Chu Yuan (Black Lizard, The Magic Blade), one of the more underrated regular Shaw Brothers directors, was the man at the helm of this strange but completely enjoyable mix of wuxia martial arts action and quirky horror. The film tells the story of the titular villain, the Bat Without Wings (Ku Feng), a big bad murderer of a martial artist who swoops through the air around a small village wearing some black and white face paint that was obviously inspired by Gene Simmons' Kiss face paint. Although this local terror was supposedly killed years ago, a rash of killings and his reappearance suggest that maybe he's come back from the dead!
When a local girl goes missing, her fiancÚ, her father, and a local swordsman (Derek Yee) team up to hunt down the Bat Without Wings and save the poor damsel before its too late. Their quest takes them through various strange trap-laden (including a fantastic bamboo maze) locations and squares them off against various dastardly assassins but they soon start to suspect that there might be considerably more to the Bat Without Wings' reappearance than he may want anyone else to realize.
While at its core this is little more than a standard 'hero saves the girl from the bad guy' story, there are enough bizarre elements scattered throughout the film that it does manage to differentiate itself from the countless other films it shares so much in common with. The best part of the film is obviously the Bat Without Wings himself. Played with a wonderful sense of sinister malice by Ku Feng, the villain really makes the movie here as he flies around in his Kiss make up raping and killing as he sees fit - which is quite often. The more heroic characters just aren't as interesting and when the story focuses on their plight it loses steam but thankfully the bad guy shows up often enough that the movie remains interesting enough.
While the protagonists aren't all that remarkable, however, their quest is an interesting one. A few different betrayals and plot twists bring the film to a satisfying conclusion that provides an unintentionally amusing climax (without wanting to spoil it, the title gives you a hint of how it's all going to end!). There are plenty of plot holes and things that don't exactly make a ton of sense about the film but that's part of its charm in one way and none of that will probably surprise anyone familiar with the genre. The storyline, wacky as it is, does do a reasonably good job of stringing us along from one enjoyable set piece to the next so on that level at least it works well.
This being a martial arts film first and foremost, obviously the fight scenes are going to be the highlights of the picture and Bat Without Wings definitely delivers in this area. The over the top fight scenes are plentiful and well choreographed and the swordplay is at times quite bloody, making an interesting contrast to the clean and very colorful look of the film. The pacing is strong across the board and the action comes at us quickly and rather voraciously. The film always looks great even during it's sillier moments and the cast all do a solid job of looking cool even when their respective actions defy logic.
Bat Without Wings is presented in its original 2.35.1 aspect ratio (in Shawscope, naturally!) in a decent anamorphic transfer. While the picture is quite clean and clear, it is interlaced so depending on your video set up you may or may not notice some combing effects. Aside from that, the picture is decent. Color reproduction is nice and natural looking while black levels stay strong throughout the film. There aren't any major issues with print damage, edge enhancement or mpeg compression and skin tones look lifelike and natural. This isn't a reference quality transfer but it's not a bad effort.
The sole audio track on this release is a Chinese language Dolby Digital Mono mix that comes with optional subtitles available in English and Spanish only. The audio is a little flat in some spots but is otherwise fine. There aren't any problems with hiss or distortion even if once in a while you might notice the occasional pop in the mix. Dialogue stays clean and clear throughout and the English subtitles are easy to read even if there is a typo or two in the text.
Aside from some animated menus and chapter selection, Image has supplied a trailer for the feature and trailers for sixteen of other Shaw Brothers titles that are available on DVD. It should be noted, however, that these are newly created Celestial re-release trailers and not original theatrical trailers - at least they're all anamorphic. The behind the scenes photos that were included on the region three release from Celestial/IVL have not been included on this region one debut.
Image's presentation could have used a little more tender loving care and some more substantial extras but it's a reasonable effort on their part. As far as the film itself goes? Bat Without Wings isn't as over the top as some of the other Shaw Brothers horror and horror crossover films but it's certainly an entertaining enough mix of martial arts action and odd macabre elements. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.