I suppose I can be forgiven for laboring under the misapprehension that the late-period Shaw Brothers horror/martial-arts film, Human Lanterns (1982), had been directed by gore-loving director Chang Cheh. The set-up is the sort of thing he would have loved: two rivals, duped into enmity by one of the rival's psychotic old foes. That psychotic old foe inserts himself into the local lantern decorating contest as a master lantern-maker, positioning himself to play the other two against one another by selectively kidnapping and murdering the women in their lives, then making lanterns from their skins. He's a pretty unpleasant character. The director of this mayhem, not Cheh, was Chung Sun, who also directed The Deadly Breaking Sword. Both that film and this one have more or less the same plot, except for the whole human lantern thing, in which the story splits the hero duties between two characters who have to overcome their differences in order to defeat a bad guy from one of their pasts, a bad guy who has remade himself into a monster. Had Chang Cheh made this, there might have been a hint of homoeroticism in this, too, but that element is absent here. Alas.
The movie itself shows the influence of the then-dawning Hong Kong New Wave. The filmmakers are still using Shaw's familiar standing sets and stock players, but they're beginning to take advantage of variant lighting schemes and impossible wire fu. The villain of the piece, when done up with his baboon/skull mask, looks like a refugee from Tsui Hark's Zu. Its willingness to push the envelope with its grue--the skinning scenes and one rape scene are very unpleasant--anticipates the following decade's notorious Category III films (a couple of which are directly inspired by this film). The Shaws were adapting to the changing aesthetics of film, but they were already in decline as a movie studio.
The actors here are relatively minor Shaw stars. The most recognizable face is Lieh Lo, our psychotic villain--Lieh was famous for his villains--while Chien Sun, playing the cop trying to keep a lid on things, is recognizable as one of the Venom clan from The Five Deadly Venoms. Mr. Lung, the hero of the film was played by Tony Liu, while his rival, Mr. Tan, was played by Kuan Tai Chen, both familiar faces from countless Hong Kong films to this very day, but neither ever an A-list star. This is all probably for the best, given that it's the concept that's the star here. Someone like Ti Lung or David Chiang might change that calculus. Women play a relatively large role in this film, too, though mainly as victims. There's a striking misogyny on display here, and I'm not entirely sure the film does much to undercut it. This must have worked as a kind of fetish piece for producer Mona Fong, who was known to dislike beautiful actresses.
The kung-fu in this film is a mixture of stylized old-school wu xia and the more outlandish wire fu acrobatics then coming into vogue. There's plenty of it, so much that it breaks the spell of the horror elements. This is counterbalanced by the Gothic possibilities presented by Shaw's stock sets, mostly seen at night, mostly lit with an eye toward gloom. The killer's lair, particularly, with it's weird machineries, is pretty flamboyant for a set built by the Shaws for a specific movie, and the scene near the end where the action wrecks the place is pretty impressive. I like the disquieting ending, of the film, too, in which the hero has had his arrogance stripped away from him, along with his good looks. Scarred and chastened, he vows to do good works rather than amass honor at the expense of everyone around him. There's a certain Buddhist resignation behind the ending of the film that was doubtless included to soften the blow of the nastiness of the horror elements, but it's an element that tends to infect a lot of Hong Kong horror films and one that marks them distinctively.