Human Lanterns, Human Skin Lanterns
Tanny Tien Ni
Running Time: 95 minutes
UK Certificate: 18
Country: Hong Kong
Kung fu master Lung (Liu Yung) has not just wealth and respect in his community, but also a beautiful and devoted wife Chin (Tanny Tien Ni) – but this does not stop him from seeing the courtesan Yen-Chu, or constantly engaging in petty quarrels with another local kung fu master, the nobleman Tan (Chen Kuan-Tai). When Tan provokes Lung further by courting Yen-Chu himself and boasting that he will display the best lantern in the approaching Lantern Festival, an enraged Lung turns to the hermit-like craftsman Chao (Lo Lieh) to make him a winning lantern. Still scarred from a fight that he had with Lung over Chin some seven years ago, Chao sees a perfect opportunity for vengeance, and kidnaps first Yen-Chu, then Tan's young sister, and finally Chin herself. Lung and Tan blame one another for these disappearances, and as their squabbling escalates into deadly confrontations, Chao reveals both himself, and what he has done to their loved ones.
Setting a revenge plot amidst beautiful period backdrops was nothing new to the Shaw Brothers, who produced some of Hong Kong's most memorable martial arts films of the seventies – but what makes 'Human Lanterns' a unique outing for the studio is the vicious nature of the revenge itself. For in an unusual foray into the generic territory of horror and gore, Chao hunts down the loved ones of his enemies, skins them while they are still very much alive (not that they survive for very long), and then turns their hides into eerie lamps. Yet if the film's sadism is clearly influenced by the eighties slasher craze, Chao is an antagonist from a much earlier era of horror cinema. Endlessly cackling villainously and capering about in his chosen disguise – a hairy bear suit and skull mask – he is too silly to be in any way frightening, even if the inhuman methodology of his retribution, meted out for the most part upon innocent third parties, might leave some viewers wondering whether Chao is meant to be a real character at all, as opposed to some implacable spirit of hatred returned from the grave to punish Lung's (and Tan's) arrogance and ambition. Chin, for one, expresses surprise that Chao is still living after his run-in so many years ago with Lung, and there seems to be a supernatural quality to his fighting skills above and beyond the usual stylised wirework that enables Shaw Brothers heroes to soar.
'Human Lanterns' is a genuine curiosity piece, mixing together fights, grand guignol and an unabashedly tragic ending, but far from bringing satisfaction to a cross-over audience, it is more likely to leave everyone a bit disappointed. Fans of martial arts films will have seen better action sequences in other films (although these are not bad), while horror/psycho-thriller addicts will expect at least a few scares (there are none), or some insight into the psychology of its bestial avenger (there is barely any). Even the flaying scenes, while undeniably grotesque, are far from graphic, belying the film's longstanding reputation for extremity. Still, it does at least give new meaning to the phrase 'skin flick'.
It's Got: BOTH human skinnings AND a man in a hairy suit (thus bringing back fond memories of The Werewolf and the Yeti); a cackling villain; a genuinely tragic ending.
It Needs: To be scarier. And gorier. And, given its pretensions to serious tragedy, a bit less silly.
DVD Extras Fully restored and digitally remastered; scene selection; optional English subtitles; trailer reel. Version reviewed: The Shaw Brothers Collection - Human Lanterns (Momentum Asia) DVD Extras Rating: 1/10
Alternatives:The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, The Silence of the Lambs, The Werewolf and the Yeti
This Shaw Brothers' chopsocky-gore crossover is all revenge but little satisfaction.