scholar, soldier of fortune, hunter… What did that magazine call you? ‘The Last Renaissance Man’”.
Of course, a person of such extraordinary stock as Farrell will naturally be attractive to a mad scientist bent on creating a race of supermen, which is why Farrell finds himself abducted and taken to the island hideaway of one Dr. Gordon (Charles Macaulay). Though it should be said, as Gordon points out, that what the doctor is creating is not so much a race of supermen as it is a race of super beings. At this point, however, Gordon’s radical hot-wiring of the evolutionary process is only at the stage where his otherwise human-looking subjects all appear to be wearing carnivalesque masks of one type of animal or another. What is missing is that certain x factor that Gordon is hoping Farrell can provide, the renaissance man brain patterns with which to imprint his creations.
At the same time, Gordon has a strong-arm man by the name of Steinman (Jan Merlin) who makes a secret neither of his admiration for Farrell or of his desire to hunt Farrell like a wild animal. As such, he is constantly goading Farrell to make a break for it, and even, at one point, offers to help him… and then to give him a head start before he comes after him guns blazing. What’s interesting is that, despite the antagonism bred by their roles as captive and captor, there is an unmistakable affinity between Farrell and Steinman, one that is well played by both actors. Later in the film, the implications of this are bluntly underscored when Steinman accuses Gordon’s attractive daughter Neva (former Petticoat Junction star Pat Woodell) of having “hot pants” for Farrell. “That makes two of us,” she retorts.
And then, of course, there are the film’s beast people, the most difficult among whom to ignore is Ayesa, the Panther Woman, who is played by Pam Grier. Granted, this was early in Grier’s career, but not so early that she hadn’t already had prominent speaking roles, perhaps most notably in the previous year’s The Big Bird Cage. Nonetheless, the lithe limbed actress is here limited to dialog consisting entirely of overdubbed growling as, clothed in nothing more than an abbreviated shift, she prowls around on all fours. She looks fantastic doing this, of course, even with the cut-rate cat face prosthetics that the make-up department have fitted her with. It’s just that Grier’s status as a powerful screen presence is today so widely acknowledged that it’s a bit startling to be reminded that her status at the time was such that she could be simply tossed into such a supporting role as eye candy.
Also among the movie’s more prominent beast people is a winged bat man played by Tony Gonsalvez, a character whose struggles to take flight make up an ongoing subplot — the final payoff of which makes for, depending on where you stand, either one of the movies most ridiculous or giddily enjoyable visual moments. (Gonsalves does a fine job as an actor here, especially considering that he appears to have been employed more frequently as a sound effects man in Filipino productions.) Then there is the gentle and soft hearted Antelope Man, Kuzma, played by Ken Metcalfe, the Wolf Woman, Lupa, with whom he seems to have formed a romantic bond (Mona Morena), and Primo, the Ape Man (Kim Ramos), who will later show himself to be a little too handsy when it comes to Gordon’s daughter.
All of these critters get the chance to show what they’re made of when Neva, who indeed does have “hot pants” for the generously sideburned Farrell, decides to help him escape, and in doing so ends up taking all of the beast people along with them. From there, the hunt is on, with Steinman and his men tracking the escapees through the jungle surrounding Gordon’s mansion. What Steinman, in all his eagerness, hasn’t counted on, however, is the alliance between the animal people and the people people, and the fierce resistance that those caged-too-long beasties are capable of putting up.
Put simply, The Twilight People is much better than it needs to be, and manages to be so without giving the appearance of trying to compete outside of its class. Not only does Romero know how to tell a story, but he also knows how to make an attractive looking picture on limited means. His camera angles are frequently imaginative, and studiously avoid the kind of nailed down camera work so frequently seen in similar quickie productions. He also combines an eye for striking found locations with an ability to liven up minimal sets with offbeat lighting effects, giving the end product a gloss that’s beyond what most people would expect from what is, in essence, just a cheesy drive-in monster movie. Furthermore, the film’s script — written by Romero with Jerome Small –- is tightly composed, and devoid neither of a fair share of pithy dialog or of interesting character notes, the edgy bromantic tension between Farrell and Steinman being chief among them.
If The Twilight People fails anywhere, it is in its admittedly shoddy makeup effects, which go a long way toward undermining Romero’s attempts to portray the tragic nature of the film’s beast people. Nonetheless, it is to Romero’s credit that, despite that, he still manages to hit some poignant notes, especially in his depiction of the tentative, budding romance between the childlike Kuzma and Lupa. Whether you are affected by that, of course, depends on how much you are willing to cast your lot in with a film of such straight-faced silliness as this. In my opinion, you should. The Twilight People is what it is, but it is also an example of the best of what it is: an outstanding and colorful piece of trash entertainment. Almost makes me wish I could time travel back to those drive-in days and see it as was originally intended.
Release Year: 1973 | Country: Philippines, United States | Starring: John Ashley, Pat Woodell, Jan Merlin, Charles Macaulay, Pam Grier, Ken Metcalfe, Tony Gonsalves, Kim Ramos, Mona Morena, Eddie Garcia | Screenplay: Eddie Romero, Jerome Small | Director: Eddie Romero | Cinematography: Fredy Conde | Music: Tito Arevalo, Ariston Avelino | Producers: Eddie Romero, John Ashley
The enormous popularity of pocket-sized Filipino action star Weng Weng — in the wake of his successful debut as Agent 00 in For Y’ur Height Only — was destined to be short-lived. And apparently no one was more aware of that than the people guiding his career. As a result, the dawning years of the 1980s saw the P.I.’s theater screens deluged with a mini-flood bearing the Weng Weng brand. The sequel to Height, The Impossible Kid, followed hot on the heels of it’s predecessor, seeing release in 1982, while Weng Weng’s first headlining foray into the Western genre, D’Wild Wild Weng, hit screens that same year.
My guess is that if you don’t know who Weng Weng is by now, you’re probably not the kind of person who’s going to care who Weng Weng is anyway. And if that’s the case, you obviously came upon this site by mistake. Then again, I may be wrong about that. After all, those who keep abreast of internet memes and those with a taste for obscure cult movies are not necessarily one and the same — just as, conversely, it’s a rare type who will go from chuckling at the exploits of Weng Weng or Little Superstar in a two minute YouTube clip to actually seeking out and watching one of their movies in its entirety. (I am one of those two kinds of people. Can you guess which one?)
I suspect that the appeal of these female-centric compilations of vintage international pop is due no less to the power of the female voice to both soothe and inflame than it is to the longstanding function of the female form as an era defining marker of style. Perhaps few better illustrations of this can be found than the image that emblazons the cover of German label Grosse Freiheit’s Funky Frauleins series: that of a long haired, lithe, and blissed-out looking blond whose naked body has been turned into one big psychedelic canvas. It’s a single picture that evokes a very specific cultural moment as easily as any painstakingly assembled collage ever could, and has the added value of tantalizing us with promises of sex and countercultural transgression.
However, as its subtitle — “Female beat, groove, funk in Germany 1968-1981” – implies, the second volume of Funky Frauleins casts a much wider net, both in terms of style and timeframe, than either its predecessor or other similar compilations dealing with the bygone pop sirens of, for instance, Japan and France. And the potential for disjunction that creates becomes apparent with the album’s very first transition, as we move from the brass-driven, late 60s bubblegum stomp of Ushci Moser’s “Sunny Honey” to the slinky disco groove of Veronika Fischer’s “He, Wir Fahr’n Mit Dem Zug”, which wears its 1977 vintage proudly on its sleeve. Clearly the unifying theme here is, above all else, that the performers are both female and German, which is probably enough for some. But, aside from the fact that the sense of disjointedness eases as the album progresses, for me it still lacked the pleasing overall cohesiveness of recent similar girl pop comps such as Nippon Girls and some of the better French Yeh-Yeh collections.
Another thing that, for me, establishes the listen-ability of these kind of collections is how well they balance kitsch with quality. Of course, what you might consider kitsch on an album like Funky Frauleins depends a lot on what cultural assumptions you bring to it. The stereotypical ideas of rigidity and authoritarian bent that the sound of German inflection might summon for many indeed provide a humorous contrast to the notions of looseness, flow and improvisation that terms like “funk” and “groove” conjure. And, if that’s your mindset, Funky Frauleins will certainly deliver on the yuks. Fasia’s strident vocal on track 3’s “Arbeitslosen – Blues” indeed seems to be trying to shout the groove into submission, while on track 11’s “Superstition”, the raw, bluesy vocal of Inga Rumpf is undermined somewhat by the fussiness with which the arrangement adheres to the Stevie Wonder original. Elsewhere, the stiff enunciation of Caterina Valente, on her English language cover of Peter Paul and Mary’s “I Dig Rock and Roll Music”, might cast some doubt upon just how sincerely she really is “diggin’” that “scene”.
But, elsewhere, Funky Frauleins delivers on the funk enough to pull it back from the brink of being a mere snark fest. Among such cuts are Anne Halgis’s “Fingernails”, whose propulsive energy and jazzy swing manage to outshine some pretty strange English lyrics, and perhaps the album’s highlight, “Can’t Understand”, a track by a pre-Giorgio Moroder Donna Summer — recording under her real name, Donna Gaines –- that’s marked by an insistent, pulsating rhythm and emotional, yet calmly authoritative vocal. Other hard driving highlights include Su Kramer’s deliciously wah-wah inflected “WieBer Sand” and Angelika Mann’s stark “Kutte”. And while these tracks may be overshadowed by the novelty of an entry like Lili Lindfors’ goofy, German language cover of “Harper Valley P.T.A.”, they are nonetheless those that provide the collection with its much needed heart and (especially) soul.
Aside from providing grist for adventurists in the pop music realm, Funky Frauleins also has something to offer fans of Euro cinema, as a number of its featured players led a double life in the world of film. Among these are the aforementioned Uschi Moser, a star of light sexploitation fare whose “Sunny Honey” initially appeared in her film Yearning For Love. College Girl Murders starlet Uschi Glas sings the lead on “Mein Wochenende”, a song composed and arranged by the great Peter Thomas, whose many scores include those to the Jerry Cotton Europsy films and the German sci-fi TV series Raumpatrouille Orion. Elsewhere, a sensuous, mildly disco-fied cover of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” is delivered by Hildegard Knef, a respected actress whose many credits include starring in The Murderers Are Among Us, the first production from East Germany’s DEFA Studios.
Overall, Funky Frauleins offered a diverting musical travelogue. But, while I suspect I’ll be consigning a good number of its standout tracks to my iPod, I doubt I’ll be giving the album as a whole a repeat listen anytime soon. Of course, this is probably a negligible distinction in this day and age, and — as much as my use of the term “day and age” — probably dates me considerably. Not all of us are as demanding of tight thematic cohesion when it comes to our albums, or of “albums” at all, come to think of it. More importantly, there are no doubt those among us who are perfectly happy just to hear a bunch of German ladies sing, and, for them, I can’t imagine Funky Frauleins being anything but deeply satisfying.
Rest assured that I’m going to attempt a formal review of Hunterwali in the paragraphs below, though I have to admit I’m tempted just to leave you with the blunt summation I gave my wife after watching it, which went as follows: “Amazing. It was like two and a half hours of people yelling at each other and fat ladies dancing, and then, at the end, a dog rode a horse.”
The whip-wielding female avenger Hunterwali is a frequently recurring character in South Asian film, going back at least as far as Fearless Nadia’s initial turn in the role back in 1935. This 1988 version is a Pakistani take on the legend, fronted by one of the day’s biggest stars of Pakistan’s rough and tumble Punjabi language cinema, the generously proportioned Anjuman. Also on hand are the two other biggest stars of Pakistan’s Punjabi language cinema, Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi, who, along with Anjuman, were teamed together with such numbing frequency that it sounds like it was near impossible to see a movie in which the three didn’t appear. The insanely popular Rahi alone was like a one man industry, starring in over 500 films between his debut in the mid 50s and his assassination in 1996.
It probably goes without saying by this time that the version of Hunterwali I had access to had no English subtitles. Subtitles, however, are for the weak — or so I have come to believe. Of course, it’s easy for me to take that stance when I can avail myself of the detailed summary provided by Omar Khan over at The Hotspot Online. Given the insane contortions of Hunterwali’s plot, I am indeed in his debt.
Still, summary aside, the most important thing that I need to communicate to you about Hunterwali is that, for the uninitiated, it will likely come across as the most yelling-est movie ever. During its first act it seems as if not a moment passes without someone pointing a finger and bellowing defiantly at someone else, usually with that someone else in turn pointing their finger and bellowing back. I have since learned that these screaming verbal sparring matches -– known colloquially as barrak –- are a standard feature of these Punjabi action films. It’s as if every man and woman in the film were played by 1970s era Dharmendra, but a version of 1970s era Dharmendra who has somehow been fused with the great and powerful OZ, so that every one of his full-throated utterances comes equipped with its own cavernous reverb. In keeping with this, Hunterwali as a whole, while not as sleazy, shows much the same commitment to subtlety seen in Pashto efforts like the notorious Haseena Atom Bomb, complete with an absurdly profligate use of shock zooms and frequent thunderclap sound effects to denote important plot points.
The film does calm down a bit after the first act, settling into a middle bit rich with masala melodrama. At this point it might seem like the movie was less concerned with Hunterwali’s exploits than it is with the question of whether she will settle down and become a dutiful wife and daughter. To underscore this, Hunterwali is provided with a twin sister, Bano, who, by contrast, is every bit as demure and devout as Hunterwali is aggressive and hoochified. (Needless to say, Bano always keeps her head covered and her body hidden underneath loose fitting garments.) Those used to Western portrayals of these type of fantasies of female vigilantism might be forgiven for thinking at first that Hunterwali intends to celebrate its heroine’s flaunting of gender norms. However, the deep conservatism of the film soon becomes apparent, demonstrating that, while the makers may not be above using Hunterwali’s scandalous behavior to titillate their male viewers, they also clearly intend to show that a heavy price must be paid for it.
This price comes in the form of a handsome young fellow whom Hunterwali falls for after he helps her fend off a gang of would-be rapists. In defiance of her father, who has already arranged for her to marry a family friend, she runs off with the man, only to find that he is far from the honorable gentlemen that he initially seemed. In communicating the depths of this guy’s depravity, the movie uses an interesting moral shorthand. Of course, we already know that things aren’t going well once he takes Hunterwali home to reveal that he lives in a cave lair. But, once he is revealed to be in cahoots with the gang of would-be rapists, we notice only too late that that cave is lined with magazine pinups of Madonna, Brooke Shields, Jennifer Beals and — hey, is that Phoebe Cates?
Hunterwali manages to escape from the rape gang, but, because she has disgraced her family, feels she has no recourse but to commit suicide. However, her father then shows up on the scene and prevents her from doing so, preferring to handle the job himself by putting a bullet in her head. Bano then also makes the scene and throws herself between Hunterwali and her father, taking the bullet meant for her sister. Dad then turns the gun on himself and blows his own head off. This jaw dropping sequence comes to a close with Hunterwali promising the dying Bano that she will take her place, which will entail playing wife to Bano’s new husband, a righteous police inspector played by Mustafa Qureshi.
As might be expected, the combination of married life and the business of being Bano quickly starts to chafe on Hunterwali, and she is soon back to her vigilante antics in full force. This happily leads to a final act chock-a-block with violence, gore and absurd animal stunts, as she hunts down the members of the rape gang one-by-one and shoots out their eyes before hanging them from the rafters of their Rape Cave.
The final set piece sees Hunterwali closing in on the leader of the gang — her former paramour — with the assistance of her two ani-pals, a horse named Moti and an adult German Sheppard named Puppy. The gang is momentarily able to subdue the two critters and get the drop on our heroine, but only until the resourceful Puppy is able to free Moti from his bonds and go riding to the rescue.
As well as another fine addition to the South Asian Animal Stars Hall of Fame and some truly amazing — and shiny! — outfits worn by Anjuman, Hunterwali boasts an ear-hectoring, Bappi Lahiri-esque disco score that will keep you tapping your toe right up to the very moment you shoot yourself to make it stop. What can I say, this movie really is the whole package… of what, though, I have to confess I’m at a loss to say.
To the martial arts cinema purist, the phrase “made in Taiwan” doesn’t exactly stand as a guaranty of quality. It was Hong Kong, after all, that played home to the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest brands, as well as the galaxy of first rate talent that they attracted. Taiwan, on the other hand, appeared to have a lot of anonymous fields and quarries in which fights could be staged without any risk of expensive props or set elements being damaged. But what Taiwan’s martial arts cinema lacked in terms of budgets and top notch performers, it made up for in crazy. In other words, while the fighters in an old school Taiwanese kung fu movie were less likely to be as skillful as those in, say, a Liu Chia-Lang film, they were also much more likely to be wearing mangy gorilla suits.
As a connoisseur of such films, I’ve learned that there are certain performers who serve as a kind of signpost, indicating whether or not a Taiwanese martial arts film is likely to deliver on those elements I’m looking for. In fact, there are three actresses in particular, each of whose presence in a movie exponentially increases its likelihood of being head-scratchingly bizarre. You could refer to them as the high priestesses of Taiwanese weird fu. One of these priestesses is Polly Shang Kwan, who, despite tony beginnings as a discovery of King Hu, would, by the late 70s, be fighting giant rubber octopuses and projectile sharks with endearing verve in movies like Little Hero and Zodiac Fighters. Another is Lam Siu-Lau, who played young boy heroes in a series of kiddie-oriented fantasy wuxia films rich with animal costumes, heavy metal coiffure, and insanely profligate wire-assisted flying effects. And then there is “Pearl” Cheung Ling.
It is frustratingly difficult to find information about Cheung Ling, but here is what I’ve gleaned: She first came to fame as a star of the popular Taiwanese television serial Bodyguard, which spread over 256 episodes that aired almost nightly between 1974 and 1975. When that show ended, series producer Chen Ming-Hua set out to bring a feature version of Bodyguard to the big screen. The result was the 1976 film China Armed Escort, which marked Cheung Ling’s debut as a cinematic leading lady. Unfortunately, the film failed to meet expectations at the box office. Still, Cheung Ling and Chen Ming-Hua soldiered on, making six more features together over the next several years, all of which featured Cheung Ling as their star. During this time, Cheung Ling proved her merits sufficiently to go on to star as the heroine of films not produced and directed by Chen Ming-Hua. Many of these built upon the image of her that China Armed Escort established, that of a swordswoman with supernaturally assisted abilities. This served Cheung Ling well, for, unlike some of her female contemporaries in kung fu cinema –- like Shang Kwan or Angela Mao — she apparently lacked the martial arts training that would make her convincingly formidable as a fighter without the aid of wires, cartoon hand rays and other cheap special effects.
But it was not until the early 80s that Cheung Ling would write herself indelibly into the history of martial arts cinema — albeit in, perhaps, very tiny writing, and maybe just as a footnote, if undeservedly so. It was at this time that she took it upon herself to produce, write, direct and star in a pair of films that would make her that rarest of rarities in the male dominated kung fu genre: not only a female director, but a female auteur. One of those films, Dark Lady of Kung Fu, was a remake of the Shaw Brothers’ Mandarin language film The Black Butterfly — itself a period remake of Chor Yuen’s The Black Rose — that was rendered so claustrophobic by its tiny and repetitively used sets that it is barely watchable. But the other film was one that would cement Cheung Ling’s place as, not just a hero of her gender within the limited world of chop sockey, but also as the creator of a true landmark work of what-the-fu.
Cheung Ling’s Wolf Devil Woman is an adaptation of Liang Yusheng’s popular 1958 wuxia novel Baifa Monu Zhuan, which has served as the basis for numerous films over the years, likely the most famous being Ronny Yu’s The Bride With White Hair. But, shared source material aside, Wolf Devil Woman is worlds away from Yu’s masterpiece, being every bit as crude as Bride is elegant. But it is in its combination of poverty-driven minimalism and lysergic surrealism that Wolf Devil Woman really carves out its own unique niche.
From it’s opening moments, Wolf Devil Woman gives you a vivid taste of what’s in store, with a breathlessly brief, hyperactively edited sequence filled with barely glanced shock visuals, stock footage thunder and lightning, and weird, rudimentary special effects. It’s enough to make you think that you’ve accidentally popped Pyasa Shaitan into the player –- granted you even know what Pyasa Shaitan is, of course. When it’s all over, what your brain decides it has seen is a scene of ritual sacrifice in which a guy in a sparkly, skull-and-crossbones emblazoned KKK hood’s stabbing of a wax voodoo doll results in gouts of cell animated blood spouting out of the torso of a crucified man. We’ve also, we realize after the fact, caught a glimpse of one of the hooded guy’s monstrous minions, whose monstrousness is accomplished by the wearing of a store bought rubber fright mask. Could it be, then, that Pearl Cheung Ling is the Harinam Singh of kung fu?
Also among the spectators of this, um, spectacle are a young couple with baby in tow, who look very much like they’ve walked into the wrong party and are none too happy about it. These, we will later learn, are the parents of our protagonist-to-be, and the female half of the couple is, in fact, played by Cheung Ling herself. We will also learn that the hooded fellow is the villain of the piece, Red Devil, and that this couple are a pair of disciples who are only just now realizing that being a follower of the Red Devil entails quite a bit more than the new age healing rituals and spa days promised in the brochure. And so they flee, making their way across the snowy mountain terrain that will provide most of Wolf Devil Woman’s most opulent visuals, as well as most of what scant relief there is from it’s overall cramped and set-bound look.
Unfortunately, fright mask guy and a team of high-flying, red clad ninjas are close on the heels of the fleeing family. Cornered, the parents decide to sacrifice themselves for the life of their child, and so stab themselves with their swords, drenching the baby with their blood — the stated purpose for this being that the blood will hopefully keep warm and “preserve” her. And note that this is clearly an actual baby that we’re seeing showered with gore here, meaning that some parent signed off on having crew members of Wolf Devil Woman spray stage blood in their infant child’s face. This accomplished, the parents fall to their knees and begin to repeatedly and in unison slam their heads into a snow bank, eventually setting off an avalanche.
Once the bodies of parents and child alike have disappeared under the snow, a pack of wolves, played by dogs running in slow motion, appear over the horizon to chase off fright mask and his ninjas. The “wolves” then proceed to dig up the bodies of the young couple, after which –- in a nice introductory example of Wolf Devil Woman’s tendency to gleefully indulge in wanton extra-narrative gore –- they tear hungrily at and feast upon the limbs of the corpses. Elsewhere, a lighter colored dog/wolf digs up the still breathing infant and spirits her away to an expressionistically artificial looking indoor ice cave set that is complete with its own natural ice bridge crossing an unfrozen interior stream.
As with everything else in Wolf Devil Woman, quick work is made of the rearing of this young girl into an adult wolf devil woman. We get a brief scene of the toddler sloppily shoving bloody raw meat into her mouth as the members of the pack sit around barking encouragement, and then another one in which, after being injured in a fall, she is revived by the “White Wolf” after being fed something that looks like a red Christmas ornament. This results in her having a kind of seizure that makes her hair momentarily turn pure white, which sets the stage for those later scenes in which our heroine will be seen, in Hulk-like fashion, going from Brunette to Edgar Winter whenever agitated.
Finally we get our first glimpse of the Wolf Devil Woman in full bloom, as well as at the first of Pearl Cheung Ling’s astonishing outfits, which, in the early parts of the film, encompass the full range of pelt-based high fashion. This first get-up is without a doubt the film’s most iconic, topped off as it is with a plush dog toy worn as headwear. It should also be noted that our star sees being raised by wolves in a snowy wilderness as no excuse for foregoing glamour, as, despite all of her feral trappings, Pearl’s face remains heavily made up throughout, foundation, rouge, lipstick and all. Obviously her canine guardians fashioned cosmetics for her out of regurgitated roots and berries, or something.
Throughout Wolf Devil Woman, Cheung Ling does things that, in most circumstances, would cause me to pity the poor, debased actor doing them. That is, until I remember that Cheung Ling wrote, produced and directed Wolf Devil Woman, and thus has no one but herself to blame. That said, she seems to take to scrambling around on all fours, stuffing her mouth with raw meat, and spouting bursts of animalistic gibberish with a lot of gusto, and actually seems to be quite enjoying herself most of the time. Perhaps, then, she saw the film as her opportunity to prove herself as being more than just an ornamental leading lady, instead immersing herself in a down and dirty, glamour-free character. Perhaps this was her Nell, her Monster. In any case, what Cheung Ling chooses to do with that opportunity is deliver a performance that, while far from gritty, is undeniably eccentric, consisting of lots of twitching and scratching, accompanied by gestures and facial expressions so cartoonishly over-telegraphed that they would seem excessive even in a film from the early silent era.
Such is the case from even her earliest scenes in the film, during which we watch Wolf Woman struggle with trying to catch a rabbit. This involves a lot of trial, and even more error, as well as a lot of comical furrowing of brow and bouts of enraged grunting. The leaping and lunging required also provides the theater for some pretty haphazard wire work, which occasionally makes Cheung Ling look like she’s being dragged through the air by the seat of her pants. Finally Wolf Woman learns to burrow into the snow and surprise the rabbit in its hole from underneath, after which she is shown lustily tearing the little beast’s body in half.
And this might be a good time for me to discuss the one element of Wolf Devil Woman that prevents me from recommending it wholeheartedly: it’s animal cruelty. Like a lot of my otherwise hardened cult film reviewing brethren, real animal death and suffering is one of the few insurmountable obstacles to enjoyment of a film that I can encounter. As much as I love movies, there could never be any justification for any living thing sacrificing its life for one. I have, however, calloused myself somewhat toward the practice in old Hong Kong and Taiwanese films, due to what I perceive as a cultural tendency to sentimentalize animals to a comparatively much lesser degree than we Yanks do, coupled with the cold-eyed pragmatism of those country’s commercial film industries. (If you ever find yourself wondering whether an animal death in an old Hong Kong movie is real or faked, consider which of those options would have been the cheapest and most expedient at the time and you’ll have your answer –- a principle for which many a hapless snake has had its blood spilled on the Shaw Brothers back lot.)
The incidents of animal violence in Wolf Devil Woman, however, are particularly mean spirited and graphic. The movie, in particular, seems to have a real hatred for bunnies. And even if you might choose to defend those scenes as being at least an attempt at a realistic portrayal of how a woman raised as a wolf might actually fill her days –- i.e. with the killing and devouring of prey — that doesn’t excuse the way the camera lingers on the carnage, reveling in the mayhem for its own sake. It says a lot for Wolf Devil Woman as a whole that I have amped up my capacity for denial accordingly in order that I might savor it’s other, legitimately entertaining aspects. But it nonetheless makes it, along with The Cat, another one of those films that I — despite however much I find within it to love — can only recommend on an extremely conditional basis.
Anyway, as it inevitably must, Wolf Woman’s primitive idyll is eventually intruded upon by the arrival in her snowy environs of emissaries from the so-called civilized world –- in this case, a young knight (Sek Fung) and his servant (Pa Gwoh), who, in the English dub of the film, are confusingly referred to as “Young Rudolph” and “Rudy”, respectively. As we will learn from a later scene that might have been intended as a flashback — but which really seems like it was simply inserted into the movie out of sequence — Rudolph has been sent into the mountains by his father in order to retrieve the “thousand year old ginseng” that is the only antidote to the Red Devil’s weapon of choice, a deadly freezing spell. You see, we have immediately previous been treated to a potentially seizure-inducing montage of the Red Devil’s continuing reign of terror, which looks like a series of fraction-of-a-second long clips from about eight different movies stitched together.
By the way, the thousand year old ginseng turns up a lot in these movies. In the Lam Siu-Lau fantasy Magic of Spell, it’s portrayed as a little boy in an adorable, full-body ginseng root costume. And, in Legend of the Mother Goddess, it’s a creepy, root-shaped little flying baby. In Wolf Devil Woman, however, it turns out to have been that red Christmas ornament looking thing that the White Wolf fed to the young Wolf Woman at the beginning of the movie, which means that Young Rudolph and Rudy will have to go home empty handed.
Before that can happen, though, the story takes a momentary turn that could be described as “Pygmalion in pelts”, with Rudolph and Rudy, in very short order, teaching Wolf Woman to speak and behave like a comparatively civilized young lady. I think that this portion of the film is intended as comedy, with Rudy — him being a comic relief character and all — frequently calling Wolf Woman a “Stupid wolf guhl” in that affected British accent that so many characters in English dubbed 1980s kung fu films seem to have. Wolf Woman also bites Young Rudolph on a couple different occasions. Finally, Rudolph forcefully straightens Wolf Woman’s hunched spine in a bizarrely visualized scene that sees shots of Sek Fung wrestling with a frantically mugging Cheung Ling intercut with shots of what looks like a metal model of a human spine being violently twisted around.
Things ultimately take a somber turn when the boys have to inform Wolf Woman that, in the course of their entry into her domain, they killed the White Wolf, and that, given that, she hasn’t just been out shopping all this time like they’ve been telling her. This provokes Wolf Woman to Hulk-out and go all white haired, after which the knight and his aid skulk off back home, leaving Pearl behind to mournfully howl at the moon.
But, of course, the seeds of love have been planted, and when Young Rudolph and his father are captured by the Red Devil and his minions, Wolf Woman, hidden away in her faraway lair, senses trouble. At this, and without explanation, Pearl abruptly takes on the next of her many Wolf Devil Woman iterations, the one I like to call “Robin Tarzan”. (She also has a nice “Lawrence of Arabia” phase, where she travels through the desert in fashionable Bedouin attire while doing battle with sand ninjas.) This involves her wearing rough cut peasant clothes — albeit with huge hair adornments that make her head look like it wants to be a helicopter –- and swinging from tree to tree by a fur-covered rope. By this means she makes her way to a small town, where a drunken Hulk-out in a tavern leads to her being thrown into a well by the angry villagers.
After being washed out to sea, Wolf Woman conveniently ends up beached right at the feet of the very bearded sage (Sek Ying) who can fill her in on the Red Devil’s role as, not only her beloved’s captor, but also her real parents’ killer, and who informs her that it his her destiny to bring the villain down. This provokes Pearl’s final, jump cut-assisted and wholly unexplained transformation, this time into a resplendently coiffed, white clad wuxia heroine right out of a Chor Yuen movie. Her weapon of choice now — again unexplained to the point where we might as well be in a totally different movie altogether — is a furry rope with giant chicken claws on either end, which she uses to disembowel and decapitate her opponents with complete abandon. Gone is her swinging rope, now replaced by a charging white steed upon which she rides toward her destiny.
What that destiny entails, I will, for the sake of those interested in seeing this film for themselves, not divulge. But suffice it to say that there will be zombies, cartoon fire, and lots of Pearl Cheung Ling being haphazardly slung around on wires.
I realize that, if you’re reading this, it is likely nowhere near the first review of this type of film that you’ve read, and that, as a result, you’ve read endless claims –- some of them, most likely, from me –- about how this or that movie is the most “insane” or “WTF” thing ever. And while I’ll make no claims to it being the “most” of anything, I do ask that you grant me some authority when I say that, as far as strange movies go, Wolf Devil Woman is definitely the real deal. It is indeed the type of deeply strange film that can only result from a person who is themselves deeply strange attempting to make what his or her addled mind considers to be a perfectly straightforward and rousing piece of entertainment. It is furthermore that oddest of birds, a vanity project whose subject’s “vanity” seems to be best served by making her look as completely and relentlessly ludicrous as is humanly possible. Oh, and lest I forget, it is also one of those many 1980s kung fu films that is made exponentially weirder by its English dubbing job, which involves choices such as having the monstrous Red Devil talk like Yosemite Sam
This is all not to say that Wolf Devil Woman is a lone blip of strangeness on Pearl Cheung Ling’s long resume. In fact, it would seem that her Wolf Woman character would become an indelible part of her screen persona from this point on, and that, as a result, she would embody a number of similar “kung fu bag lady” types in subsequent films. She would also, in 1982, return to the director’s chair for what might be her true masterpiece, Matching Escort (released stateside as Fury of the Silver Fox), in which she is taken as a disciple by a kung fu master who lives in an underground fairy land, whose training methods involve rubbing caustic substances in Pearl’s eyes and forcing her to eat disgusting things, but no actual fight training. And then, of course, she would appear alongside Jackie Chan –- a high priestess of weird once again — in 1983’s Fantasy Mission Force, a film of near legendary bizarreness.
And then, after that — perhaps feeling that, by starring in a film that featured Abraham Lincoln fighting World War II with the aid of 1970s muscle cars, she had finally topped herself — Pearl Cheung Ling disappeared from the screen, the details of her activities ever since becoming as mysterious to us as those preceding her appearance on the scene in the mid 70s. While I respect her desire to shun the spotlight –- if that is indeed the case –- I do truly hope that, wherever she is, she understands the uniqueness of her contribution to world cinema. And that she has perhaps learned to be more tolerant towards those poor bunnies.
Release Year: 1981 | Country: Taiwan | Starring: Pearl Cheung Ling, Sek Fung, Wang Hsieh, Ho Hing-Nam, Wan Siu-Man, Sek Ying, Philip So Yuen-Fung, Clement Yip Chiu-Yuk, Woo Chung, Pa Gwoh, Cheung Yue-Cheung, Wong Pui-Yee, Pui Tak-Wan | Screenplay: Pearl Cheung Ling | Director: Pearl Cheung Ling | Cinematography: Chan Sin-Lok | Music: Tseng Chung-Ching | Producers: Pearl Cheung Ling, Alan Wu Yu-Ling | Also know as: Wolfen Ninja