Corpse Mania [屍妖] (1981)

Starring Wong Yung, Tanny Tien Ni, Yau Chui-Ling, Walter Tso Tat-Wah, Tai Kwan-Tak, Eric Chan Ga-Kei, Lau Siu-Kwan, Gam Biu, Jenny Leung Jan-Lei, Wong Ching-Ho, Fong Ping, Shum Lo, Lam Wai-Tiu

Directed by Kuei Chih-Hung

Expectations: Very high.

A title like Corpse Mania suggests a pretty high-octane horror film, but this particular Kuei Chih-Hung film has more in common with Hex than it does his maniacal black magic films (Bewitched and The Boxer’s Omen). It’d be wrong to call Corpse Mania tame, though. It exists in a sort of middle ground between the two styles, utilizing the look of Hex (swirling fog and moonlit studio streets) and the gross-out horror of the black magic films. Corpse Mania is full of horrific delights, but above all the defining element is that it’s more of a Hong Kong giallo than anything else, building mystery and intrigue as the body count piles up. There’s even a classic Argento “Killer POV” shot!

Corpse Mania begins when Li Zhengyuan (Eric Chan Ga-Kei) moves into an old house with his sickly wife. When they arrive, they only have a single bag of luggage and Li’s wife must be carried inside, raising the suspicions of the neighbors. Li also wears sunglasses and covers his face like the Invisible Man, which definitely doesn’t help the situation. A few days later, a horrible smell emanates from the Li’s home, and when the police investigate they find the body of Li’s wife, naked and covered in mealworms. Upon further detective work, they determine that sexual intercourse had been performed after her death. As disturbing as that is, it is only the beginning of the mystery surrounding Li Zhengyuan!

To be honest, I’m not much of a giallo fan. There are ones that I love (such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), but for the most part I find them boring and hard to get into. In the case of Corpse Mania, I was locked in right from moment one. It runs a lean 81 minutes, and it uses each and every one of them effectively. The mystery is always evolving, and the killer is progressively more daring yet always just out of reach of the police. Perhaps some of the twists should have been more apparent to me, but I was so caught up in the moment-to-moment tension that I rarely had a second to spare for these kinds of speculative thoughts.

Kuei always had a knack for an interesting shot, but he really outdoes himself in Corpse Mania. A fantastic Steadicam tracking shot establishes a key location in the film, and it’s this sort of modern spirit that sets him apart from the standard Shaw contract director. Kuei’s films were rarely well-received in their time, but they most definitely helped to develop and define the Hong Kong New Wave style. The rich, shining visuals of Corpse Mania make me think that Kuei really poured his heart into this one, though I have no information to back this up other than my own feelings. In the Hong Kong Film Archive book Kuei Chih-Hung: A Rebel in the System, Chen Kuai-Tai described Kuei on the set of 1980’s Killer Constable as “like a maniac,” and that “Kuei demanded realism.” Kuei was a director who knew what he wanted and would work to get it. He never had the studio backing of the bigger name directors, so he really had to fight to craft his films. Corpse Mania was made during this same period, and the result is easily one of his best films.

Kuei Chih-Hung has the reputation of being the Shaw schlockmeister, but he was so much more than that. There is no better example of this than Corpse Mania, a film that exhibits his best qualities on both sides of the art/exploitation spectrum. Personally, I prefer his black magic films, but Corpse Mania is a real gem just asking for re-discovery. There’s no reason that the questionably glorified violence of Argento’s Deep Red should be accepted as artful, when similar strokes in Corpse Mania are viewed through a different lens. Highly recommended (although I will say that while I loved it, I’ve briefly looked around and found a lot of middling reviews for this one. So, as always, your experience may vary…).

My annual journey into Shaw Brother horror films is over, so it’s back to the chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog! I’ll be ringing in November with Lau Kar-Leung’s second film, the amazing Challenge of the Masters! See ya then!