Somebody at Shaw Brothers must have been a fan of Seventies glam rockers KISS, because the titular villain of this martial arts horror-mystery is a dead ringer for Gene Simmons. The top twenty-eight fighters of the Martial World - that mythical setting for so many swordplay movies - fight an earthshaking battle against flying, fright-masked supervillain Bat Without Wings, whom our narrator informs us is “a notorious lustful, horny man who raped and killed many women.” He’s also lethal at kung fu and kills twenty-six of his opponents before heroes Iron Palm Szma and Thousand-Faced Scholar Lang Qiuyun (Ngaai Fei) settle his hash.
Five years later, sword maiden Lei-Feng (Au-Yueng Pui-San) is journeying through Maple Woods when her entourage are poisoned by a man (Ku Feng) claiming to be the supposedly deceased Bat. Luring Lei-Feng inside his underground lair, he uses her resemblance to a mysterious woman in order to coerce a crazy, cave-dwelling hermit (Tang Ching) into revealing a long-hidden secret. Since it was his name on a phoney letter that drew Lei-Feng to her grisly fate, handsome hero Broken Heart Sword Xiao Qi (Derek Yee) resolves to trap the bat and teams up with the girl’s father Lei Xuan (Wang Jung) and bereaved fiancé (Goo Goon-Chung). Their investigation unearths a tangled web of lies, deceit and death-dealing booby-traps, with the identity of the Bat not as clear-cut as it seems.
Chu Yuan brings us another mind-bogglingly convoluted wu xia mystery, high on atmosphere, low on sense. This one was not based on a novel by his usual source Gu Long, but springs from the pen of Huang Ying, the Taiwanese writer who also gave us Mr. Vampire (1985). Bat Without Wings is a rare case where the narrative proves too complicated for even Yuan to handle.
Fair play to Derek Yee. No matter how outlandish things get he always plays it deadly straight, if a trifle blandly. Coming from a showbiz family (his brothers where Shaw superstars David Chiang and Paul Chin Pei), Yee made forty films at Shaw Brothers, including the classics Buddha’s Palm (1982) and Descendent from the Sun (1983), but is best known today as a critically acclaimed film director. Among his many great works are groundbreaking asylum drama The Lunatics (1986), drug-smuggling thriller Protégé (2007), The Shinjuku Incident (2009) which marked a rare straight acting role for Jackie Chan, and the love story Chinese critics consider his masterpiece: C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri (1993).
His co-star, award-winning actor Wang Jung had a comparatively less stellar directing career prior to rejoining Shaw Brothers when he was living in the United States. Aside from The Street in New York (1973), he also co-directed under a pseudonym The Old Master (1979), an action vehicle for Jackie Chan’s onetime sifu -Yu Jim-Yuen.
Although the surreal set-pieces are often thrilling (including our heroes suspended above a poisonous pond, trapped in forest of mechanical bamboo (?!) and an exploding musical death-trap), the plot lacks momentum and takes left-field turns that are frequently puzzling. One moment the Bat is on a revenge-killing spree, the next he’s after that old martial arts movie standby: the kung fu manual with secrets everybody wants. With two Bats to keep track of, the plot then springs two more surprise villains and suddenly everyone is searching for hidden treasure.
Ching Li, Yuan’s favourite actress, plays the enigmatic Szma Dongcheng - daughter of the man who supposedly slew the Bat - who has secrets of her own. All head-scratching stuff, but Chu Yuan cranks up the horror atmosphere with swathes of eerily coloured fog, Mario Bava lighting and a memorably fetid, cobwebbed lair where the Bat sculpts statues of his favourite victims. It’s certainly bizarre seeing Tang Ching, formerly suave Sixties star of Interpol (1967) and Summons to Death (1967), as a crazy, cackling madman with even crazier hair.