It is logical, and it seemed easy enough, to begin a discussion of The Cat and the Canary with a discussion of the history of “old dark house” mysteries — those movies where a disparate and largely shifty group of people convene upon a mysterious old mansion and find themselves embroiled in — and probably accused of — either a murder or a theft. Lots of skulking, staring, and clutching hands appearing from behind curtains or the doors of hidden passages ensues. From the silent era to the end of the 1930s, there was a dizzying number of “old dark house” films produced. They were cheap to make, easy to write, and demanded little from the production company or the audience. At their worst, old dark house mysteries were harmlessly entertaining. Often they were much better than that. The formula was so adaptable that it could be grafted onto pretty much any type of movie. Even established series like the Bulldog Drummond and Charlie Chan movies fell back from time to time on the old dark house motif. From horror to comedy to crime to thriller, it was easy to crank out an old dark house version of the genre and keep everyone at least moderately satisfied.
I’m going to have to cram a bunch of history up front in this review, so if you already know most of it, please forgive me. I feel it sets the stage properly for those among you who aren’t nerdy enough to have a vast and swelling knowledge of the ins and outs of British censorship efforts, Italian slasher-thriller movies, and the joyous day those two tastes were plunged together into a scrummy treat known as the “Video Nasties” list. Let me first take back to a time when Samantha Fox was still a fox (maybe she still is; I haven’t seen her in years) and the world was just beginning to discover the pleasure of home video systems. England has always had a somewhat contentious relationship with cinema censorship, and certain types who like to get upset over idiotic things were worried about the fact that the rules governing the rating, licensing, and editing of films for release to British theaters had not been written in a language that would allow them to be applied equally to films distributed on video. This little lapse in the foresight of censorship laws to anticipate the invention and subsequent wildfire-like spread of VCRs meant that films previously cut or banned could be legally (more or less) distributed in uncut format on videotape. It seems like they could have solved this dilemma by simply adding “and videos, too” in biro at the end of the book of law, but that’s not how England does things.
Phenomena is often regarded as a turning point in the career of Italian thriller director Dario Argento. Unfortunately for him, the direction it is most often cited as turning is down. After Phenomena, the influential director had one more good film in him – the mean-spirited and sadistic Opera — and then it was all downhill from there. In many ways, Argento’s career seemed to reflect that of another highly creative, important director: Tsui Hark. Both men revolutionized film making in their respective countries and inspired (and continue to inspire) countless other writers and directors. Both men brought a highly stylized vision to the screen. And both men have spent the better portion of the last decade trying to live up to their own reputations.
When innovative Shaw Bros. studio director Chor Yuen teamed up with martial arts novelist Lung Ku and the Shaw’s top kungfu film star, Ti Lung, they made beautiful music together. In 1977 the trio collaborated to create two of the best martial arts films ever made, Clans of Intrigue and Magic Blade. The success of the films, as well as their recognition as some of the greatest looking films to come from the martial arts genre in decades, made it a pretty simple decision to keep a good thing going. Less than a year after audiences were dazzled with the complexly tangled web of swordplay, sex, and suaveness that made up Clans of Intrigue, the trio got together for a sequel called Legend of the Bat. Legend of the Bat is about Ti Lung smirking and stabbing people and trying to unravel a mysterious plot chocked full of secret identities, ulterior motives, and booby trapped lairs. In other words, it’s more of the same, and the same is worth getting more of when it’s as cool as Clans of Intrigue.
Ti Lung is on hand to reprise the role of Chu Liu-hsiang, the cool-as-ice, sexy-as-all-get-out swordsman who can beat any man, woo any woman, and lives in a floating boat-palace where his every need is attended to by three hot female assistants. Once again, it’d be remiss of me as both an espionage and martial arts film fan if I didn’t note just how similar Chu is to American super-spy and all-around Renaissance man of mystery, Derek Flint. Both of them are tended to by a bevy of beauties who not only look good, but can also kick your ass or get taken hostage if the need ever arises. Both of them live in high-tech (for their respective times) ultra-cool bachelor pads. And of course, they can both out-fight, out-think, and just plain out-cool any villain who gets in their way.
Also returning for another dose of wu xia action is Chu’s mysterious and not altogether righteous sidekick, the killer for hire Li Tien-hung, played once again by the steely-eyed and grim Ling Yun. Our two heroes, or rather our hero and that really pissed off guy who hangs out with him and stabs people, are once again drawn into a winding, twisting plot when they investigate a gathering of martial arts clans and find everyone dead save for one lone man in white who has no memory.
They soon meet up with a kungfu couple in search of a potion that will cure the wife’s terminal illness, and they also discover that someone has put a price on the head of Chu Liu-hsiang. All roads lead to a mysterious masked man known only as The Bat, who lives on a secret island in a cave-palace filled with elaborate and outlandish booby traps. The Bat is in the business of granting wishes – some noble, most diabolical. Chu and Li must first brave a ship full of “people who are not what they seem to be” where they will make a variety of enemies and allies. Then they must traverse the truly mind-blowing caverns of Bat Island in search of the man who seems to be the root of much of the evil plaguing that ever-plagued-with-trouble Martial World.
The sequence on the ship feels like it’s Agatha Christie meets Shaw Bros. swordsman action. For the first half of the film, we meet one character after another who is not what they seem, and then in many cases after that character’s secret is revealed, we find out later that they’re still not what they seem and have a whole new set of secrets to reveal that will once again realign them in the plot. It’s classic Chor Yuen – Lung Ku storytelling, and once again, while it might not always make sense, and while it sometimes seems to be twisting the plot just for the hell of it, it’s a wonderfully enjoyable ride that is much more interesting than just sitting down to a movie starring Ti Lung, David Chiang, and Wang Lung-wei where you have to guess which character will eventually be exposed as evil, given the fact that Wang Lung-wei has eventually been exposed as evil (or simply started out evil and stayed that way) in roughly 99% of the movies in which he ever starred. For all the convolution that gets thrown onto the screen, Legend of the Bat truly keeps you guessing as to the motives of most of the characters involved. Only Chu himself is a certainty. We know he’s a stand-up guy. Everyone else, even his sidekick Li, keep their motives up in the air for the first half of the film. It’s fun stuff.
By the time we arrive on Bat Island, most of the loyalties of the main characters have been sorted out. There are still plenty of ancillary characters to show up during the finale and throw things for a loop, but at least we know who our core group of heroes will be as they begin to challenge the labyrinth of mazes and pitfalls that comprise the island’s defenses. It’s here that Chor Yuen really goes all-out with the stylized set design and turns the surrealism up to eleven. The caverns are awash in Mario Bava-esque multi-colored lighting and mists, with rocks and waters glowing green, purple, blue, red, and yellow. It all looks very much like some of the sets from Hercules in the Haunted World. The Bat’s henchmen wear outlandish “wild man” uniforms, and before they manage to reach the inner sanctum of his compound, our heroes must escape from a cage suspended over a pit of bubbling acid, traverse a raging pool of fire, and overcome a room full of icy glaciers all while fending off spear-wielding goons.
I’ve always wondered where villains go to hire construction crews to build their fabulously ornate and intricately booby-trapped lairs. Can you get union workers to build a lake of fire, or do you have to sneak off and hire the Mexican guys hanging out on the corner looking for work? Is there a firm that specializes in converting networks of caves and volcanoes into lavishly-lit secret compounds? And who sews the zany costumes for all the villain’s henchmen? Where can you buy silver foil jumpsuits, or in the case of this movie weird wildman duds, by the gross? Legend of the Bat finally gives us a glimpse, albeit superficially, into the logistics of constructing ridiculously complex evil lairs when the original architect of the Bat Island caves shows up for part of the action.
He is, of course, a brilliant man who let his fascination with fashioning fire pits and acid pools blind him to the fact that the strange masked man who placed the order might end up using them for evil purposes. I guess guys who build hollowed-out volcano bases and caves of death are sort of like all those guys on the Manhattan Project who were so happy to be working on crazy scientific and mathematical quandaries that they didn’t realize until too late that they’d just created the most devastating weapon in the history of the world and would thus have to come up with some sort of prophetic and deep thing to say upon witnessing the fiery fruition of their labors. By my reckoning, if we hadn’t kept Oppenheimer and the others busy with inventing the atom bomb, they would have probably just gone off and outfitted Hitler’s bunker with an acid pit and one of those rooms where spikes pop out of the wall and close in on you.
Today, would be designers of evil lairs spend most of their time drawing little dungeon maps so elaborate that they have to use that scientific graph paper instead of the regular stuff. Imagine how much weirder the conflict in Afghanistan would have been if the first time we got reports from inside one of Osama bin-Laden’s cave hide-outs, the soldiers had said, “Well, the lake of fire with the giant snake in it was rough, but we were able to throw Geraldo Rivera in to distract the monster. Still, it was rough going once we got to room that filled with molten lead and the tunnel that was illuminated by strobe lights and lava lamps.” That was always bin-Laden’s big problem. He spent all his money on that Al Quaeda gymboree we saw those guys practicing on whenever they replayed that “Al Quaeda training video,” apparently concerned that international terrorists may have to negotiate monkey bars and track hurdles when performing their evil deeds. As far as evil masterminds go, his cave lairs were a disgrace. Compare them to our own secret underground city where we plan to send our leaders in the event of an emergency. Now that’s an underground lair fit for a Bond villain.
As far as lairs go, The Bat’s pad is pretty sharp. Of course, in a Chor Yuen film almost everyone lives in luxurious digs. Even peasant dwellings look surreal and beautiful. This movie gives us not one, but three boat-palaces. You have Chu’s place, which is quite nice, and you have the transport ship, which looks like it was inspired by all the intrigue on board the Orient Express of old. And then you have the yacht that comes by to pick up our heroes after a big battle, and that one’s just as ornate as Chu’s place. None of them reminded me in the least of my grandpa’s bass boat, and at the time I always considered that to be one hell of a vehicle. The Bat’s lair not only has all those booby trapped chambers and places where the architect seemed to be able to manipulate the powers of geology itself to form ice mountains and rivers, but he has a cool misty throne room full of wild lighting, various treasure chambers, and other alcoves and nooks where strange and beautiful things are placed.
As with Clans of Intrigue, every scene takes place on a Shaw Bros. studio set, allowing Chor Yuen total control of every aspect of the appearance of his film. And once again he drapes each frame in flower blossoms, flowing silks, lattice work, secret chambers, and grand banquet halls. Every inch is meticulously designed and detailed in the extreme. At no point does Yuen skimp on a set simply because we’re not there for very long. He’s never happy to go with the simpler, faster sets that many directors settled for. Even in the most inconsequential of places, Yuen goes to extravagant lengths to create overwhelming eye-candy.
But you can’t build a movie on eye candy sets and a cool villain’s lair alone. As with the first film, Legend of the Bat is carried by the complexity of the plot and the charisma of the leads. Ti Lung is grand as always, though in all honestly, he almost seems to be along for the ride this time around, content to simply hang around while all the other characters indulge in machinations and Machiavellian schemes. When the time is right, he steps up and doles out some sword-swinging justice, but since his character is the only one free of hidden agendas, he is in some ways the least interesting of the bunch. Clans of Intrigue had the same phenomenon – and I hesitate to call it a “problem” since the actions of all the other characters are so thoroughly engrossing. Chu’s job is to cruise along, smirk, and do some killing when the time is right.
The rest of the characters are a wild bunch. Once again, we have the filial daughter out to save or avenge her father. We have the kungfu couple with noble hearts driven to commit evil deeds by the desperation of their situation. We have the unkempt guy who could be a vile thief or a noble hero. There’s the mute guy, the amnesiac, a bunch of kungfu masters and clan leaders with dubious intentions, the mysterious Bat, and a glorious gang of butt-naked female assassins. With all those people running around and flying through the air, it’s no surprise that our hero Chu is satisfied with just sitting back and watching it all unfold, allowing himself to get lost in all the insanity. We also have Derek Yee on hand, the good-looking younger brother of Ti Lung’s frequent co-star David Chiang. Yee would go on to a lead role in Chor Yuen’s Death Duel a few years later, as well as a starring role in the phenomenally bizarre Buddha’s Palm, beore settling down to become a director of some acclaim with movies like Viva Erotica and C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri to his name. Yueh Wah returns from the first film as a different character, this time as one half of the doomed kungfu couple opposite Ching Li, also returning as a different character.
Unlike Clans of Intrigue, messing around with gender roles isn’t a key ingredient. There are plenty of interesting female characters, but none as complex or engrossing as Betty Tei Pi from the first film. Ching Li is on hand to play the “pure” female hero (one of two, actually), though she’s less active and entertaining than her more fight-active character Black Pearl from the first film. Still, she’s one of my favorite Shaw leading ladies, so it’s always a pleasure to see her in action. With Chor Yuen, we usually get multiple female leads, at least one “ice queen” villain and one “pure” heroine. The ice queen, of course, is the one most likely to shimmy out of her robes and give the fellers a show, while the pure heroine, conversely, keeps her clothes on and fights sometimes for justice, but usually out of a filial obligation to right some injustice done to her family. While Legend of the Bat has its fair share of women with questionable motives, it lacks any real, strong female antagonist. The female protagonists, on the other hand, are in abundance but not quite as complex or disturbed as heroines from other films. Not a bad thing, necessarily. I know Chu Liu-hsiang was probably tired of female heroes who spent the first half of the film trying to kill him (they only try to kill him a few times), and the women on hand are hardly poorly realized characters. The lack of any dynamically complex female characters on par with Betty Tei Pi’s tragic queen of the martial underworld, Princess Yin-Chi, does keep this one just a notch below Clans of Intrigue in terms of characterization.
The story, however, is just as confusing and twisted as the first film. Characters pop up and disappear with frightening frequency, a carry-over trait from many works of Chinese literature where we not only got dozens of main characters, but also had many of them come and go with little or no warning. Ultimately, it’s a more realistic portrayal of how people drift in and out of events and lives, often without fanfare or resolution to whatever conflicts involved them. On the minus side of things, however, you need a flow chart to keep track of who showed up when and jumped out of which window only to show up again at the very end with some grand revelation. The question is never who has something to hand or who will unveil an aforementioned grand revelation – everyone but Chu has at least a couple, even the seemingly minor characters. The question is always what the revelation will be, and just how zany is it? While the mysteries at the core of Lung Ku’s stories – which are essentially detective novels dressed up in a swordsman’s flowing robes – may lack focus, they certainly don’t lack for entertainment value. Legend of the Bat is, like its predecessor a wonderfully written, if not totally believable, mystery-adventure. But then, are you going to worry about it being illogical for Character A to turn out Way C in a movie where old guys can chop their own arm off and then carry on a conversation as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened to them?
The martial arts action, which is after all what draws many people to these movies, is on par with that from Chor Yuen’s other accomplished films, though as with those, it is also not the central focus of the movie. We are, once again, set in the Martial World, which is always plagues with tumult. Some reviewers have commented that the concept of the Martial World, this bizarre intangible association of boxers and swordsmen, heroes and rakehells, is what keeps the films of Chor Yuen more inaccessible to Western audiences than those of Chang Cheh, where most of the plots involved revolting against evil government officials or avenging someone’s death – stuff to which everyone can relate, or at least stuff everyone can understand. The Martial World, on the other hand, with all its secret societies and esoteric kungfu styles, is a concept more difficult to grasp.
I don’t entirely agree. While it’s true that there’s nothing quite like the concept of the Martial World with its blend of intrigue and supernatural powers, it’s also not entirely unlike the equally esoteric secret societies that comprise the Mafia underworld. And Mafia films are, needless to say, hugely popular and very well understood in the West. As with the Martial World, the underworld is full of sects and clans and families fighting each other for dominion over things that entirely understandable to the outside world, such as extortion turf and linen service rights. Like the heroes and villains of the Martial World, the underworld is full of tricky characters, double-crosses, and violent battles. The concept of the Martial World, then, is not so foreign as some might make it seem. The only real difference is that there was always a very low probability than Don Corlione would leap up from his leather chair, fly across the room, and blast some low level Mafioso with energy beams flowing from his palms. But he did have a pretty keen lair.
Chor Yuen’s film usually focus on swordsman action, drawing as they do their inspiration from the classic wu xia films of the 1960s. The martial arts on display in Legend of the Bat are a wild and wonderful mixture of sword fights and kungfu clashes with plenty of supernatural abilities on display. People can punch through walls, jump over buildings, fight off dozens of attackers, and chop off their arm without giving it a second thought. Chu can walk without making any noise, and there’s a blind character who can see and fight in the dark as well as his sight-gifted adversaries can in the light. There’s nothing entirely over-the-top. No one shoots laser beams out of their eyes, and no one can really fly, but if you’re looking for authentic, realistic martial arts action, a Chor Yuen film as about the last place you should be snooping around. His action pieces are as artfully crafted and highly stylized as his sets, and they are more things of grace and beauty than knock-down, drag-out acts of pugilism. Even with that said, the final duel is pretty brutal, and there are some wonderful, no-nonsense sword fights, particularly the one between Ti Lung and a whole gang of masked assailants.
If you liked Clans of Intrigue, or if you like any of Chor Yuen’s mid/late 1970s swordsman films, then you’re not going to be disappointed by Legend of the Bat. Byzantine plots, swordfights galore, beautiful women, handsome men, and exquisite sets make for another mind-blowing martial arts mystery. Ti Lung is wonderful, and he’s the least interesting thing about the movie. It’s a worthy follow-up to the first film, and it’s a thoroughly pleasing slice of clever martial arts mayhem.
Love and Murder is a rough-edged, fast paced and ever-so-slightly sleazy little Bollywood B thriller that satisfyingly combines noirish stylistic flourishes with elements of the James Bond movies. If you’re going to crib, you might as well do it from the best, and Love and Murder certainly cribs well, also pilfering here and there from the German Krimi thrillers and even Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. The addition of a classic femme fatale turn by Helen and an appearance by a mysterious killer in a skeleton suit almost compensates for the fact that the print from which the M.H. One VCD was made looks like it spent a good deal of time marinating on the bed of a stagnant lake.
The German-made animated feature Felidae has, at least at first glance, the slick commercial look of the type of Hollywood productions we’re used to seeing from the likes of Disney and Don Bluth. If you’re anything like me, that might prove to be a bit of a stumbling block, because, being that I’m no big fan of mainstream animation, that’s not the type of cinematic experience I tend to seek out. And indeed, during its first few minutes I had some serious doubts about whether I was going to enjoy Felidae. Then came the moment when the film’s protagonist, a feline detective by the name of Francis, stumbles across his first horribly mutilated kitty corpse, and I quickly realized that there were quite a few shades of difference between Felidae and Fievel Goes West.
Based on the first of a series of novels by author Akif Pirincci, Felidae starts out like an especially grue-spattered boys’ adventure (but with cats) and quickly turns into a bleak apocalyptic noir along the lines of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (again, but with cats). In the service of this dark vision, the filmmakers pile on the extreme gore and nightmarish imagery, still managing all the while to deliver a complex and compelling mystery. Needless to say, this isn’t one to show the kids, and I would hesitate to recommend it to the more sensitive cat lovers out there. However, feline enthusiasts of a bit more two-fisted nature might find much to like, especially in the obvious respect and care that the filmmakers bring to the task of representing their titular creatures (“Felidae” being the name for the biological family to which cats belong).
Both Pirincci (who scripted) and the animators charged with bringing his words to life do a pretty good job of providing their furry cast with feelings and motivations recognizable to humans without simply turning them into humans in cat drag. While these cats speak to each other in complete sentences and have an awareness of human doings far beyond what one might expect, there is no doubt that theirs is a world entirely “other” from the one that their oblivious owners inhabit. There’s also been an effort not to sentimentalize the beasts; these tabbies, for all their anthropomorphic antics, are just as likely to casually display their buttholes, gulp down a passing fly, eat garbage and piss wherever they please as your own little Whiskers or Tigger. Oh, and they also screw — and, as in life, it’s no candlelight-and-Barry-White-on-the-stereo affair, but rather the same brutal spectacle of hissing, biting and forced penetration that plays out every day in suburban backyards from here to Munich and beyond.
Felidae begins with Francis, who is gifted with an inquisitive temperament beyond that of the typical house cat, moving into a new neighborhood where a feline serial killer appears to be on the loose. While his newfound friend, a battle-scarred and foul-mouthed tom by the name of Bluebeard, shares the belief of the other cats in the neighborhood that the bloody murders are the work of a human, Francis thinks that the evidence points to another cat, and sets out to sniff out the culprit. His search brings him in contact with a messianic cat cult who worship a perhaps mythical super-feline martyred at the hands of a sadistic human scientist (and who express their worship through a ritual of mass self-electrocution); and later leads him to discover that the very house he and his owner have moved into may have been the site of the fabled atrocities — which in reality go way beyond what anyone could previously have imagined.
Francis is guided in his search by a series of vivid dreams which make up some of Felidae‘s most memorable — and horrifying — moments. I challenge anyone who has seen this film to forget the mentally scarring spectacle of a gigantic Gregor Mendel rising up from a vast feline killing field to wield hundreds of mangled cat corpses as marionettes. Another indelibly disturbing image occurs when Francis and Bluebeard stumble upon an underground catacomb filled with decomposing and skeletal cat remains — at which point they realize that, contrary to what they thought, the killer they’ve been tracking is responsible for the murder of, not just several, but hundreds of their brothers and sisters.
Images of mass graves and genocide abound in Felidae, as do references to eugenics and racial purity, and it is one of its flaws that its approach to allegory is just a bit too on-the-nose. (And, seriously, all you Germans who are far too young to have had any direct involvement in the Holocaust? We forgive you. Honestly.) Another for me is that, for a noir protagonist, Francis comes off as just a bit too bland and innocent — bushy-tailed, if you will. An over-dependence on catnip might have been a nice touch in this regard, and in lieu of that, we might have at least got a better sense of the effect that Francis’ descent into darkness has had on him. He appears to be less cynical about humans than the other cats in his new neighborhood (he is at first unfamiliar with the local term “can opener”, which refers to humans in terms of what the cats see as their only useful function), and while he appears troubled by the human cruelty he witnesses, we don’t really get much of a sense of him wrestling with any dissonance between his old and new perceptions.
Still, these are all minor complaints in light of what Felidae accomplishes. Given both its concept and execution, its novelty value is guaranteed. But that it goes beyond that to deliver such a solid and involving mystery, rife with powerful moments and some nasty shocks, is something to be celebrated. One might think that having cartoon kitty-cats prancing across the screen would work against the consistent atmosphere of oppressive dread this story calls for (even if those kitty-cats are doing some pretty awful things), but the finished product proves otherwise. Furthermore, on a technical level, Felidae is — if a little slick at times for my taste — gorgeous. A glance at the various credits of the large, international crew of animators who worked on the film indicates that they were among the most accomplished professionals in the business at the time. In addition to the solid character design and studied believability of the movements, the backgrounds are beautiful without exception — rich with color and lush detail to an extent that they sometimes threaten to upstage the foreground action.
Given that high level of technical artistry, I’m glad that Felidae was made in 1994 — rather than today, when it would undoubtedly have been done with CGI. CGI is to me intrinsically post-modern, always seeming to be about nothing so much as itself — constantly, by way of its very resemblance to live action, calling attention to the trick that it’s pulling on the audience as it’s doing it. As such, it might be fine for films that are just an episodic series of gags, but in service of a sustained narrative — especially one that requires the attention to detail that Felidae‘s does — it’s just a distraction. Drawn animation is definitely the ideal medium for creating the kind of enclosed reality that’s needed for us to invest ourselves in a vision as quirky as Felidae‘s. Given that, this film should stand as a testament to the viability of that medium in the face of the increasingly indistinguishable CGI features that hog our theater screens each holiday season.
Felidae, though in German (the original voice cast includes a number of noted German actors, including Klaus Maria Brandauer), oddly features an English language theme song sung by Boy George. There also exists a perfectly acceptable English language dub, which can be found on the German DVD release (which, sadly, doesn’t include English subtitles for the German language version). All of this indicates that it was made with an eye toward an overseas release, which is not surprising given the obviously high financial investment that went into it. Yet chances are that you have never even heard of it, much less seen it.
That it never received a theatrical release in America is a no-brainer; distributors would undoubtedly have hit a mental logjam trying to market a movie that looks on the surface like a family film but plays out like an angst-ridden version of The Aristocats as imagined by Eli Roth. But surely there are enough people here in the states who would love this orphaned little cinematic tabby — who would take it into their homes, let it curl up in front on the fire, and then rip their throats out — to merit it’s release on domestic DVD.
If memory serves, the thing that first brought me to Teleport City was a Google search I did for the Hong Kong director Chor Yuen. At the time I was in the early stages of a now full-blown obsession with Chor, specifically with the adaptations of Ku Long’s wuxia novels that he filmed for Shaw Brothers during the late seventies and early eighties. Given that obsession, you might think — now that I’m living the dream and actually writing for Teleport City — I would have gotten around to covering one of those films. But, the truth is that I’ve been a little intimidated by the prospect. You see, I enjoy those films on such a pre-verbal level that I fear words will fail me in communicating just what it is that I love about them so much. Fortunately, Keith has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for me by covering some of Chor’s better known, more revered films like Clans of Intrigue and The Magic Blade, which affords me the opportunity to turn my attention to one of the lesser-known, perhaps not quite as accomplished, but none-the-less thoroughly enjoyable films from this chapter in his career. You see? Baby steps.
Chor Yuen came to Shaw Brothers with deep roots in the Cantonese language cinema of Hong Kong. His father, Cheung Wood-Yau, had been a popular actor in Cantonese film, which makes it no surprise that Chor, as a young student, turned to performing in films himself when he needed to make ends meet. Being a quick learner, and well aware that he lacked the qualifications of a successful leading man, Chor turned his attention to work behind the camera, and soon went from being an assistant director to directing his own films. During this period in his career, while working for the studio Kong Ngee Co. — as well as through an independent company that he established with his wife, the actress Nam Hung — Chor specialized in social realist dramas and romances, mostly small-scale films that focused on characters and relationships rather than action. But he also broke new ground with his 1965 hit The Black Rose, one of Hong Kong’s first contemporary action films to incorporate modish elements inspired by the Bond films and TV series like The Avengers.
As the sixties neared their close, the Cantonese language film industry was in steep decline. Given that its product was mostly limited to a local audience, it simply couldn’t compete with the comparatively lush production values seen in the Mandarin productions coming out of Cathay and Shaw. In addition to that, the new style of action films being created over at Shaw — specifically the violent, fast-paced and decidedly male-driven films of Chang Cheh — had come to be favored by audiences who’d grown weary of the strictly female-centered films that had previously dominated Hong Kong’s screens, and which were the bread and butter of the Cantonese industry. Given that the figure of the female warrior is even today still something of a kinky novelty in Western pop culture, this is something that’s hard for me to get my head around, but it seems that HK audiences of the sixties were basically saying, “Aw Jeez, not another heroic female swordsman, for Christ’s sake! How about a guy for a change?” And so, out went the chaste and chivalrous ladies of the sword played by Connie Chan Po Chu and Josephine Siao, and in came the shirtless, glistening torsos of Wang Yu, Ti Lung and David Chiang, all ready to display their gory contents in response to an opponent’s sufficiently savage blows.
Chor, rightly or wrongly, always considered himself above all a commercial director, one who survived by following the prevailing trends. And so, despite having a no doubt deep affection for the industry that raised him, he read the writing on the wall and headed over to the Mandarin language studios. His first stop was Cathay, where, in 1970, he would make his first swordplay film, Cold Blade. Then, later that same year, he went on to begin his long and prolific relationship with the Shaws. His first effort for that studio, Duel For Gold, was another swordplay drama, but one that made a distinctly gritty departure from the displays of honor and nobility that had characterized wuxia cinema up to that point, possessed instead of a cynical, morally ambiguous tone that was more in keeping with the new cinema being made in the States by the young mavericks of the new Hollywood. The film impressed Shaw Brothers boss Run Run Shaw — as it also did, reportedly, Chang Cheh — and went on to modest box office success. After next ushering Cantonese film superstar Connie Chan Po Chu both into Mandarin cinema and out of her film career with The Lizard, Chor delivered a more resounding hit with his Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, a film very much in the vein of the “one part art, one part exploitation” type of female-driven period revenge films that were coming out of Japan at the time.
Despite having tasted some success with his early forays into Mandarin cinema, Chor had not forgotten his roots, and when it came time, in 1973, to adapt the popular stage play The House of 72 Tenants for the screen, he insisted, over Run Run Shaw’s objections, that it be shot in its original Cantonese. The film went on to become one of the years’ biggest hits in Hong Kong, out-grossing Enter The Dragon, and in the process performed the seemingly impossible task of reviving Cantonese cinema at a time when no production in the language had been made for over a year. Now an acclaimed director with a major hit on his hands, Chor was in a position to do whatever he wanted. And what he wanted to do, apparently, was spend the next two years filming a series of tearjerkers adapted from popular television dramas that would all prove to be miserable failures at the box office.
After capping off this string of duds with nine months of inactivity, Chor was desperate to get his career back on track again. Deciding to try his hand at swordplay films again, he began work on a series of screenplays based on the popular wuxia novels of Ku Long. Ku Long, like Chor, was known for spicing up his works within the traditional genre by incorporating contemporary elements, and so his tales of swordsman heroes in the vaguely medieval setting of the mythical Martial World were marked by James Bond-inspired gimmickry and noirish notes derived from contemporary detective thrillers. He was also very prolific, churning out more than sixty novels before drinking himself to death at the age of 48, which gave Chor plenty to work with. Despite this, however, Run Run Shaw was unimpressed with Chor’s efforts. Fortunately, an even more prolific scribe, Shaw Brothers’ screenwriting dynamo Ni Kuang, steered Chor toward a more recent book of Ku Long’s, the 1974 novel Meteor, Butterfly and Sword, which the author had based on The Godfather. Chor turned the novel into Killer Clans, a massive hit that resulted in Shaw Brothers putting him on permanent Ku Long duty for the next several years.
By the time of making Murder Plot — the film I’m addressing here — in 1979, Chor Yuen had already filmed a full thirteen adaptations of Ku Long’s novels. As a result, his approach to these films had become what some might uncharitably describe as “formulaic” (Chor himself has as much as said so, saying in an interview that “Without the maple leaves and dry ice, I’d be lost”). To me, however, that phrase is misleading, because it suggests something routine — and Chor’s approach, while consistent from film to film, is something uniquely his own, utterly distinct from what anyone — apart from his imitators — was doing at the time. So let’s just settle for saying that Chor’s style — at least in terms of his wuxia films — had “crystallized” by this point, which indeed it had. At the same time, Chor had yet to weary of his subject matter to the point that he would by the early eighties, at which point some signs of laxness began to creep into the work, along with some grasping attempts to mix things up with new gimmicks (for instance, an increased — and overmatched — reliance on special effects in response to the success of Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain), a trend which wasn’t helped by the reduced budgets he had to work with as a result of the Shaw studio’s declining fortunes during that decade. All of these factors, then, make Murder Plot an excellent example of that style at its peak, when it was at its most refined and time-tested.
Trends being what they are, audience interest in Chang Cheh’s testosterone-fueled punch-fests had begun to wane by the late seventies, and, as such, Chor Yuen, through his Ku Long films, came to emerge as sort of an anti-Chang Cheh. Where Chang’s films could be technically sloppy and homely in appearance, Chor’s were meticulous, even fussy in their detail, and exhibited an unerring dedication to the presentation of visual beauty in every shot. Where Chang’s action highlighted power, speed and violence, Chor’s, while equally frenetic, showed an emphasis on elegance and grace that blended suitably within the dreamlike settings he created. Chor, perhaps in allegiance to his background in Canto cinema, also to some extent reasserted the primacy of the female in his films by having richly drawn female characters fight against and alongside his male heroes on equal footing – an aspect of HK film that Chang had effectively tried to banish via his arguably misogynist filmmaking ethos. In fact, the mere presence of dimensional characters — as well as the aspiration to emotional resonance beyond simply the clanging reverberations of vengeance and bloodlust — put Chor’s martial arts films at odds with most of Chang’s work, and would be a hallmark of his style throughout the Ku Long films.
Another aspect of Chor’s style in regard to these films is a result of the source material, as well as the manner in which that material collided with the restrictions that Chor had to work within. Among the defining characteristics of Ku Long’s wuxia novels are that they are generally lengthy (The Untold History of the Fighting World, the 1965 book on which Murder Plot is based, comprises 44 chapters), dense with back-story, filled with an astonishing number of characters, and feature plots rich in complex intrigues, frequent switching back-and-forth of allegiances, and layered identities. To a film, each of Chor’s adaptations shows the strain of having to compress these narratives to fit within the standard Shaw ninety minute format — while, of course, at the same time having to include the requisite heavy amount of martial arts action, which in Murder Plot‘s case translates into a rollicking, intricately-staged swordfight at least every five minutes. As a result, these films — despite the languid exterior that Chor’s fog-drenched, and unnaturally-lit art direction presents — appear to be flying by in fast motion, with the actors spitting huge chunks of expository dialog at each other with tongue twisting alacrity, and scenes careening into one another as if in a rush to the finish line. In the case of Murder Plot, I was taken by surprise when it became clear that the film’s events were meant to be taking place over the course of several months, because their presentation made it seem as if they could just as likely have taken place in an afternoon.
While such hurried pacing provides the films with a crackling energy, it also in some instances makes it tempting to throw up your hands and give up on following their plots altogether. It’s even advisable in some cases, given that some necessary connective tissue was occasionally stripped away in the course of the narrative downsizing. And even so, these films still offer more than enough to enjoy. With their beautiful sets, intoxicating atmospherics, engaging characters, eccentric gimmickry, and exquisitely staged action set pieces, they are a standout example of the type of cinema that one can immerse oneself in without having to resort to the brute mechanics of comprehension. That said, in the case of Murder Plot, the effort is worth making, because among Chor’s wuxia films it is actually one of the more linear and transparent in terms of story — a fact that, once you’ve watched it, might scare you off of ever dipping into any of the others.
As I alluded to earlier, Chor liked to infuse his wuxia films — just as Ku Long did with his novels — with elements gleaned from contemporary pop culture, and among the sources that he drew from on more than one occasion were the Spaghetti Westerns. The Magic Blade in particular owes a special debt to Sergio Leone’s Dollar films, in that it presented Ti Lung as basically a Martial World incarnation of The Man With No Name, replicated right down to his ragged poncho. Murder Plot‘s opening pays tribute to this source in equal measure, showing us a shadowy, black clad figure, hat brim pulled low over his face, leading his horse into a seemingly deserted town under the cover of night, a corpse draped across the animal’s back. As he nears a large manor, the figure stops at a wall on which a number of wanted posters are displayed, tearing down the one that pertains to his recent prey.
Soon we will learn that this man is the hero Shen Lang, and the fact that he is portrayed by Shaw superstar David Chiang sets Murder Plot apart from all other of Chor’s wuxia films. Of course, Chiang had an at least tangential connection to the other films, thanks to Ti Lung, his frequent co-star in Chang Cheh’s films, and his younger half-brother Derek Yee both being frequently cast as their leads, but Murder Plot was to be the only one that he starred in himself.
Having had the requisite brief scuffle with the guards outside Man Yi Mansion (judging from these movies, the Martial World custom is for everyone, upon first meeting, to immediately engage in a sword fight, often for no apparent reason and regardless of the parties’ allegiances), Shen Lang is ushered inside, where we learn that he has been summoned, along with the six top heroes of the province’s main schools, by the master Li Chang Chun. Li Chang Chun addresses the group, speaking of a battle that occurred fifteen years previous in which 900 of the Martial World’s top heroes died fighting for possession of an apocryphal manual containing the secrets to an allegedly invincible fighting style. The rumor of that manual, it turns out, was spread with the very intention of provoking such a battle (a battle that, by the way, is described in the novel in harrowing detail, but here dispensed with in a couple of rushed lines of dialog), and as a result, the perpetrator, through eliminating a large number of his competitors in one go, has come that much closer to dominance over the territory. That perpetrator, according to Li Chang Chun, appears to be a mysterious figure known as The Happy King, who, in the years since the battle, has displayed knowledge of secret techniques previously known only to certain of the battle’s vanquished combatants.
Soon after this revelation is presented, a young woman barges into the meeting and, as is the custom, engages in a brief sword fight with all present except Shen Lang. It turns out that she is Shen Lang’s fiancé, Zhu Qi Qi, the daughter of a wealthy tycoon. Shen Lang, we learn, at some earlier point left Zhu Qi Qi behind, saying only that he had to go on a mission to “find someone” and that he would be gone for several years, and Zhu Qi Qi, having grown impatient for his return, decided to come after him. Shen Lang will later, with an amusing combination of weariness and resignation, describe Zhu Qi Qi by saying that she is “unruly, headstrong, and likes to create trouble”. But in addition to conforming in some respects to the stereotype of the pampered, tantrum-prone rich girl, Zhu Qi Qi is also a brave and accomplished sword-wielding hero in her own right. As portrayed by Chor’s favorite leading lady, Ching Li, she is also Murder Plot‘s most endearing character. You get the sense that she’s exactly the kind of woman that a guy like Shen Lang, who comes off as a bit smug and humorless, needs in his life, and you can’t help liking and respecting him all the more for loving her. Their relationship, despite a lot of playful bickering, is clearly one of mutual respect, and with the two of them sharing equally in pursuing the mystery at the film’s center, Murder Plot ends up playing out as sort of a martial arts version of The Thin Man, a conceit which ends up being one of the films most appealing aspects.
It’s true that many of Chor’s wuxia films are infused with a sense of melancholy, a reflection of the tragic web that the Martial World’s heroes, honor bound to an eternal struggle for dominance, find themselves trapped in. Probably the most stark examples of this are the Sentimental Swordsman films, in which Ti Lung portrays a consumptive, alcoholic hero unable to escape his gloomy past. On the other end of the spectrum are films like Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, which feature the worldly, swashbuckling hero Chu Liu-hsiang — also played by Ti Lung — that, despite having some dark, supernatural undercurrents, play out more as rollicking adventures yarns. Murder Plot fits in comfortably alongside these last mentioned films, and serves as a fine example of this strain in Chor’s work. While other of his attempts to meld elements of detective story and swordplay drama were less successful, here he does so to great effect, while at the same time providing an enveloping atmosphere of mystery and romance for those elements to play out in. From interviews with Chor you get the clear impression that he never considered himself anything more than an entertainer, and — whether you agree with that or not — in that sense he is here at the top of his game.
Having introduced its main characters and central conflict in record time, Murder Plot proceeds to really kick its action into gear when Shen Lang, Zhu Qi Qi, the master Li Chang Chun and the six heroes travel to Yi City. They have heard reports that the Happy King’s ill-gotten treasure is stashed there, and upon arriving are shocked to find the streets clogged with a procession of coffins. They are told that a rumor had spread of a fabulous treasure housed in a nearby tomb, and that the many swordsmen who rushed to plunder it were killed by way of poison painted on the tomb’s door. Shen Lang, Zhu Qi Qi, and the six heroes go to the tomb and, immediately upon entering, see a number of their entourage killed by a series of booby traps hidden within. Shen Lang pushes further into the crypt, where he encounters and fights with Jin Wu Wang (Wong Chung), who is the Happy King’s treasurer by title, but, of course, also a master swordsman. Though they are apparently on opposite sides, the two express a mutual respect, and forge a temporary truce when they find themselves, along with Zhu Qi Qi, momentarily trapped inside the crypt. Upon emerging they find that the six heroes are nowhere to be seen and, since they were the only ones known to be in the tomb with them at the time, are accused of foul play by Li Chang Chun. Shen Lang asks that Li Chang Chun grant him a month’s time to prove his innocence, and the master agrees.
Later that night, Zhu Qi Qi trails a procession of ghostly, white-garbed women to the cavernous lair of the mysterious Madam Wang, where she finds the six heroes suspended in some kind of comatose state. This is the result of the exotic secret weapon — and every one of these movies has at least one — wielded by Madam Wang’s son Lian Hua, the “Enticing Ice Arrow”, which is a finger-sized shard of ice that Lian Hua tosses like a dart. (Alert viewers will note that Goo Goon-Chung, the actor playing Lian Hua, looks to be about the same age as Chen Ping, the actress playing his mom, the result of Shaw Brothers apparently not having any actresses over thirty-five contracted to them.) After briefly mixing it up with Lian Hua, Zhu Qi Qi escapes without having found out exactly why Madam Wang wanted to kidnap the six heroes in the first place. Shortly thereafter, she comes upon an old crone (played again by an actress obviously still in her prime) who, for reasons I was never really able to sort out, drugs her with poisoned smoke, ties her up, and throws her into a coffin with another bound young women named Bai Fei Fei (played by Chor regular, Candice Yu On-On, who is simultaneously super cute and kind of weird looking). Luckily, Zhu Qi Qi has around this same time had a chance encounter with Panda, the sooty, rag-wearing chief of the Beggars Clan (as played by Danny Lee, forever beloved by Teleport City readers for his starring roles in such singular Shaw Brothers ventures as Inframan, The Mighty Peking Man and The Oily Maniac). Panda took the opportunity to nick Zhu Qi Qi’s family pendant — sort of a Martial World ATM card enabling him access to her family’s wealth — and when, later, Shen Lang and Jin Wu Wang catch him with it, he leads them to where Zhu Qi Qi is imprisoned.
After yet another frenetic scuffle, Panda, Shen Lang and Jin Wu Wang make peace and cooperate to free Zhu Qi Qi and Bai Fei Fei. Bai Fei Fei tells them that she was sold to the old woman after being taken from outside the territory, and that she is now far from home as a result. Shen Lang tells her that they will escort her back, as they are going that way in their pursuit of the Happy King, a pledge which leaves the jealous Zhu Qi Qi audibly displeased. Panda, having become immediately smitten with Bai Fei Fei, also offers to come along. And at this point, with Shen Lang and Zhu Qi Qi traveling the road on the way to meet with a yet unseen ruler of mythical power, gathering up forces from among a ragtag band of characters with disparate motives within a phantasmagorical setting, Murder Plot really started to remind me of The Wizard of Oz. Danny Li, in particular, with his combination of bravery, affable goofiness and canine loyalty struck me as an all-in-one stand-in for all three of Dorothy’s companions. And while Zhu Qi Qi is definitely no Dorothy, Bai Fei Fei, as a wide eyed innocent trying to find her way back to a home that circumstances beyond her control have taken her away from, fits the bill quite well.
After Jin Wu Wang takes his leave of the crew — giving Shen Lang the standard “next time we meet, it may not be as friends” speech — Zhu Qi Qi leads the rest to Madame Wang’s lair, where another fast-paced fight is engaged with Madame Wang and Lian Hua. Madame Wang remains mysterious about her motives, but does allow that she kidnapped the heroes in order to draw Shen Lang to her, though without saying for what purpose. Before being routed, Lian Hua manages to make off with Zhu Qi Qi’s family pendant and, after freeing the heroes, the group heads off toward Fen Yan City, the home of Zhu Qi Qi’s family, to intercept him before he can drain her family’s fortune. Once there, Zhu Qi Qi, acting on her own, tracks down Lian Hua and, after a furious fight, manages to temporarily paralyze him by striking one of his “pressure points” (another practice that you will get very used to seeing after watching a few of these movies). Despite this, Zhu Qi Qi gets a dressing down from Shen Lang, because he had asked her to stay with Bai Fei Fei at the family mansion and protect her. In a fit of jealous pique, Zhu Qi Qi takes off on her own with the frozen Lian Hua in tow, telling her brother in law that she is doing this so that Shen Lang will “know he should have me in his heart”. This leaves Shen Lang, Panda and Bai Fei Fei to trail after her, trying to guess at her ultimate destination.
After a roadside ambush by the Happy King’s wine master and his acrobatic, jug-balancing bodyguards, a scene follows in which Bai Fei Fei, apparently feeling responsible for driving a wedge between Shen Lang and Zhu Qi Qi, tells a stricken Panda that she will be following her own course from this point on. By this time, Chor was shooting his films exclusively on interior sets, even going to the extreme of sometimes using miniatures for establishing shots to avoid the chance of anything conspicuously natural interfering with the fully enclosed world that he was creating. It was in this manner that he provided an environment in which the dream-like logic of his stories could play out unconstrained by any reference points to the “real world”. It also allowed him to, in painterly fashion, use his settings to express mood – a practice of which Bai Fei Fei’s farewell scene is a stirring example. The scene plays out more as one idealized in memory than an actual occurrence, with the impossibly deep autumnal hues of the rural surroundings rendered gilt-edged by the dying light bleeding through the gauzy veil of mist above. It would be incredibly sad even if Danny Lee and Candice Yu-On On were to do absolutely nothing, because the landscape they inhabit itself is an expression of heartbreak.
After Bai Fei Fei’s departure, Shen Lang and Panda finally catch up with Zhu Qi Qi at Shanghai Gate. Unfortunately, once they have reunited, Lian Hua — who has been subjected to the humiliation of being dressed up as Zhu Qi Qi’s old granny — escapes from his paralysis and overpowers the three. Upon finding themselves back at Madam Wang’s lair, they are finally filled in on the Madam’s true motives. It seems she is the Happy King’s ex-wife, and that she wants Shen Lang to protect the king from the other Martial Heroes who are after his head, so that she alone can enjoy revenge against him for some unspecified wrong. To insure Shen Lang’s compliance, Lian Hua renders Panda and Zhu Qi Qi comatose with his Enticing Ice Arrows, saying that he will not provide the antidote until Shen Lang has completed his mission. Having no other choice, and at Madam Wang’s direction, Shen Lang tracks the Happy King to a gambling house called the Happy Forest — and he’s Lo Lieh! A very James Bond-inspired scene follows in which Shen Lang and the King size one another up over the gaming table, after which David Chiang gets to show off his empty-handed kung fu skills in a sequence where Shen Lang defends the King against a gang of attackers who storm the casino.
After this, Shen Lang makes the case for the King to hire him on as a bodyguard, and soon finds himself within the walls of the palace. There he is surprised to find that the concubine the King is on the eve of marrying is none other than Bai Fei Fei. Bai Fei Fei will then be the first of many of Murder Plot‘s characters to reveal that she is not what she had previously represented herself to be. In fact, the final fifteen minutes of the movie — in classic Chor Yuen/Ku Long fashion –render false much of what I’ve recounted so far. But for me to reveal more than that would spoil the fun — or the frustration, depending on how you tend to react to having a laboriously-woven narrative rug pulled out from under you at the last moment. In either case, what really matters is that Murder Plot puts paid to its real obligations by seeing out it’s final moments with a lavish sword and kung fu battle — choreographed by Chor’s regular collaborator, the great Tong Gai — that sees all of the characters whirling and flipping across the screen at a pace that makes the rest of the movie seem stately by comparison. If you have lost the thread of the plot by this point, chances are that you won’t end up caring. And if you do, a painless remedy is at hand, because Murder Plot is so crammed with nuance and detail that a second viewing can only yield further enjoyment.
I imagine that it’s pretty obvious that I love Murder Plot. It looks beautiful, the actors and the characters that they play are incredibly appealing, the action is wonderfully staged and literally non-stop, and the atmosphere is so rich with romance and intrigue that it’s enough to send you into a ninety minute swoon. Still, it’s far from my favorite of Chor Yuen’s wuxia films, which should give you some idea of just how deep the damage goes with me when it comes to these movies. The world that Chor creates in them is, simply put, one that I never tire of visiting, and I’m happy that his prolific output has provided me with ample opportunities to do so.
So, upon consideration, maybe I do agree that, with time, Chor Yuen’s Ku Long films became somewhat routine and predictable. And by that I mean that they are routinely awesome and predictably rewarding, much like a visit to a beloved old friend – which, last I checked, was not a bad thing at all.
The Moonstone marks our first real foray into a universe in which we will be spending a lot of time: the Poverty Row thriller. An understanding of what Poverty Row was — if not an actual appreciation for its product — is an important part of any cult film education (and given the way you kids are allowed to make up any damn thing and call it a college major these days, you can probably go PhD in Cult Film Studies or some such nonsense, when you should be spending your time in college learning about Hammurabi, thermodynamics, and beer funnels), because Poverty Row is where the b-movie was born. So let’s set the stage.
The more popular movies became, the more demand there was for something — sometimes, anything — to fill the marquee. There was only so much the big studios could produce, and the hunger for cinematic entertainment was fast starting to outpace production schedules. When the studio system — by which certain production studios were allowed to own and operate their own theaters, showing only their own movies — was broken up, it opened the door for a number of prospective upstart studios to step in and both fill the void with their own product as well as find a screen on which to play it. Newly independent theater owners often paired these films of lesser prestige with a film from one of the big studios — the b-picture to the a-picture main event.
The b-movies were often produced very quickly and on the cheap, usually with a cast of unknowns, though sometimes they’d score a star whose name had some marquee value during the silent era. Most of the major studios eventually started their own b-movie production machines, and these films benefited from access to recognizable contract players from the studio as well as all the sets, props, and costumes that had been used in other, bigger budget productions. This is why b-movies like the Mister Moto series look far more lavish and expensive than they actually were. They had access to all the stuff that was lying around for the bigger budget Charlie Chan films.
But the bulk of the b-movies and programming filler was produced by smaller studios. Among these studios, few were as prolific and respectable (relatively speaking) as Monogram. So successful was Monogram, in fact, that it soon took on the appearance of a “little major,” with it’s own stable of contract players, directors, writers, and sets. Monograms and the studios like them were dubbed “Poverty Row,” as much a reference to the budgets they had to work with as it was a reference to less cultured hoi polloi who flocked to see the cheapies. This was truly the cinema of the people, giving the unwashed masses like you and me exactly what we wanted. And what we wanted, at least at the time, was westerns and thrillers. It’s the thrillers that concern us today, and The Moonstone is a perfect place to begin.
In 1868, an author by the name of Wilkie Collins had published a story called The Moonstone which is generally considered the first English-language mystery novel. Of course, as soon as something is proclaimed to be the first of anything, someone else is going to show up with ample evidence why some other work deserves the honor being considered the first. Look at attempts to pin down the first slasher film. For a while, everyone agreed that it was Halloween, but then some smartie pants started maintaining that it was actually Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, and then it was Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, and now I think it’s gotten to the point where the world’s first slasher film is actually attributed to Sophocles.
So whether or not The Moonstone is the world’s first English language detective and mystery novel, instead of the C. Auguste Dupin stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the fact remains that T.S. Eliot called it the first English detective novel, and who’s going to argue with T.S. Eliot? W.B. Yeats? Please. Whatever the case, Collins’ story sets the template for the many, many detective thrillers that would follow. There’s the isolated British manor house, the large group of suspects brought together in a common location, copious red herrings, amateur sleuthing by one or two people who are also among the gathered cast of characters, and of course, the gruff inspector from Scotland Yard. In particular, The Moonstone deals with the theft of a precious stone from a young British heiress.
The movie sticks to the original novel in some basic respects, but for the most part it varies quite remarkably. One of the the elements that made the novel such a success was its references to drug use. That aspect of the novel’s script is excised entirely from the plot of the film, seeing as such open depiction of drug use and abuse was strictly taboo in 1934 — the very same year that the Hayes Code enacted in 1930 was put into heavy enforcement. Monogram certainly wasn’t in a financial position to take on the United States government and defend their picture, so the easier route was simply to write around the opium. Additionally, the novel takes place over the course of many, many months. In the movie, everything takes place in the course of twenty-four hours. Where as three mysterious jugglers from India play a major role in the novel — the moonstone was originally stolen by a British officer in India, and disciples of the god from whose forehead it was stolen have sworn to get it back, no matter how many generations it takes — in the movie, there is only a single Indian, a servant, who has very little to do other than show up for some questioning. In fact,the movie, while entertaining, the whole movie plays like an adaptation of the novel done by someone who sort of read the novel a long time ago and is now doing their best to remember what they can.
On the night of her birthday, young Ann Verinder (Phyllis Barry) receives the gift of the Moonstone, though how good a gift it is remains dubious. Although obviously precious, the stone has a bloody past and carries a curse. Originally stolen by a shifty British officer in India (as in the novel), the Moonstone has since been the object of spookiness, with various Indians swearing revenge on the family of the man who stole it and to return it to its rightful home, whatever the cost. On top of the oogy boogy factor, Ann seems to only know people who would have some sinister reason for wanting to steal the jewel. Her own father is in dire financial straights, and the Moonstone could save him from ruin. A moneylender to whom her father owes most of the money is keen on the stone as well. The family’s young maid is a former thief. A cousin’s servant happens to be Indian. The assistant doctor that works with Ann’s father has a terrible secret about his past.
Not surprisingly, amid all these potential thieves, the Moonstone ends up being stolen — from right under Ann’s pillow, no less. I’ve always wondered about people who put precious items under their pillow for safekeeping — that includes guns. Now I guess if you are one of those people who lies perfectly still, on your back, with your hands folded across your chest in angelic repose, then putting valuable sunder your pillow would be fine. But seriously, how many of you sleep like that? And how many of you sleep in two dozen different positions over the course of a night, including ones where you wake up and find your knee against your chin and your pillow shoved between your knees, with a second pillow somehow ending up on the floor clear on the other side of the room? If I went to sleep with a Moonstone under my pillow, there’s a good chance that I would wake up and find the thing under the dresser, stuck between my butt cheeks, or possibly in the fridge, since I tend to get up in the middle of the night and sleepily make myself bowls of cereal.
And especially if I knew my house was full of people who might want to steal the jewel, I’d find somewhere safer than under my pillow. First, why would you be friends with nothing but people who want to steal your cursed birthday present? Second, if you are a well-to-do heiress, even one who doesn’t know her father has secretly blown the family fortune, you still have your big British manor house, and I’m pretty sure there must be a secure place for such things as cursed moonstones. I mean, even if the attempt to steal the stone woke you up, what’s to stop the thief from wearing a mask and punching you in the face? So really, I guess what I’m saying is, if your security system is to put your valuables under a pillow then lie a wispy British heiress on top of it, you deserve to have your moonstone stolen.
Complicating the case is the fact that a number of odd things happened at conveniently inconvenient times: the arrival of the moneylender, the departure of Ann’s father int he middle of the night to deliver a baby, and the arrival of a storm so violent that no one could possibly leave the house. Also on hand is Inspector Cuff of Scotland Yard (Charles Irwin), dispatched upon hearing about Ann’s inheritance because Scotland Yard expected such a young and naive owner would be the victim of treachery. One by one, Cuff grills the inhabitants of the house, airing their dirty laundry and conveniently explaining for the audience what the motivation for theft would be. As Cuff goes about his business, Ann’s father falls ill with pneumonia contracted whilst mucking about in the storm, delivering babies, and a number of people decide to solve the mystery themselves. The only real clue is a smudge left on the door by a careless thief — a very careless thief, because the smudge is gigantic.
And then, just as the mystery is getting good and mysterious, everything is wrapped up in like three minutes with a minimum of fuss, and the movie ends.
According to some sources, this movie’s original running time was a little over an hour, as was customary for cheap films of this period. But all the existing copies that have been released on DVD run just under fifty minutes. So somewhere there are ten to fifteen minutes of this film lying around that are not included in the version I watched. While that still makes for a brisk movie, it would explain a number of plot threads that are introduced and never really picked up again. It would also make for a little more suspense than we get with the movie in its current state, which although it is wrapped up in more or less the same way as the novel, comes very abruptly and without any sense of a big reveal.
But first, let’s talk about the good. For an early thriller based on an early thriller, and with a minimal budget, The Moonstone is pretty entertaining. It confines itself to two locations — or only one, if you discount the opening scene in a Scotland Yard office — and a small cast, with the whole thing feeling a bit like a stage production, but the movie never looks or feels as cheap as it is, even if the exterior of the mansion is just a model. Monogram obviously put some time and effort into the production, and that extra care translates into a more impressive end product that Poverty Row often gave us. On top of that, there’s no real weak link in the cast. Most of them were experienced hands, if not well-known actors. Phyllis Barry was a bit player in all sorts of films, including the Errol Flynn epic The Prince and the Pauper and one of the Bulldog Drummond films. She was usually relegated to roles like “Barmaid” and “Housekeeper,” but given something a little more substantial, she acquits herself nicely.
John Davidson gets to parade around in a turban, making menacing intense eyes as Yandoo, the Indian servant who may or may not be part of a cult dedicated to retrieving the Moonstone. Davidson had been in movies for almost twenty years by the time he appeared in The Moonstone, starting his career way back in 1915 — not quite the dawn of the feature film, but awful close. His experience with silent film is most likely the reason Davidson is able to do so much with only a few lines of dialog. It’s too bad that his role is relegated to something relatively unimportant in the movie, because the Indians in the novel apparently had more to do.
The most recognizable face for cult film fans is probably David Manners, best known for inhabiting the role of Jonathan Harker in Todd Browning’s 1931 production of Dracula. Manning went on to appear in Universal’s The Mummy, as well. In fact, very few members of the cast of The Moonstone could be considered inexperienced, and their adeptness at the craft is evident. Poverty Row features sometimes saddled the audiences with remarkably wooden actors, but that’s not the case here.
Similarly, director Reginald Barker was an old hand, having begun his directing career in 1912. The Moonstone actually comes to us at the end of his career — just as the novel came at the end of Wilkie Collins’ career — and it’s obvious that, even if this is a B production, it’s being helmed by a man who knows what he’s doing. As with director Michael Curtiz, who made Captain Blood just one year later, and as with many of the directors working at the time, Barker’s experience with silent films translates into an effective use of things like light and shadow and the facial expressions of the actors — the tools you had to use in a film when dialog couldn’t do the talking for you. Barker’s direction and little flourishes keep the film from feeling static, even though this is a movie comprised almost entirely of people sitting around.
In fact, if there’s a weak component to this film besides the rushed ending, it’s the dialog, which is bland but relatively harmless. However, in a movie in which there is almost no action at all, it needs to make up for that with cracking good dialog, and The Moonstone falters in this regard. Scriptwriter Adele Buffington wrote about seventy-five billion Poverty Row westerns, and the screenplay for The Moonstone smacks of what I would call “rushed competence.” It’s a perfectly serviceable script, but it takes the easiest route and avoids dealing with any of the complicated affairs that made the novel more engrossing. The drug references are dropped almost entirely, with the final solution coming in the guise of a medicine considerably less controversial that laudanum.
Wilkie Collins was, himself, an addict, and drew on his own experiences with laudanum for the story. However, drug references would hardly fly under the new Hayes Code, so Buffington more or less drops it. He also does considerably less with the thief-turned-maid character than does the original novel, and she, like Yandoo and a number of the suspects, more or less disappears after she has her interview with Inspector Cuff. But like I said, this is “rushed competence.” Buffington has an hour to tell the story, instead of a novel. Subplots and extraneous digressions, interesting though they may have been, had to be cut. Buffington’s final product is perfectly serviceable, but one can’t help but notice that inside this good movie is a great movie that was never quite made.
The Moonstone lacks the spark of the better films of the time, and even of the better Poverty Row productions. The Mister Moto films didn’t just enjoy access to the props from the Charlie Chan movies; they also benefited from snappier dialog and pacing. And when compared to other low budget thrillers, like the Bulldog Drummond films, the short-comings of The Moonstone become more obvious. Luckily, since it clocks in at about three-quarters of an hour, the movie never affords itself the chance to get dull. Still, acceptable but uninspired dialog is what prevents The Moonstone from being a must-see on entertainment terms instead of just historical importance terms.
Still, The Moonstone makes for a fun, if brief, way to spend some time. Well shot, well acted, and at least adequately written. In terms of Poverty Row productions from an independent like Monogram, it represents the top of the heap, though I wouldn’t say it’s the best. But films like this are where it all began. In the conventions a movie like The Moonstone establishes, we see the bits and pieces that will become everything from horror films to giallo. Even Hitchcock did much of his best work in the same confines defined by the Moonstone novel. If you’re interested in where modern cult films come from, The Moonstone should be on your list of things to watch. Heck, even if you don’t like it as much as I did (and I liked it enough, though it’s not a film I’d run through the streets singing the merits of — I save that honor for Howling II), it took you less than an hour to watch it.
Release Year: 1934 | Country: United States | Starring: David Manners, Phyllis Barry, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Jameson Thomas, Herbert Bunston, Charles Irwin, Elspeth Dudgeon, John Davidson, Claude King, Olaf Hytten, Evalyn Bostock, Fred Walton | Screenplay: Adele Buffington | Director: Reginald Barker | Cinematographer: Robert Planck | Music: Abe Meyer | Producer: Paul Malvern
You wouldn’t think that a movie with a title like Strip Nude for Your Killer would turn out to be among the sleazier, trashier, less redeemable Italian thrillers — or giallo — but what do you know! Strip Nude for Your Killer turns out to be among the sleazier, trashier, less redeemable Italian thrillers, and if you know anything about gialli, you know that sleaze, trash, and irredeemability are practically requisites for the genre. Strip Nude for Your Killer is also probably not the best film to use as a primer on the tropes and history of gialli, but at the same time, perhaps the fact that it slavishly caters to the lowest common denominator expectations of giallo films and never exhibits much in the way of style or ambition beyond fulfilling the base formula requirements make it the perfect, if not respectable, candidate for the following brief — and possibly wildly inaccurate in spots — history of what fans loving refer to giallo.
Giallo is, like pulp fiction in America, a loaded and often misrepresented concept that takes on various attributes and boundaries depending on who is doing the defining. Pulp, for example, was used to cover everything from romance to cowboy to crime to sci-fi and horror stories, though in time it became more specifically identified with crime and fantastic literature. And then, in the 90s, pulp started being used as a description of outrageous action cinema from the 70s, applied interchangeably with “cult film,” “drive-in movie,” and most recently, “grindhouse.” Pulp thus became an adaptive term, and even though it no longer meant what it used to mean, just as “drive-in movie” could have been any movie (I saw Jaws and Star Wars at the drive-in in the 70s, after all) but now has a very specific exploitation-oriented definition, “pulp” has an agreed-upon (more or less) pop culture definition that most people live with.
The history and evolution of giallo in Italy is very similar. Giallo originally referred to a series of pulp novels published by a company called Mondadori. The name “giallo” arose from the bright yellow covers that identified books as part of the series. As with American pulps of the same era (the first giallo was printed in 1929), the subject matter of giallo varied wildly, but in time they seemed to settle down into a steady pattern relying predominantly on murder mysteries, horror, and lurid tales of wanton sauciness. From time to time, the stories of well-established and well-respected mystery authors like Edgar Wallace and Agathie Christie showed up as part of the giallo series. Thus, like pulp, giallo became a much more specific phrase, irritating some (as does the abuse and rampant application of the descriptor “pulp”).
Making any claim regarding which film was “the first” of any type of film is pretty silly. No matter what you pick, someone is going to find an earlier film that fulfills the same basic requirements of whatever genre you’ve chosen, and then they’ll start claiming that movie was the first. Sort of like, “who was the first punk rocker,” a debate that includes everyone from Iggy Pop to Joey Ramone to the MC5 to Mozart. Or, to relate it to film, there’s the endless debate over “the first slasher film.” With “first” being nigh impossible to nail down, what becomes more important is the first film to act as a major cultural touchstone. So, while nailing down “the first slasher film” may be almost impossible, nailing down “the film that inspired the slasher movie boom of the 80s and defined the tropes of that trend” is much easier.
The exact same problem exists in determining “the first giallo movie.” Considering that Edgar Wallace and Agathie Christie books were part of the giallo series, you could reasonably argue that one of the movies based on those was the first giallo. What is more pertinent, again, and at least for our purposes here, is to define the film where the giallo trend really arrived, and the film that served as the template for the movies that would follow this trend. Regarding this, most people agree that it’s Mario Bava’s 1963 thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much (which even features the lead character reading a giallo novel), with a major assist from Bava’s Blood and Black Lace in 1964. It is in these two movies that we see most of the “rules” of the genre established, sort of like how George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead certainly wasn’t the first zombie film, but it was the zombie film, and it set forth a template that is followed to this very day. Bava’s two early murder mysteries laid the foundation for what would come after them. And of course, just to dirty the martini further, from that start point forward, you can spend plenty of time endlessly debating which films are or are not gialli, or which films are or are not zombie films. So on and so forth. After all, us film nerds gotta debate something, and some of us are tired of arguing about whether or not Star Wars was awesome or sucked.
Bava’s two movies give us the framework and the common themes that define giallo: the unreliable eye witness and the general unreliability and subjectivity of observation, the international jet set flavor (including frequent use of American and British leads), the obsession with fashion and photography (another form of observation) and the industries that exist around each, prolonged and often fantastically complex murder sequences, highly stylized lighting and cinematography, and perhaps most famous of all, the black-gloved killer.
Giallo simmered through the 60s, but it was in 1970 that things really exploded. That year, a former scriptwriter and assistant director named Dario Argento made the film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Here, what started with Bava became crystal clear and fully realized. From 1970 on, the always zealous Italian exploitation market began cranking out all sorts of films that fit the giallo bill, more or less. Adding a dose of 1970s libertinism to the Bava formula, the giallo directors of the 70s were able to heap on more gore, nudity, and general sleaze. The films also showcased an increasingly cynical viewpoint of the morality of man, often featuring victim characters who were only marginally less rotten than the mysterious killer. Some of these films were incredibly good. Some wallowed in their own filth. A few were just plain awful, but most were enjoyable in a wild Grand Guignol fashion that demanded you abandon logic, accept often wildly improbably plot twists and resolutions, and concentrate instead on the imaginative style and outlandish setpieces. In other words, if you are going to be upset about disappointing revelations and idiotic, illogical behavior on behalf of the victims, giallo is not the genre for you to play in, and you will find little, even in the best films, that will convince you otherwise. These films take place in a world that appears similar to ours and involves characters who resemble humans, but ultimately, the world of the giallo film and the people who inhabit it resemble humans and the human world only superficially. Gialli operate under their own set of rules, and dealing with it can often be irritating — especially since that leads to the age-old battle over when something is an intentional artistic vision and when something is just incompetent crap.
In the case of Strip Nude for Your Killer, the debate is pretty one-sided. This movie is definitely incompetent crap. It’s largely unimaginative, always seedy and mean-spirited, and laughable in its attempt to build the central mystery. That said, it’s also horribly fun in a way you should be maybe just a little bit ashamed of, and it stars the queen of 70s giallo and one the most perfect and beautiful women to ever walk the planet, French Algerian actress Edwige Fenech.
To be fair, Strip Nude for Your Killer may be scummy, but it wastes no time letting you know exactly where you stand, as the first shot is a full frontal nude shot of a woman in a doctor’s office, legs up in medical stirrups, with a doctor’s face firmly planted between her legs. If this image — and keep in mind that it is quickly revealed she’s in the middle of an abortion — offends or insults you, then it’s best to just skip ahead to some other movie. I recommend Dario Argento’s Deep Red. It’s really good, and as far as gialli goes, it’s pretty clean. At least it doesn’t start off with a close-up of a chick getting an abortion. From this auspicious opening salvo, Strip Nude for Your Killer has the woman suffer a heart attack, causing the doctor and his pal to bring the woman back to her home and leave her in the bathtub in hopes that the police will just chalk it up to a heart attack without noticing the abortion thing.
From there, the film picks up at a photography studio staffed primarily by snide, condescending people who all seem to hate each other. Among them are star photographers Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo) and Magda (Edwige Fenech), who are involved with each other though Carlo is by no means a one-lady man. The other cast members all have names too, but there’s not much point in remembering them since, 1) they’re all basically the same character, and 2) they’re all going to die anyway. And sure enough, it doesn’t take too long before someone is stalking the employees of the studio and killing them off. Signature murders include the stabbing of a woman who, upon realizing a prowler may be in the house and all her co-workers are getting murdered, investigates while completely nude except for a pair of clunky platform clogs; and then there’s the one where, after charmingly attempting to rape a co-worker before going impotent, we get ample shots of an enormously fat man in his sagging tighty whities and black dress socks, clutching a deflated blow-up doll in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other while he cries uncontrollably. Tasteful!
Eventually, the cast is whittled down to a few potential suspects, including Carlo, Magda. Carlo and Magda take it upon themselves to investigate the murder, though it’s possible on of them is actually the culprit, and for some reason, any time they turn up a clue, they make a big fuss about how they couldn’t possibly go to the police with it, even though there’s no actual reason they couldn’t go to the police beyond the fact that the giallo film depends on the concept of the amateur sleuth, and writer-director Andrea Bianchi sort of blows at writing stories. When the killer is finally revealed…well it’s best for this movie and for many gialli to master the use of the phrase, “Oh, come on!” Strip Nude for Your Killer isn’t quite so bad as to have the killer be someone that hasn’t been in the movie until the point they are revealed to be the killer (“Why, it was his brother we’ve never seen all along!”), but it’s really close. And there’s plenty more “Oh, come on!” moments to keep your eyes rolling. Like the part where Magda goes to retrieve film from Carlo’s studio that presumably has pictures of the killer on it. While there, the lights go out, and Magda hears someone else sneaking around. So, knowing that everyone who works at your studio is being murdered, knowing that you have a piece of evidence that could reveal the killer, and knowing that the killer knows you have this and also knows where it is, when you are in this place, and the lights go out all of a sudden, do you instantly think, “Goodness, it is entirely likely this killer who has been stalking us has now arrived here!” Or do you think, “Aw, it must be a blown fuse!”
In fact, there are three distinct points at which you will need to master the use of “Oh, come on!” if you are ever going to get very far into the world of Italian murder mystery horror fun. The first is used pleadingly and comes when you engage in the following exchange with a friend:
You: Let’s watch Strip Nude for Your Killer.
Your Friend: That looks like crap.
You: Oh, come on!
You will also find the phrase handy to use in a sort of “just roll with it” use. For example:
Your Friend: Wait! Why can’t they go to the police? Man this movie is idiotic.
You: Oh, come on!
And finally, there is the point at which you and your friend can finally agree on the proper application of the phrase. This comes at the end, when the killer is revealed to be someone you can’t even remember if they were in the movie before. It is here that you can both roll your eyes and exclaim, “Oh, come on!”
Strip Nude for Your Killer definitely requires a healthy sense of humor to get through. Director Andrea Bianchi does not possess the stylistic flourishes that make many other bad gialli worth watching even when their plots are of dubious merit. What Bianchi lacks in terms of inventive direction he attempts to make up for with sleaze, and at least on that level, he’s a Viking. Before you even start the movie, you can guess what sort of ride you’re in for. And while some titles may make lascivious promises the movie can’t keep, Strip Nude for Your Killer definitely is not one of them. I mean, here’s a film that plays a botched abortion for cheap titillation and ends with a joke about a guy strangling his girlfriend and sodomizing her against her will. Oh, the hilarity! In between, you get near frequent male and female nudity (often in the form of people you never wanted to see nude), plenty of slasher gore (usually in the form of the aftermath of a murder), and an all-around level of scumminess that becomes so thick it takes on the properties of camp excess. I’m sure John Waters would appreciate the ludicrousness of it all. It’s that gleeful willingness to reel about in the muck with such reckless disregard for even the most frayed threads of decent taste that keep Strip Nude for Your Killer from being offensive. It’s far too idiotic to be taken with that degree of seriousness. This movie is like stumbling upon a hobo jerking off behind a dumpster. Sure you can get offended, but honestly, what’s the point?
One of the fun things about gialli is that they actively invite psychoanalysis. Regardless of how shoddy and shallow the product may be, if it just follows the template close enough, it can piggyback on the psychological groundwork of Bava, who himself was nodding to Hitchcock. It’s like buying meaning wholesale, or shopping at Hot Topic instead of making your own punk clothes. For example, I have no doubt that Bianchi had absolutely nothing to say with Strip Nude for Your Killer. He wanted to make a sleazy murder mystery and get Edwige Fenech naked as often as possible, plus show a fat guy in saggy underpants. And that’s exactly what he did. But because, by 1975, so many gialli had been made and the cliches of the genre were so well established, he didn’t have to put any thought at all into having things us film nerds could pick up on in our never-ending quest to artistically justify even the basest and greediest of crap. Strip Nude for Your Killer is rife with the standard giallo themes, the most obvious of which is the deceptive nature of observation. You could even justify the tasteless opening by saying that Bianchi is intentionally duping the audience into thinking they’re getting a bit of cheesecake right off the bat, only to spoil it by introducing a dramatic and tragic revelation regarding the nature of the nudity we are observing. You would, I think, be full of shit if you did this, but it’s still fun.
Later in the film, the roll of film with the killer’s identity is brought into play, under the assumption that a photograph of a murder in progress is irrefutable proof. Once again, however, very little is what it appears to be. Edwige spends much of the movie poring over photographs of the victim, an old magnifying glass plastered to her face as a visual homage to the dime store detective novels from which the giallo film grew (and also as a fine example of how magnifying glasses aren’t designed work). In Strip Nude for Your Killer as in many other far superior gialli (specifically Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red), the protagonist spends a great deal of time examining and re-examining something that seems perfectly clear but is later revealed to hold a significance no one recognized. Bird with the Crystal Plumage is one of the most obvious indictments of the notion of eye witness, but Deep Red is my favorite for playing off the lead actor, David Hemmings, and his role as a photographer obsessed with the grainy, minute detail of a photo in Anonioni’s Blow Up. In the case of Strip Nude for Your Killer, Bianchi is obviously just copying what he’s seen before, but it’s still kind of fun and one of the reasons bad gialli are often still enjoyable to dissect.
Bianchi is no stranger to sleazy thrillers. His filmography includes Cry of the Prostitute, The Malicious Whore, and Burial Ground, infamous for casting an obviously older midget as a child, and then having him bite off his mom’s breast while she lovingly breast-feeds him. I ain’t talking no Harry Earles looking guy, either, where you could almost believe the illusion that he was a little kid (still way too old to be breast feeding though, at least off his mom). No, this was more like a cross between Dustin Hoffman and Chris Kattan. Anyway, Bianchi isn’t much of a director, and whatever style exists in Strip Nude for Your Killer is most likely the product of Bianchi aping those who came before. The direction is competent and professional, but not much else.
Of course, for most viewers, there is one big reason, at least above the simple blanket “because it’s Italian giallo,” to watch Strip Nude for Your Killer, and that’s the appearance, usually nude or in little more than panties and an unbuttoned men’s dress shirt, of Edwige Fenech. Fenech was a staple of both Italian sex comedies and the giallo film, and she brought to the game a wicked combination of actual acting talent, comedic timing, a willingness to drop her robe for pretty much no reason, and some of the most devastating good looks I’ve ever seen. She split her time evenly between exceptionally great gialli like All the Colors of the Dark and other films with director Sergio Martino, and dodgy nonsense like this and The Case of the Bloody Iris. She was always game, though, and never looked to be half-assing it, even when her primary role was to show half her ass. In Strip Nude for Your Killer, she’s about as close as you’re going to get to a likable character, even though she’s kind of condescending and nasty to people. But when you’re surrounded by the likes of mean-spirited S&M lesbians, a guy who thinks anal rape is hilarious, a fat crying guy who also thinks rape is the way to a woman’s heart, and someone who is killing a bunch of people — well, it’s not hard to look like the good guy.
If you are looking for a good and proper introduction to the world of Italian murder mysteries, Strip Nude for Your Killer is not your movie. You want to be watching Deep Red or Blood and Black Lace or All the Colors of the Dark. Still, if you are already prepared for the peculiarities of sloppy Italian filmmaking, Strip Nude for Your Killer is surprisingly enjoyable. Even though it’s poorly written, even though it’s relentlessly tasteless (actually, because it’s relentlessly tasteless), even though it has very few points you could single out as being good other than Edwige, and even though it’s packed full of gratuitously seedy garbage (once again, what I mean is because it’s packed full of gratuitous, seedy garbage), it ultimately comes across as harmless.
I think it’s because you never get an opportunity to take the thing seriously for even a minute. Compare it to, for instance, Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper, a film that is marginally less sleazy, almost as absurd, but a whole lot meaner. The hatred for mankind is palpable in that film, and if you make it through to the end, all you really want to do is take a shower. Conversely, Strip Nude for Your Killer comes across as little more than a bunch of drunk Italians wanting to make a movie with a lot of nudity in it. If you go to the shower after watching it, you’re doing something, but it’s not because you feel grimy and depressed. Sure, the film is mean, but it never seems serious about it or committed to its misanthropy. This could just be my perception as a horribly twisted and dark individual, but Strip Nude for Your Killer just doesn’t have that visceral kick you would need to really be offended. It was preposterous anyway, and I was having too much fun reveling in the filth alongside it to worry about the many faults.
It’s no secret that since the tail-end of the 1990s the Hong Kong film industry has had a rough time. After being gutted by gangsters for decades and plagued by the most rampant video piracy in the world resulting in films being available on bootleg VCD before they even opened in theaters, Hong Kong’s once illustrious cinematic juggernaut found itself on thin financial ice. Big stars were either getting to old to perform as they once had or were simply packing up and heading for the greener pastures of America. The new generation of stars, culled primarily from the ranks of teen models and pop idols, did little to spark interest in the new generation of films.
Rough times for the industry means rough times for fans as well. Here in the United States, folks were hit with the double whammy of there being very few films worth seeing, and the few that were worth seeing were often snapped up by domestic distributors like Disney and Miramax, who would then do one of two things. They’d either stick the film in their vaults and forget about it, effectively eliminating it from circulation in the United States, or they’d do a horrendous dub chop, cut the film to ribbons, and mix in a cheap hip-hop soundtrack, being certain to include the song “Kungfu Fighting” by Carl Douglas in any and every Asian film possible. I really wonder at this point if the people who decide to put that song in these movies think they’re the first to do it. Did they miss the last ten releases from their same company using the same song? Will the hilarity never be exhausted?
Of course, die-hard fans could always shop overseas and find most (but not all) titles available online in their original language and uncut, widescreen format. It was still a lot of hassle just to see a subpar film like Legend of Zu. Luckily, nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of decent new films, the void was filled by the past.
When Celestial Entertainment announced they’d inked a deal to release everything in the vaults of the Shaw Brothers studio onto DVD, complete with digital remastering, subtitles, and extras, many people had a “believe it when I see it” attitude. After all, such a deal seemed far too good to be true. The Shaw Brothers, of course, were one of the premiere studios in the history not just of Hong Kong cinema, but of global cinema as a whole. Along with Cathay Studios, the Shaw Brothers defined Hong Kong cinema and helped create what many consider the Golden Age during the 50s and 60s. Unfortunately, after their initial release into theaters, the vast majority of Shaw Brothers films disappeared, locked away in secret vaults and jealously guarded like some crazy long-haired drunken monk guards the manual for his secret style of Wild Toad Kungfu. A few titles snuck out in badly cropped formats with those subtitles where only about four words are visible and the rest run off the sides and bottom of the screen. More made it into the bootleg realm, also in inferior formats and often dubbed and edited. And even those that did make it out were almost exclusively the kungfu films of Chang Cheh and Liu chia-liang – fine films, but a tiny smattering of what lie hidden somewhere out there near Clearwater Bay.
In December of 2002, however, dreams became a reality, and the first batch of remastered Shaw Brothers films hit the DVD market. Suddenly, the dearth of quality new productions seemed less important. As long as Celestial kept a steady stream of old classics coming our way, it didn’t really matter that new films offered nothing worth taking note of. There were more than enough unearthed classics to keep fans busy for years, and with such an aggressive release schedule (they do have over 700 films to get through, after all), there’d be little down time between waves of rediscovered treasure.
Initially, I’d been excited primarily about the idea of getting my hands on beautiful copies of all my old favorites. The first day, however, my focus shifted dramatically, and I fond myself far more excited about the prospect of delving into the unknown, the films and directors and stars I’d never seen before. And there are plenty of them. From weepy melodrama to pop-art go-go musical extravaganzas, I was in for one treat after another. And one of the yummiest treats was discovering, at long last, the films of Chu Yuan, aka Chor Yuen.
Chor Yuen is probably most recognizable as the evil Mr. Koo from Jackie Chan’s Police Story. Before he was whacking Jacking with an umbrella and causing him to fall off speeding double-decker busses, Chor Yuen made a name for himself as one of the most accomplished and artistic martial arts directors in movie history. Where most kungfu films were happy to point the camera at a couple guys and let them wave their arms in each other’s faces, Yuen was determined to maintain and build upon the more stylish, lyrical, and poetic artistic approach of early masters like King Hu while throwing in plenty of visual flare that seems to have been derived from ground-breaking Italian productions like those of Mario Bava: lots of mist, splashes of brilliant color and surreal lighting, and unique use of the camera as something more than just a thing to point at people.
Equally detailed are the sets employed in each film. While cheaper, less ambitious films just plopped the hero and villain down on top of that grassy hill or the rock quarry looking thing where 90% of all kungfu fights in the 1970s took place, Yuen placed his films amid lavish sets that became as essential to the film as the characters themselves and help lend to them a dreamlike elegance missing from so many of the more straight-forward films of the era. Each scene looks like a painting, filled with swirling mists, swaying cherry blossoms, and flowing silks. Yuen’s “villain lairs” were often more outlandish and inventive than anything seen even in the wildest dreams of the old Batman series. They were caves full of spooky lighting and boiling pits of fire, or temples filled with sparkling gems and booby traps.
The final piece of Yuen’s puzzle comes in the form of fabulously labyrinthine plots where every single person has something to hide, nothing is what it seems, and everyone will be crossed and double crossed as often as possible. Part fever dream, part detective novel, the stories behind Yuen’s films were often the handiwork of famed martial arts novelist Lung Ku. Martial arts adventure novels in China have always been astoundingly complex, filled with hundreds of characters and sometimes dozens of main characters. Most famous among the classic tales is The Water Margin, also known as Heroes of the Marsh and 108 Heroes. These novels have served as the basis for scores of movies including new wave classics like Swordsman (written by Louis Cha) and Golden Age gems like Brave Archer (also from the pen of Lung Ku). Despite the era and despite the author, all the film’s share the traditional love of complex, sometimes confounding plots.
Previously, deciphering the events in one of these movies was a Herculean chore. The only versions available were often cropped on the edges so that fully half the action fell off the screen, and subtitles went with the picture. For any given line of dialogue, you were lucky to get three or four words that didn’t drop off the bottom or the side edges of the screen. Thus, if any character said something more complex than “Yes,” or “Kill him!” you were in trouble. Since films of this nature offered so many twists and turns and so many characters with secret identities and agendas, keeping track of the plot was well nigh impossible. Luckily, the DVD releases of these films rectify the situation, providing viewers with the full scope of action and subtitles that are actually placed in a position where you can see them. From time to time, even this doesn’t make some of the more outrageous plot twists any more comprehensible, but at least we’re in a better position to enjoy what’s going on. And what better place than one of Chor Yuen’s coolest films to begin?
Ti Lung stars in Clans of Intrigue as the accomplished swordsman Chu Liu-hsiang. His heroics and reputation have earned him a life of luxury which he spends in his decked-out palatial boat where he is attended to by three drop-dead sexy female assistants, not unlike Derek Flint or L. Ron Hubbard. His idyllic life is upset when a maiden from the Palace of Magic Water (played by Bruce Lee film veteran Nora Miao) arrives to accuse him of murder. Seems that someone has assassinated the leaders of three of the great martial arts clans, and the word around that ever-tumultuous Martial World is that Chu is the man responsible for these heinous deeds.
Determined to clear his name and unmask the true killer, Chu sets off on a investigative quest that bring shim into contact with a variety of clans and killers, all of whom seem to have some strange secret that connects them to the murders. Along the way, he first fights and then befriends a swordsman for hire (played by the impressive Ling Yun) and the daughter of one of the slain clan leaders. He’s also badgered at every turn by a mysterious masked killer in red and a variety of icily beautiful hit women from the Palace of Magic Water, who are lead by Betty Pei Ti. And did I mention the mysterious monk or the subplot about orphaned ninjas?
Clans of Intrigue, like most Chor Yuen – Lung Ku collaborations, keeps the viewer guessing primarily by providing a twist at every single opportunity. While it’s not always the most logical turn of events, it certainly keeps you watching and paying attention. Unlike the more brutal kungfu dramas of Chang Cheh, Chor Yuen emphasizes story and characters over kungfu action. Ti Lung is more than up for the challenge of carrying a character-driven story, even though his character is in many ways the least complex. Ti Lung was always one of the best all-around performers at the Shaw Bros studios. He was handsome, majestic, and equally adept at drama, comedy, and deadly kungfu action – all of which he gets to display here. The character of Chu Liu-hsiang is rarely serious or at a loss for words, and his reaction to everything seems to be to smirk, make a joke, then kick some ass. It’s nice to see him in a role unlike hi usual Chang Cheh roles, where he would invariably have to take off his shirt and get stabbed in the belly.
His polar opposite is the mysterious swordsman in black played by the enigmatic Ling Yun. With motives less pure than those of his compatriot, Yuen’s grim killer-for-hire is the straight-man of the duo. The rest of the cast round out the film nicely. Nora Miao is as beautiful as she is talented, and Chor Yuen always gives his female characters something interesting to do – another of the many things that set him apart from his contemporary Chang Cheh and links him more to past masters such as King Hu (who, incidentally, directed Yuen Hua alongside Cheng Pei-pei in the ground-breaking Come Drink With Me) or another of Shaw’s up and coming directors, Liu Chia-liang — who made a hero out of Kara Hui Ying-hung when very few heroic female characters existed in the Chang Cheh dominated kungfu films. After the trendiness of wu xia (fantastic swordsman) films wore off and was replaced in the 1970s by grittier, more brutal, and less lyrical kungfu films, female heroines tended to disappear from Shaw Bros martial arts epics, thanks primarily to Chang Cheh’s domination of the market. He was much more interested in male bonding than in women, and his films reflect his own macho tastes. Contrary to reports that Shaw Bros. producer Mona Fong was the driving force behind eliminating women from heroic leading roles (out of jealousy, as the story goes), it seems the blame lies far more on Chang Cheh. It wasn’t until Chor Yuen and Liu Chia-liang became the dominant forces behind the studio’s martial arts films that we saw a return of the valiant female fighter.
As the heroic Black Pearl, Shaw Bros stalwart Ching Li is simply wonderful. With her “best friend’s cute little sister” good looks and quality acting chops honed in dramatic roles like the schizophrenic young woman in When Clouds Roll By, Ching Li was a real force to be reckoned with. Chor Yuen was certainly fond of her, and he used the talented young actress in both Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat as well as Killer Clans, Magic Blade, and the director’s comedic blockbuster House of 72 Tenants among others. She also has the distinction of being one of the only female stars to every carve a decent character out of a Chang Cheh film, that of the doomed woman in Blood Brothers. She also got to do some ass-kicking in Chang’s early Ti Lung – David Chiang “spaghetti western” kungfu film Anonymous Heroes. Her mixture of true acting ability and athletic prowess made her one of the most versatile and enjoyable to watch female stars in Shaw Bros film history — quite a feat when youn consider that puts her int he company of women like dramatic actress Linda Lin Dai, Ivy Ling Po, Lily Li, and kungfu superstar Hui Ying-hung.
The venerable Yueh Hua stars as Ti Lung’s friend and ally, Monk Wu Hua. As with nearly everyone else in the film, he is far more than he appears to be, and his role in the story keeps you guessing as to his true motives and history. Yueh Hua plays the character with a wonderful subtlety that imminently displays why he was considered one of the Shaw Bros. most treasured performers. Few and far between are the films with such an impressive ensemble cast of men and women who are actually allowed by the story to live up to their potential as both characters and actors.
Another of Chor Yuen’s trademarks was his eye for beauty and his tendency to add a little flesh and spice to his films. A naked female rear here, the glimpse of a breast there did a lot to titillate viewers even though it was shot with the same striking artistry as the rest of his film. Clans of Intrigue is no exception to the rule, and Yuen serves up some decidedly adult fare with the lesbian overtones between Nora Miao and Betty Pei Ti. In fact, there are versions of the film that contain a steamy kiss between the two women, though that particular instance is missing from the official cut of the film as was presumably only added for international distribution. Its absence, and the absence of a flash of frontal nudity during a bathing scene involving Betty Pei Ti, have lead some to claim erroneously that Celestial – the company who has remastered and released the film onto DVD – censored the print. This is not the case. The moments were never officially part of the film as it played in theaters, though those of you in desperate need of seeing Bruce Lee’s favorite female co-star kissing another woman can still get an eyeful thanks to the DVD’s stills gallery. Neither scene is vital to the movie of course, nor has any real bearing on the action that isn’t communicated through other scenes. It’s just, well, you know us and our fondness for nudity.
That’s not the only place the film plays with gender, however. In a series of twists that foreshadow the gender-bending antics of Hong Kong new wave films like Ching Siu-tung’s Swordsman II and Swordsman III: The East is Red, as well as Ronnie Yu’s Bride With White Hair, we get not only the cult of sword-swinging lesbians but also a character who is able to change genders at will and wreak all sorts of havoc as a result. And while it’s not exactly part of the gender bending subtext, the shots of a paralyzed Ti Lung sitting in a flowery white swing above a misty perfumed pond look like something right out of your better gay nightclub floor shows. Not that toying with gender was anything new. Kungfu films have always enjoyed doing things like taking beauties such as Cheng Pei-pei and Shang Kuan Lung Feng and dressing them up as men. Unconvincing men, but men never the less. And Hong Kong entertainment in general has a fondness for men in drag that remained unsurpassed until the advent of the Spanish-language cable network Galavision.
All of Yuen’s work in these adaptations of Kung Lu novels, and indeed much of the director’s work in general, is infused with a more feminine quality than the films of other directors in the genre, even other directors like Liu Chia-liang who appreciated female heroines. Part of this comes from intricate delicacy of Yuen’s set-pieces. They are, as stated previously, absolutely gorgeous. Part of it comes from the fact that his female characters are allowed to be strong and feminine where most female kungfu stars were simply women acting the same as the men. There’s nothign wrong with that, of course, but the fact that Yuen protrays his women as women, with their own unique character traits, makes for deeper, more interesting figures.
It’s perhaps ironic, then, that Chor Yuen is also known for upping the anty when it came to exposing female flesh. Not that nudity was anything new to the kungfu film, and in fact in comparison to many films fromt he same era, Chor Yuen’s films are relatively tame in the amount of nudity they show. They only seem saucier because the director handles it in a very adept way. It’s not the amount of flesh that is revealed, but the way Chor Yuen reveals it. There is nothing vulgar or obvious about his handling of the saucier bits. They’re quite poetic, and because of that, quite erotic. It’s that classy handling of the material that makes it seem much naughtier than it really is. It’s because he makes what little nudity there is really count, instead of just giving us a parade of gratuitous boob shots during rape scenes. It’s, well, hot. As such, even his coy use of female nudity seems artistic and feminine in its touch. And that’s the touch that probably explains why, despite his fondness of nubile young nudes, Chor Yuen has garnered so many female film admirers who are turned off by all the chest-beating maleness of Chang Cheh. Chor Yuen’s heroines can be naked without ever seeming debased, and his heroes can read poetry and give each other flowers without seeming wimpy. Like everything else surrounding the director’s work, it’s really quite refreshing and very unique.
As an action film, Clans of Intrigue doesn’t disappoint, though it is heavier on discussion than some people might want. Chor Yuen’s work is the missing link between the classic wu xia films of the 1960s like Come Drink With Me and Temple of the Red Lotus, and the wildly over-the-top new wave swordsman films of the 1980s such as the Swordsman trilogy and Zu. Although the relative obscurity of Chor Yuen’s body of work has caused it to be overlooked when drawing the map of Hong Kong film trends, its availability on DVD will hopefully allow the director to take his rightful place as one of the most innovative and influential directors in action film history. Without his work, it’s likely the much-talked-about flying swordsman films of the 1980s and 1990s wouldn’t have come to pass, or at the very least, would have looked remarkably different. Directors like Ching Siu-tung and Tsui Hark owe a tremendous debt to Chor Yuen. That said, Clans of Intrigue is not the kungfu blow-out as delivered by guys like Chang Cheh. While it certainly doesn’t skimp on the sword fighting and jumping over high castle walls, it’s not the center of attention. That position belongs to the esoteric plot.
But when the action does heat up, it’s frequently fast-paced and impressive. The final duel between our trio of heroes and the characters eventually unmasked as the villains of the piece is phenomenal. For starters, you’ve never seen so many double-crosses in such a short amount of time. Moreover, one of the characters, upon having their hand chopped off, angrily picks up said hand and flings it with such force that impales another character. You just can’t get much tougher than that, unless you’re the guy in Story of Rikki who uses his own intestines to strangle his opponent.
The Chor Yuen films have been the definite highlight of the recent Shaw Bros. DVD releases, and Clans of Intrigue is a sumptuous example of why. It is extravagantly filmed and directed, sporting eye-popping artistry and visual flare, lavish sets, mind-numbingly complex plotting, beautiful women, heroic men, and sword fights galore. While the team of Lung Ku, Chor Yuen and Ti Lung would top themselves the same year with the exquisite Magic Blade, Clans of Intrigue proved vastly popular – and rightly so. It’s a tremendously impressive film, and it spawned a sequel called Legend of the Bat, reuniting Ti Lung and Ling Yun in another tale of intrigue and deception. If you are looking for a good introduction to one of the most astounding and unjustly unrecognized talents in Hong Kong film history, then Clans of Intrigue is indeed a grand place to begin.