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Return of the Dead (1979)

Return of the Dead [銷魂玉] (1979)

Starring Ku Feng, Wang Lai, Lau Luk-Wah, Yeung Chi-Hing, Yueh Hua, Chan Wai-Ying, Si Wai, Yuen Sam, Cheng Miu, Ko Hsiang-Ting, Cheung Ching-Fung, Choh Seung-Wan, Tai Kwan-Tak, Chan Shen, Chun Wong, Wong Ching-Ho, Lau Wai-Ling, Shum Lo, Fung Ming, Lui Tat, Wang Han-Chen

Directed by Li Han-Hsiang

Expectations: Moderate. Hopefully it’s as good as The Ghost Story or better.

Li Han-Hsiang followed The Ghost Story with another horror anthology nine months later: Return of the Dead. It is a much more conventional anthology, with a framing story bringing together three stories which would otherwise have no connection. Return of the Dead is also not a sexploitation film (although it does brush up against the genre in a couple of scenes), so overall I imagine it is a much easier to digest film for traditional horror audiences. The only problem is that Return of the Dead just isn’t as good as it ought to be. The stories are all entertaining and engaging, but they lack a bit of oomph to really send them into a territory that inspires love. I liked the film, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that there’s not a lot to hang any sort of recommendation on.

The framing story is relatively light, showing the protagonists of the individual stories explaining how they came to reside in the insane asylum they all call home. The first story is likely to be familiar to horror fans, as it is an adaptation of the time-honored tale, The Monkey’s Paw. Here the paw is a necklace with a charm depicting the three wise monkeys (See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil). Ku Feng and Wang Lai play husband and wife, with their son played by Lau Luk-Wah. Lau works at a local factory, while his parents have a small, but successful fermented tofu business. Ku Feng’s character has adopted the name Wang Zhi-He to help sell his goods, as the real Wang Zhi-He was the man who discovered and popularized bottled, fermented tofu. If you know the story of The Monkey’s Paw, you’ll know what comes next. It is a simple, but effective moral tale, and Li Han-Hsiang adapts it well.

The second story concerns a pair of bodies that wash up on the shore of Blue Lake. One of the men, Jiang Tao (Yueh Hua), is revived and taken to a hospital, but when strangle marks are discovered on the other man’s body, Jiang Tao becomes the center of a murder investigation. This was my favorite section of the film, and, of course, all is not as it seems. The third story revolves around a rickshaw driver, Xiao Da-Zhi (Tai Kwan-Tak), and the death of a well-known prostitute who recently married a rich man, Xiao Yun-Yu (Choh Seung-Wan). The characters share a family name, but they aren’t related and the coincidence isn’t mentioned in the story (or if it was, it was brief and I missed it). Da-Zhi and his buddies, notably Da-Yan (Chan Shen) are all poor and discuss raiding Xiao Yun-Yu’s tomb for the jewelry buried with her by her rich husband. Not the greatest idea for a character to have in a film titled Return of the Dead, but their loss is to be our gain! 😀

Compared to The Ghost Story, there is far less substance to the stories, and Li films them with considerably less style, too. In just about every way, it’s a mediocre film, and this was probably the biggest shock that Return of the Dead gave me. I have come to expect a certain level of quality in Li’s films, and this one really isn’t up to par. It was his third film to be released in 1979, but he regularly directed three–five movies a year so I don’t think fatigue is a reason. It’s possible that the films were originally meant to be features all their own, but were combined later in order to reap some profits from what had already been shot. This was something that happened with a few other Shaw anthologies (Haunted Tales is the one that springs to mind), so I suppose it’s a reasonable assumption. Return of the Dead does feel relatively cohesive, though, and each tale shares the same level of light supernatural goings-on, so I’m inclined to think it’s just a mediocre film without another explanation.

In terms of Shaw Horror films, Return of the Dead is definitely one of the tamest and least successful entries. I still liked it a lot, and will probably re-watch it in the future, but it’s definitely only for the die-hard fans or someone looking for that Shaw flavor without the insanity of Kuei Chih-Hung.

Next up is the final film of my annual dive into Shaw Brothers horror films: Richard Yeung Kuen’s 1982 film, Hell Has No Boundary! See ya then!

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