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The great thing about the grim, Shaw Brothers horror-martial flick Human Lanterns (1982) is that it doesn't have a routine scenario. Starting with its dueling protagonists, there is no scrappy or noble hero. The "hero" is a complete, cocky, jerk blinded by vanity. The villain is not some sneering mastermind or cold-blooded, self-serving baddie. Instead, you have a bad guy who is simply batshit crazy. Skull-masked, claw-gloved, wild-wigged, wall-climbing, skin-peeling, cackling, wacked out of his brain insane.
The plot revolves around two dueling noblemen, Master Tan Fu (Chen Kuan-tai) and Lung (Lau Wing). Their rivalry involves most aspects of their lives, wealth, women, and martial prowess. Lung seeks to one-up Tan Fu at the prestigious lantern festival and hires a former fighter that he bested, Chun Fang (Lo Lieh), to make a lantern that will put Tan Fu's to shame and impress the community. In other words- Pimp My Lantern. Of course, the big wrinkle is that the reclusive Chun Fang hasn't gotten over being humiliated and scarred by Lung and he is very much bonkers. Chun Fang quickly starts abducting the various women in Tan Fu and Lung's lives, the two men automatically implicating the other, butting heads, hiring hitmen, and causing a lot of unneeded blood to spill, bones to be boiled, and skin-peeled and stretched until they uncover the madman behind it all.
It should come as no surprise that Human Lanterns skews slightly different than your run of the mill martial basher. While they were kings of the martial genre, Shaw directors Liu Chia Liang and Chang Cheh were usually pretty locked into one kind of approach. Director Sun Chung was a more all over the place helmer, be it the grim swordplay of The Devil's Mirror, weird horror-melodrama of Fangs of the Cobra, a couple of comedies, femme-powered modern exploitation numbers like Big Bad Sis and The Sexy Killer, and more standard, capable kung fu fare like Avenging Eagle and A Fistful of Talons.
While the martial arts on hand are perfectly serviceable and frequent enough to keep a fan interested, it is really the horror aspects of Human Lanterns that sets it apart from the pack. Pretty much the entire tone shifts when it delves into Chan Fung's world, be it his slow motion hopping, stalking, and abduction of the women, or, especially, when we go into his inner sanctum which is an underground tomb of horrors fit for a Hammer film and lit with the lurid psychedelic colors of a Bava number. It's a really nasty martial film and its bleakness is just magnified by the fact that Lung is such an asshole, thus hard to route for, making Chan Fang, despite his raping, killing, and mania, almost the films most sympathetic character. If you are a martial fan and an exploitation fan, you'll find elements from both worlds mixed quite well together, making for a winning combo.
The DVD: Image.
The HK/Celestial release featured a heavily censored print where no less than three key death scenes were severely truncated. The print here is the more complete international version that restores those gore scenes (well, for the most part, see the extras section).
Picture: The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen. Image's PAL-to-NTSC quibbles are present, leading to some slight motion blur in a few scenes. Otherwise, the transfer is pretty nice. the print, despite its age, holds up pretty well and is clean, vibrant, and fairly sharp.
Sound: The audio is Mono Mandarin with optional English subtitles. Not much to say in terms of audio. A decent track limited by the age and era but at least it doesn't suffer from severe distortions. Correcting some of the glaring errors and offering slight variations, the subtitle translation is an improvement over the HK release.
Extras: The disc features the following extras, Production Gallery, Shaw Bros. Trailers, Shaw's Baby Doll: Interview with actress Shawn Yin Yin (14:00), Skin Peel Scene: Alternate take (2:39). In this last instance, the HK print contains a single shot that is longer than the international print. It's a strange one, the severely hacked up HK print had this one single shot that was shorter in the otherwise longer and much gorier international print.
Conclusion: I've always loved Human Lanterns and it has long remained one of the more interesting Shaw Brothers films. A combination of the Shaw's exploitation and horror flavor with their more famous martial elements, Human Lanterns is simply a fun, nasty number. While getting a complete uncut print all together in one neat package still eludes fans, Image at least offers all the material as an extra and an okay transfer, making this disc worth a purchase.