Shaw Brothers kung fu films are my favorite. With high flying super kung fu master stunts, blood, Gordon Liu, The Venoms, they had it all. What I didn’t know up until a couple of years ago was that they didn’t just do straight up Kung Fu films, they also tried to infuse horror in to some of their releases and Human Lanterns is a prime example of this.
Set in ancient China, like most Shaw films, Human Lanterns is a story of revenge, betrayal, greed and power. The two richest men in town Tan and Lung, both hate each other. They share the same prostitute and both want her for their own. Every year they enter a lantern contest but this time Lung has something up his sleeve. He finds a master lantern maker and hires him to make the best lantern possible. He discovers that the master lantern maker is a man he duelled with in his youth, giving him a scar that he’s lived with since the fight. Eager to exact his revenge, the lantern maker accepts the contract but decides to kidnap Lung’s favorite prostitute and skin her alive, using that flesh to make a lantern. This pits Tan and Lung against each other, each thinking the other has kidnapped her. The lantern maker doesn’t stop there though, he continues to kidnap women from both men to fuel their fire. Of course much duelling ensues, especially when they discover its been the lantern maker all along. Did I mention he dresses like a ghost/skull monkey/Sasquatch? Yeah. He does.
Although Human Lanterns is more of a kung fu film then horror, the pervasive mood of the film is of horror. With a few graphic scenes of murder and misogyny, this isn’t your typical shaw film. The whole film feels sleazier and much more brutal. Sure, there’s high flying kung fu action, but the film is taken much more seriously and more attention is given to the plot then in most kung fu films. A film more about revenge and vengeance and pride, it oozes anger and torment. The film can’t just simply be cast aside as yet another martial arts exploitation flick. It demands closer attention of its audience and aims to unsettle rather then entertain. And it this, it succeeds. It seems that many of the later films in the shaw catalogue were more mature and darker as the production company neared its end. Perhaps this was due to the bleak outlook of the company? We’ll never know.
So if you like your kung fu mixed with an element of horror without falling into the slapstick silliness of many kung fu “vampire” films, check out the often missed Human Lanterns. But beware the skull monkey sasquatch suit thing.
Gore: medium/high (for a Shaw film)