Following their mixed-bag collaboration with Hammer Films, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), veteran chopsocky producers the Shaw Brothers made a string of martial arts horror movies. This grand guignol costume drama is one of their very best, distinguished - if that’s the right word - by the oily menace of genre perennial Lo Lieh. Rival swordsmen, Lung Shuai (Liu Yung) and Tan Fu (Chen Kuan-Tai) are rich, powerful and insanely jealous of each other. Their desperate need to show each other up comes to a showdown at the local Lantern Festival, when Lung tracks down the maker of Tan’s beautiful lanterns.
That man is Chun Fang (Lo Lieh), a creepy, greasy hermit whom Lung recognises as an old love rival whose face he hideously disfigured in a duel. “Forget the past, get rich and famous”, cajoles the arrogant Lung, as he hires Chun Fang to make the most beautiful lanterns possible. No matter what it takes. What he doesn’t know is that by night, Chun Fang is a gibbering madman in a skull mask and monkey suit, kidnapping beautiful women. Back at his dingy old mill, he skins them alive to make his eerily lovely lanterns. His first victim: Lung’s mistress. Tan Fu’s pretty sister is next to go missing. Suspicion falls on Lung, so Tan hires contract killer, Kuei (Lu Feng) to take him out. But Kuei is friends with the real murderer and distracts Lung in battle long enough for Chun Fang to abduct his wife. Both Tan and Lung slowly realize they are being set up…
Human Skin Lanterns is a horror morality tale in the finest EC comics tradition. Things reach a bitterly ironic conclusion wherein the sole survivor, now hideously scarred, is blithely told to “forget the past.” It’s a typically wry touch from Sun Chung, one of Shaw’s more idiosyncratic directors. His martial arts movies usually feature more complex, thought-provoking plots than the norm, often shaded in layers of noir. After a distinguished career at Shaw Bros he brought his jaundiced eye to the “heroic bloodshed” genre, with the Chow Yun-Fat starrer City War (1989). Here, Chung weaves a remarkably creepy atmosphere with garish colours and swathes of dry ice wafting over claustrophobic studio sets. The skin-stripping scenes are the stuff of nightmares, but horror fans should opt for the region 1 DVD since the Chinese print is severely cut.
Slow-motion scenes of the masked madman tumbling through the air are genuinely unsettling, aided by a truly unhinged performance from Lo Lieh. Of all Shaw’s superstars, Lieh had the wildest career. Starting out as a dashing hero in films like Magnificent Trio (1968) and Five Fingers of Death (1972), he progressed to international oddities like The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1974) and Three Supermen Against the Orient (1974) - where he dons a skin-tight crimson leotard and black cape, which unsurprisingly looks better on co-star Shih Szu.
Thereafter, Lieh became martial arts cinema’s premier bad guy, most memorably as the mad, white-haired monk Pai Mei, the role his heroic co-star Gordon Liu Chia Hui recreated in Kill Bill (2003). Bizarrely, his once semi-handsome features morphed into the greasy, dribbling countenance that secured him a long stint in horror movies, including Black Magic (1975) and Revenge of the Zombies (1976), which features his jointly most memorable horror role alongside Human Skin Lanterns. He phased out his career at Shaw Bros as a lovable, comedy relief in fun-filled romps like Buddha’s Palm (1982), Little Dragon Maiden (1983) and the award-winning Family Light Affair (1984), and before his death pulled off one last dramatic coup in Glass Tears (2001). An accomplished martial artist and actor with tremendous range, Lo Lieh also made his mark as a director with the Pai Mei sequel: Clan of the White Lotus (1980), although trashy horror flick Black Magic with Buddha (1983) was less impressive. Stick with Human Skin Lanterns, a gore-fest with unexpected moral depth.