HUMAN LANTERNS (REN PI DENG LONG) (1982)
While Shaw Brothers Studios was renown for it’s martial arts epics in the 70s and 80s, they made their share of horror flicks, too and here they mixed the two genres for this particular cult classic. Period piece has the arrogant and vain Lung Shu Ai (Tony Liu) in competition with his rival, another entrepreneur, Tan Fu (Kuan Tai Chen) for the upcoming Lantern Festival. He is so intent on winning, he turns to former enemy Chao Chun-Fang (Lieh Lo) to make him a lantern sure to win. Deranged and vengeful for being humiliated by Lung seven years earlier, a masked Chao begins to sadistically murder beautiful women to use their skin to make his ornate lanterns. Soon there is a trail of mutilated bodies that has the local village terrified and is leading, unknowingly, towards Lung’s wife (Ni Tien).
This martial arts horror has developed a cult following and a reputation over the almost forty years since it’s release. It is directed by Chung Sun from his script with Kuang Ni and is a bizarre midnight movie indeed, mixing slasher and swordplay. It has all the elements of a Shaw Brothers martial arts film, such as beautiful costumes, gorgeous settings and sumptuous cinematography, here by An-Sung Tsao. There are plenty of martial arts battles and sword fights, too, but it is also drenched in blood and body parts, as any traditional horror flick might be. Chung Sun has quite an eye for horror visuals, such as fog shrouded forests, a leaping, cackling, skull-masked villain and a fiend’s lair filled with, bones, body parts and bound damsels. There is plenty of blood and gore as the psychotic Chao Chun-Fang kidnaps beautiful ladies and torments and kills them, gruesomely taking their skin to complete his lanterns. The scenes are just long enough to be effective, and the gore effects are well done enough to work, but nothing overly shocking by today’s standards. The cast are all good and it is interesting that, aside from the female victims, there are no sympathetic characters or outright heroes to root for. Tony Liu’s Lung is simply a self-centered jerk, Kuan Tai Chen’s Tan isn’t much better and obviously, Chao Chun-Fang is a complete nut-job. Even the local police are easily fooled and befuddled. Still, there is a well tempered mix of bloody mayhem and martial arts pageantry that works far better than it should, even if, overall, the flick doesn’t quite live up to it’s reputation on a first time viewing. It’s ultimately not as disturbing or gross as expected, considering it’s notoriety for so many years, though it is still quite gruesome at times.
So, if you’re thirty-eight years late to the gory party, you may not quite understand what all the fuss is about. Back in 1982, the mix of gruesome horror and martial arts action may have taken audiences by surprise and well it should have. By today’s standards, it’s not quite as horrifying as it’s longstanding reputation would have one believe. It’s still entertaining and effective, as both gory, 80s horror movie and martial arts adventure, and even if it doesn’t quite have the “wow” factor expected, it is still a bloody fun midnight movie that has earned it’s niche as a cult classic on multiple continents. Flick is now streaming on Amazon Prime for those wanting to check it out.
Rated 3 (out of 4) lanterns made out of ???