Dr. Lamb Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: August 9, 2020
Audio: Cantonese and Mandarin LPCM 2.0 Mono
Run Time: 88:47 minutes
Director: Danny Lee & Billy Tang
A mentally disturbed taxi driver lusts for blood every rainy night and several young women are brutally murdered. He likes to take photos of the victims' dismembered bodies as his special mementos after sex with their corpses and stores their severed breasts in pickle jars. Inspector Lee and his team are called onto the case. (From Unearthed Films’ official synopsis)
In 1988, Hong Kong introduced a rating system that included something called Category III (or Cat III). It was essentially equivalent to the MPAA’s NC-17 (which hadn’t been invented at the time) and BBFC’s 18 certificate. Cat III movies were not hardcore pornography, but did include X-rated softcore sex, full frontal female nudity, graphic violence, and depiction of Triad gangs. Combined with a small collection of films that were retroactively re-rated Cat III, there was a short Golden Era between '88 and ‘97, when the colony was absorbed by mainland China, that endures as legendary among exploitation film lovers. The most notorious of these are likely the Unit 731 (or Maruta) movies – T. F. Mou’s Men Behind the Sun (1988), Godfrey Ho’s Laboratory of the Devil (1992), Ho’s Narrow Escape (aka: Destroy all Evidence, 1994), and Mou’s Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre (1995) – which depict some of the real-world atrocities committed against Chinese and Siberian prisoners by Japan’s 731 (covert biological and chemical warfare research & development unit). However, given that the Unit 731 series was so shocking as to be banned and censored across the globe, three other films (arguably) became the international poster children for Cat III: Michael Mak’s charming erotic comedy, Sex and Zen (1991), Danny Lee & Billy Tang’s true crime horror film, Dr. Lamb (1992), and its pseudo-follow-up, Herman Yau’s The Untold Story (1993). The latter two have more in common than I had remembered and, in retrospect, are an almost inseparable pair.
The Untold Story may have the edge in terms of pure shock value and Anthony Wong’s powerhouse Best Actor performance, but it might not have worked without Dr. Lamb laying some groundwork. Both films are reputed to be based on true stories, both were made in reaction to the Hollywood serial killer trend started by Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Oscar winner Silence of the Lambs, and both owe a debt to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 psychothriller drama Taxi Driver. The similarities don’t end there, though. Actor Danny Lee produced both films and even took a co-directing credit on Dr. Lamb. He essentially plays the same character in each, a cop named Lee (inspector in one, officer in the other), is surrounded by essentially the same group of misfit, civil-rights-hating underlings, and, while the plots don’t match, the stories are structured almost the same, framing the killers’ crimes in flashback as they’re being tortured for information. Dr. Lamb ends up being even more critical of the police, because Lam’s innocent family is also beaten for information.
Hong Kong’s Cat III mad murderer movies, including the two Lee films, Hon Wei-tat’s Don’t Stop My Crazy Love For You (1993), and Lai Kai-Ming’s Daughter of Darkness (a variant on themes that featured a female killer, 1993) were not only the product of reduced censorship and Silence of the Lambs’ box office take, but of public angst about rising crime rates, overwhelming poverty, and the region’s upcoming handover from Great Britain to China. They were chiefly exercises in bad taste, shock, and misogyny, sure, but, like Italy’s gialli and poliziotteschi crazes of the ‘70s, the filmmakers also intended them as nihilistic screeds against authoritative corruption and economic malaise. Lee & Tang’s story and themes also reference Taxi Driver and John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) – movies about misanthropic murderers who the audience nevertheless sympathizes with, because we are tied to their point-of-view and complicit in their crimes.
Dr. Lamb and Untold Story both contrast their antagonist’s irredeemable crimes and victimization at the hands of a corrupt system in order to provoke their audiences, but there are key stylistic differences. Lee and Tang shoot Dr. Lamb to match John Woo’s slick neo-noir look with blue and purple lighting, smoke-choked environments, and streaming shafts of light (various scenes also directly reference Taxi Driver and Silence of the Lambs). Untold Story aims, instead, for a grounded world where every ounce of filth encrusts otherwise sterile, white environments. Lee and Yau also upped the ante in terms of the intensity of the on-screen violence for Untold Story, especially for its savage butcher of young children. Thanks in part to making stylistic choices that ape psycho-thrillers and action movies, Dr. Lamb’s graphic violence a little easier to swallow. Even when taking diversions into tasteless slapstick, it earns its crassness with general consistency, whereas Untold Story kicks the viewer in the crotch with every inappropriate swerve in tone.
Additionally, the murderers themselves are very different people. Wong’s award-winning interpretation is seething, hateful, and pathetic, while Simon Yam portrays Lam Gor-yue as aloof and cocky when speaking with the police, then manic and childish in the murder flashbacks. Lam is based on real-life serial killer Lam Kor-wan, a taxi driver who strangled four female passengers to death, photographed and recorded video of the bodies, performed necrophilic acts, dismembered the remains, and kept sexual organs in Tupperware containers as trophies (leading to the nickname The Jars Murderer). The fact that a man named ‘Lam,’* who was an actual taxi driver was the subject of a movie made in partial reference to Silence of the Lambs and Taxi Driver is remarkable enough, but what’s truly stunning is how closely such an sensationalistic film follows Lam’s actual crimes. When we see severed breasts in jars and witness Lam raping a dead body, we assume it must have been dreamed up by some deranged screenwriter, but it really happened. Perhaps Yam opted to be restrained, because he knew something of the real Lam’s personality, whereas Wong’s performance is largely fictionalized. More likely, though, Yam recognized how heightened and over-the-top Dr. Lamb was and figured the only way to stand out was to be understated.
* In another case of truth being stranger than fiction, Hong Kong’s only other on-the-books serial killer also happened to have the surname Lam, Lam Kwok-wai (no relation).
Mondo Macabro: Weird & Wonderful Cinema Around the World by Peter Tombs (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998)
Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe by Steven Jay Schneider (FAB Press, 2004)
Stateside Cat III fiends of a certain age probably originally saw Dr. Lamb on Hong Kong VHS or a bootleg created from a non-anamorphic HK DVD. Until now, the best available version was a PAL DVD from Germany company XT Video (who I just learned claims to be an Austrian company in order to avoid censorship of their releases). That release was uncut, anamorphic, and slightly restored, though still pretty rough. I’d argue that, compared to the cult movies of all eras and regions, that late ‘80s/early ‘90s Hong Kong genre work is in the most desperate need of remastering and preservation. Companies like 88 Films, Eureka Entertainment, and Vinegar Syndrome have finally started the hard work of fixing decades of subpar, borderline unwatchable digital releases of some of the greatest horror, fantasy, and action movies ever made. Unearthed Films’ coffers aren’t as deep as some of those others, but they are doing their part between this release and their Untold Story Blu-ray. Their new 2K scan of the uncut 35mm negative corrects most of the previous releases’ major problems.
Really, the only issue is that the original footage is slightly damaged, leading to a lot of white dots and occasional scratches. It’s as if you’re watching a neatly cleaned up 35mm projection and easy to ignore the artifacts after about five minutes. Color quality doesn’t suffer aging effects and the overall timing matches what you’ve seen before, just minus the analogue or digital compression noises. The Unearthed Films crew also avoids unnecessary digital clean-up, resulting in a natural, filmic look that includes some chunky grain during softer shots. The colors are vibrant when needed and sharp black levels help differentiate finer details during the smokiest sequences. Some scenes have a slightly milky quality, but, honestly, knowing what I know about the lack of preservation of ‘90s HK movies, I really can’t imagine Dr. Lamb looking any better.
Dr. Lamb is presented with two audio options, Cantonese and Mandarin, both in uncompressed LPCM mono. As I understand it, it was still common practice during the period to shoot without sync sound and post-dub tracks for the Cantonese market, which was more prevalent in Hong Kong, and the Mandarin market, which was more prevalent on the mainland. VHS tapes would usually include a Cantonese soundtrack along with both Mandarin and English subtitles, since the country was still a British colony at the time. Each mix has basically the same tone and volume levels, and the sound designers put the emphasis on dialogue and Wong Bon’s moody, Vangelis-like music. It’s not a very lively mix by design, aside from some lively storms during a couple of the flashbacks.
Commentary with Art Ettinger and Bruce Holecheck – In this factoid-fueled track, Ettinger, editor and writer at Ultra Violent Magazine, and Holecheck, editor and writer at Cinema Arcana (among others), explore Hong Kong’s social/political state in the early ‘90s and how it changed filmmaking, the real Lam Kor-wan case, the careers of the cast & crew, and reminisce about witnessing the Cat III boom from a western perspective.
Lamb To The Slaughter (20:22, HD) – Filmmaker Gilbert Po (Obsession, 1993) chats about the history of Cat III movies, discovering the story of Lam Kor-wan, pitching the idea of a Hong Kong serial killer movie to Danny Lee (including showing him Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Silence of the Lambs), Yam’s performance, doing (uncredited) research on serial killers, seeing the film after having left during pre-production, and the film’s release and impact.
Three Times The Fear (20:33, HD) – James Mudge, writer and podcast host at Eastern Kicks, looks back at the golden era of Cat III, the key films and filmmakers, the HK serial killer template, the similarities between Untold Story and Dr. Lamb, Yam and Lee’s careers post-Lamb, and the political anxiety reflected in Cat III movies.
Cut And Run (16:09, HD) – Critic Sean Tierney, aka: The Silver Spleen, discusses the true crimes of Lam Kor-wan, expectations based on the Cat III reputation, and is generally very critical of the film.
Atomic TV interview with Simon Yam (7:58, HD) – A short interview from a 2000 Baltimore convention.
Dr. Lamb, Untold Story, Evil Dead Trap, A Serbian Film, and Premutos trailers
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.