Seems like we should play it fast, cheap, down and dirty with this review. Why not make up for perceived losses from a movie titled Corpse Mania that features loving shots of maggot riddled nude, dead ladies? Yes, and there's even a decent number of splashy stabbings to enliven the mix, but unless properly prepped, you're bound to feel cheated by this highbrow exploitation period-piece that fits more easily into a slot with stagy, operatic melodramas than grimy grindhouse fare. Well, I guess that's the prerogative of the Shaw Brothers, Hong Kong movie mavens of a decidedly weird and hyperbolic bent. Every now and then you've got to pay homage to the roots of Chinese Drama, blending necrophilia mayhem with more genteel narrative trappings. I, however, will try to steer this review back to 42nd Street, for those chop-socky fans of the day who might still be scratching their heads.
Corpse Mania's a bit like a police procedural, minus much of the procedure. Giallo fans will pick out similarities between this rancid slab of flesh and Italian who-dunnits of the '70s. Lots of nice compositions with brightly colored accents (green, blue and red mostly) make a visually appealing backdrop for our killer to run around stabbing folks. At first, defiled corpses of prostitutes keep turning up, leading the police to suspect a recently released madman who likes his sex cold and decomposed a bit. But for some reason, they just can't finger the guy darting about with gloves, a black fedora, and a scarf around his mouth, as he cuts up the locals with a huge knife. Talk about your Ginsu!
Not content to saw through soda cans and then slice soft tomatoes, our killer hacks anyone who sees him. But for each quick, brutish attack, with red Ragu splashing enthusiastically, there's three scenes of cops degrading each other for being so bumbling, or the Madam from the brothel fluttering her eyelashes while berating everybody for their impudence. A few lovingly photographed, soft-focus shots of still-toothsome bods draped in maggots and worms evoke nausea and The Red Shoe Diaries in equal measure, while steering well clear of the sicko's desire to totally offend. No, this tension-free mystery seems almost to shamefully port such hardcore elements as disemboweling and face peeling from a neighboring shocker. The focus here is more on betrayals at varying levels of the social contract than on shtupping stiffs. As a melodrama about social mores during Victorian Era China, Corpse Mania is something of an amiable (and goofy to modern Western eyes) time-waster. Throw in a few savage killings and the maggot-strewn earthly remains of Miss Guangzhou 1975 and you've got a big reason why the Shaw Brothers rightly focused mostly on supernaturally tinged martial arts epics. The weird mix of elements in Corpse Mania will leave you with an odd taste in your mouth, and you won't be hungry again in an hour.
The mostly soft, stylized look of this 1.78:1 widescreen presentation, enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs and in its original theatrical ratio, hovers around average quality. The look is intentional, leading to some gorgeous shots of eerie shafts of light inside multi-level courtyard mansions. However, the more diffuse the image, the more posterizing becomes a problem, something that crops up only occasionally, but is distracting. Otherwise, the transfer is free of defects, and colors - when they jump out in garish glory - are rich and nicely saturated.
Dolby Digital Mono Audio is of the acceptable variety, nicely mixed but not terribly exciting.
Extras are limited to English and Spanish Subtitles and a rickshaw full of Shaw Brothers Trailers - 16 in all!
If I were strolling Times Square in 1981, looking for that Shaw Brothers flick about the masked slasher who likes to have sex with dead girls, I'd bring my shower-cap and gleefully await the sleaze-fest. I wouldn't expect an invocation of the Beijing Opera House, with melodrama, social wrangling and the odd bit of stabby-stabby that Corpse Mania delivers. Sure, scenes of a guy stroking a nude, maggot covered hardbody share time with punctured cops literally spilling their guts, but these delights make plenty of room for the constabulary to creep around silently or for characters to bitch and moan about who's betraying who until the Johns go home. Corpse Mania is a truly odd curiosity, but one that eschews exploitation for clunky exposition, and in this near-bare-bones release earns naught but a Rent It.
- Kurt Dahlke
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