Thursday, December 10, 2009

Evenings of Horror: The East

The Bride with White Hair (1993)
The Bride with White Hair 2 (1993)
Mr. Vampire (1985)
Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974)

From the sublime to the truly exotic…

This was one of the truly oddest evenings of horror I've ever experienced. No cliché here: you ain't seen nothing until you've seen the horror movies our brothers to the east cook up. We're talking ghosts to make your heart stop, witches whose heads come off and fly around the room-dangerously-and vampires with kung-fu grip. I'm not sure, but I think Chinese food is just the first of many excellent substances to watch these movies with.

I've picked four films of high quality horror to introduce you to Chinese horror. There are lots more to be found at your more discerning video shops and on-line at places like and if you're interested, but you can't go wrong with these.

First off, we watch THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR. Subtitled and letterboxed, this is an epic film about a young man, Cho, born and bred to become a chief of state in medieval China. Early in his life Cho is saved from a pack of wolves by a strange girl who stands on a hill, playing a pipe and soothing the wolves with her music. He remembers her his whole life, and when the dynasty is at war with an evil clan of magic-users, she reappears.

She reappears as the wolf girl, a self-described killing machine who was rescued by the evil clan and trained to be their linchpin assassin. She's right out of the X-Men, using her extraordinarily long hair as a whip with which she-no kidding-tears soldiers limb from limb while swords and horses move around her. All of this is shot in a fast-paced editing style resembling MTV and John Woo far more than those old chop-socky movies of the 70's.

But Cho loves the wolf girl, and she's ready to quit the evil clan, and naturally their love affair makes no one happy. What happens? If I told you, I'd ruin it, but along the way there are battle scenes that rattle past you like break-neck kung fu ballet, nicely erotic love intervals, betrayal, and even a pair of psionic-powered Siamese twins. I called BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR an epic because it has that feel- there's a whole world of history to these characters, and everyone knows there's more at stake than just their own happiness. Comic fans will fall in love with this movie.

BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR 2 continues the story, and since I didn't ruin the end of the last, all I can say about this one is that the epic continues beautifully. The long-frustrated love of Cho and the wolf girl, now a grief-stricken and deadly super-villain called the White Witch, has brought a generation of chaos to the Ching dynasty. The movie is a match for the original (these had to have been shot back to back) in style, tension, and hyper-violent Marvel-style kung fu. When these guys jump, they fly. Much of the story involves the city of women ruled by the White Witch, where Chinese women fed up with society come to effect their ruler's revolution. Their motto: "Men. See one, kill one." The White Witch now uses her hair like some enormous retractable cat-o-nine-tails, slicing in a hundred directions at once with her razor sharp (split, presumably) ends. I can't say enough about these other than they'll blow your mind. If you're bored with horror, go east.

The next movie I watched isn't an epic, but it's the first of a long-running series: MR. VAMPIRE. Made in 1985, MR. VAMPIRE forsakes the serious action of BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR for farce, and watching it makes you aware of Tarantino and Rodriguez' source for most of the action in their Asian-influenced FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. What we've got here is an undertaker/vampire consultant, Ching-Ying, in China who has more trouble looking after his wacky young hirelings than he does with the various creatures that plague them. The vampires are hilarious, but fast and deadly. They hop, for one thing, an odd Asian convention meant to suggest flying. They hop very fast, until they grab you and kill you. The attractive kid who works for Ching-Ying falls for a ghost-witch whose appetites are a bit too much to satiate, and at when annoyed her head comes off, meaning Ching-Ying has two people to fight at once, rather like the Starship Enterprise separating its sections. The coolest bit is the detail that the vampires are blind and maneuver by smell, meaning you can stand right next to them if you hold your breath (and don't for God's sake, sweat.) Oh, and you can freeze a vampire if you can get close enough to him to stick a piece of holy parchment on his forehead. Except it's really easy for the parchment to fall off.

Um, wow.

The last movie of the evening, (and admittedly, for normal mortals this should be two evenings), is THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, which Anchor Bay just released in a letterboxed and restored edition. It's the perfect film to either bring you back out of Chinese horror, or to introduce it all, if you prefer; just move it to the top of the list. SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES came out back in 1974, co-produced by England's Hammer Studios, makes of gothic brilliance, and Hong Kong's immortal Shaw Bros. It was meant to be the first of a series of movies in which vampire slayer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) went around the globe killing the vampires of the world. Didn't happen. But this one did, and what a wacky thing it must have seemed to audiences who had never seen Chinese Horror.

Dracula, according to this movie, went to China to found a vampire cult of seven hopping vampires who wear golden masks. Van Helsing is lecturing in the east and is recruited by kung fu star David Chiang to help him and his six siblings to go take back the night. Cushing is great, as always, but who needs him in this movie? The real stars are David Chiang and his six brothers and one sister, each of who specialize in a different martial arts weapon. Sister is my favorite playing knick-knack on fast-moving kung-fu zombies with her sparkling silver sai. Second favorite is the brother with the silver battle-axes. Would Hollywood ever make a movie like this? Are you kidding? The new tape, by the way, comes with a bonus, if you care to call it that: the entire SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA, the really awful American cut of the film, cut down to eliminate plot and even, for some reason, some of the kung fu. Skim it for enlightenment as to how not to release a picture, but watch LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES for a look at a truly bizarre melding of eastern and western horror.

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