For a studio founded on lavish musicals and costume dramas, Shaw Brothers sure cranked out loads of sleazy horror movies in their time. Case in point: Corpse Mania, a necrophilia-themed murder mystery with some surprising nods to Mario Bava along the way. In early 1900s Hong Kong, a gaggle of busybody women gossip about their new neighbour, whom they overhear making love to his supposedly sick wife. A foul odour seeps outside and eventually, the ladies and a local cop venture into the cobwebbed manor to discover a maggot-ridden corpse!
Police Chief Zhang (Wong Yung) learns the corpse was sexually violated, as we flashback to Madame Lin’s (Tanny Tien Ni) brothel, where prostitute Hongmei (Jenny Leung Jan-Lei) is seriously ill and coughing blood. Nevertheless, a regular client Li Zheng Yuan (Chan Ga-Kei) buys her freedom and marries the dying girl. Later, a delivery boy spies him lovingly embalming then lying naked beside her fetid corpse, while the camera dwells upon the maggoty flesh in stomach-churning detail. Li is arrested (“for violating public hygiene” - hah!), but back in the present day, Zhang learns he was discharged one month ago. As prostitutes from Madame Lin’s start turning up raped and murdered - but not in that order - the police suspect crazy Li is up to his old tricks.
Adopting a familiar Hong Kong, “two for the price of one” movie-making method, Corpse Mania starts out as an eerily morbid tale of amour fou, that prefigures Necromantik (1987). Although mercifully not as explicit, the corpse fondling scenes are artfully shot and carry an air of twisted romance along with an effective, gross-out charge. Once the flashback is over, the film settles into a giallo-influenced murder mystery, with a slouched-hat and masked killer stalking the shadowy, fog-filled streets, in striking colour-drenched visuals that recall Blood and Black Lace (1964). Forensic analysis sequences liken this to a turn of the century C.S.I., with the police heroes similarly stoic to the point of impassive and hard to engage with. The remaining characters are cynical, venal backstabbers, ideally suited perhaps to a dog eat dog slasher-thriller wherein writer-director Kuei Chi-hung’s trademark pessimism is to the fore.
A lengthy chase sequence where Madam Lin’s adopted daughter, Yan Er (Yau Chui-Ling) eludes the killer, only to fall prey to a psychotic rapist before the mystery villain knifes them both to death, is fairly typical of the vicious, yet stylishly mounted set-pieces. For all its visual flair and occasional inventiveness (the killer’s final attack in a brothel full of undercover cops is bloody, exciting and ingenious in its simplicity), this tends to plod along from one grisly discovery to the next. Chi-hung throws in a blink and you’ll miss it kung fu fight to liven things up, but Chief Zhang spends a little too long, lounging around, smoking and looking pensive. And while things wrap up with a suitably grim and shocking denouement, it’s hard not to laugh when one cop gets gorily impaled, only for his colleague to ask: “Are you okay?”