Blu-ray Release: June 7, 2022
Audio: Mandarin LPCM 2.0 Mono
Run Time: 98:52
Director: Sun Chung
When an unbalanced craftsman (Lo Lieh) decides to get revenge on two kung fu masters by creating special lanterns constructed from the human skin of their dead relatives, all hell breaks loose in this gruesome tale of bloody retribution. (From 88 Films’ official synopsis)
With a plot clearly inspired by the legend of Ed Gein – the same real-life, Wisconsin-based serial killer who is referenced in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Alan Ormsby’s Deranged (1974), and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – Sun Chung’s Human Lanterns (aka: Human Skin Lanterns, 1982) was not Shaw’s first shot at horror. Desperate to remain relevant in a changing market they once dominated, the studio had dabbled successfully in supernatural terror, such as the Hammer/Shaw co-production Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974), directed by Roy Ward Baker & Chang Cheh, and Ho Meng-Huathe’s Exorcist-inspired Black Magic (1975) and Black Magic 2 (1976). Most of the Shaw horror movies followed the lead set by Ho’s work, focusing on regional folklore and developing increasingly surrealistic visuals. Though not as retrospectively celebrated as post-Black Magic supernatural thrillers, such as Kuei Chih-Hung’s Hex (1980) and Boxer’s Omen (1983), especially outside of Asia, Human Lanterns was still a milestone for its combination of Shaw Bros’ aging, costume drama wuxia formula, and the modern horror of the early slasher era. Thought it should be noted that Kuei narrowly beat Sun to the punch with the slasher-inspired, but underseen Corpse Mania in 1981*.
As a horror film, Human Lanterns does not disappoint. It’s dripping with buckets of blood, graphic impalements, and a couple of particularly nasty skin-removal scenes that remain censored in some countries 40 years later. It’s also inescapably dreary, even when focusing on traditional kung fu melodrama. The Shaw house style had grown stale from a decade of market saturation and Sun, along with cinematographer Tsao An-Sung, shoot the familiar backlot sets like a haunted funhouse, mixing the rich colors and eerie lighting of Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires with ‘80s-friendly extreme camera angles and soft focus. Even basic shots of a busy market are drenched in spookiness. It’s meant to evoke North American slashers and effects-driven horror (the photography reminds me of Joe Dante’s The Howling  in particular), but the filmmakers’ Shaw Bros. training gives Human Lanterns (and the studio’s other ‘80s horror) a fully unique flavor. While audiences tend to remember the shocking Grand Guignol spectacle, Human Lanterns also rivals some of the studio’s best in terms of martial arts action and wire-work. Huang Pei-Chi (who appears as one of the fan fighters) & Tang Chia (who choreographed Tsui Hark’s Green Snake ), who are credited as fight instructors rather than coordinators, choreograph some particularly intense fisticuffs that escalate from scene-to-scene, culminating in an extended, ultra-violent climax where the lantern-making murderer takes on a legion of attackers. The cast is reinforced with a number of the studio’s regulars, including Tony Liu, Chien Sun, and Chen Kuan-Tai in leading roles, but Indonesian-born Shaw mainstay Lo Lieh steals the show as the villain. The actor had reached super-stardom after Jeong Chang-hwa’s King Boxer (aka: Five Fingers of Death, 1972) became a surprise international hit, ushering in the US kung fu craze of the ‘70s. He also had incredible horror credentials, having appeared in the Black Magic series and Tsui Hark’s Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (1980), which helped set the tone for Hong Kong New Wave horror in the 1980s. Here, he revels in the role of a psychotic maniac, while everyone else is forced to play it straight. The lantern killer is a distinctly nihilistic character in the world-wide slasher canon, though his giggling lunacy matches the adolescent frenzy of Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Leatherface and his sadism, near invincibility, and skull-shaped mask are more reminiscent of Friday the 13th’s (1980) Jason Voorhees. Sadly, he didn’t stick around for any sequels, as audiences were apparently more excited by Kuei’s Hex sequels and spin-offs.
Mondo Macabro: Weird & Wonderful Cinema Around the World by Peter Tombs (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998)
* It’s possible there were other slasher/kung fu hybrids before Corpse Mania. For example, Ho Meng-Hua had previously made The Psychopath (1978), which doesn’t appear to have ever had an English-friendly release, but is described as a thriller with a giallo-esque slant.
I’m not sure if Human Lanterns was ever released on official North American VHS or Beta tape. There were definitely bootleg tapes, but it appears there wasn’t even an English export dub made or, if there was, it has been lost to time, because every English-friendly home video release of the digital era only features a Mandarin dub, including Image Entertainment’s 2008 anamorphic DVD and HD versions available on streaming services. There was a 2017 Blu-ray from German company WVG as part of their Shaw Bros. Collection, but it was slightly censored. This new disc from 88 Films is completely uncut, taken from one of Celestial Films’ HD remasters, and is presented in 1080p and 2.35:1. As I’ve mentioned in other 88 Films and Arrow reviews, the Celestial Films transfers can be problematic. Typically, the image is a bit over-scrubbed and oversharpened, but Tsao’s photography is so hyper-stylized and hazy that a lot of those issues don’t really apply. Noise reduction has been employed and softens some of the natural grain, especially where the diffused whites are concerned, but the vast majority of the issues, including blurred edges, fuzzy wide-angle blacks/shadows, and anamorphic distortions are built into the material. Harder, close-up blacks are quite strong and the busy color palette is just as vivid as that seen in other, more conventional Shaw films from Celestial.
As mentioned above, I’m not sure Shaw Bros. ever produced an English dub of Human Lanterns. Even if there was, it has not been preserved, because not a single home video release appears to include one. In keeping with the tradition, this Blu-ray features only a Mandarin soundtrack in uncompressed, LPCM 2.0 mono sound (the box mistakenly claims it is a DTS-HD Master Audio track). Visually, genre films from Hong Kong and Taiwan continued to match their Western counterparts’ visual upgrades and technical advancements into the ‘80s, but, aurally, they tended to sound basically the same as the films of the previous decade, utilizing the exact same weapons foley and library music. This mix changes things up with a bit more effects layering, discordant cues (credited to Shing Chin-Yung & Su Chen-Hou), and ambient textures. The dubbed dialogue is inconsistent and it does appear that some of the cast was speaking Cantonese on set (in her interview on this disc, actress Susan Shaw recalls that people were speaking both languages on set, but that it was a Mandarin only movie, dubbing-wise), but this is all typical for this kind of release.
Commentary with Kenneth Brorsson and Phil Gillon – The Podcast On Fire Network co-hosts revisit Human Lanterns and dig into the careers of the major cast & crew, Shaw Bros.’ then-recent history, the making of the film, its place in greater Hong Kong oeuvre, connection to other subgenres, and the ever increasing sex and violence seen from regional filmmaking at the time.
A Shaw Story (13:48, HD) – Actress Susan Shaw discusses making Human Lanterns and her other work in controversial movies for Shaw Bros. and Golden Harvest.
The Beauty and the Beasts (14:39, HD) – Actress Linda Chu recalls breaking into the industry, the difficulties of working at Shaw Bros., her opinion of Sun Chung as a director, and her appearance in Human Lanterns (she likes the film because she “looked good in it”).
The Ambiguous Hero (51:11, HD) – The final interview features actor Lau Wing speaking at length about his early career, the intensity of the Shaw movie-making machine, being typecast as villains, changes at Shaw over the decade he spent with the studio, the popularity of horror/wuxia hybrid movies, working with Sun, basing some of his performance on Alain Delon, and his general opinion of the film.
Limited Edition box contents:
Slipcase with brand-new artwork from R.P. "Kung Fu Bob" O'Brien
Booklet notes by Barry Forshaw
Double-sided foldout poster
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.