Hong Kong's "Category III" films are a mixed bag. In US terms, Category III translates roughly to NC-17, a rating which sometimes means the movie contains extremely explicit sex, sometimes extremely explicit violence, and sometimes just unconventional content, or a tone which the ratings board thinks the general public should be warned against. The strong rating is no guarantee that a movie will be any good; nor does it guarantee that the movie's going to suck.
When it comes to Category III horror films, you can never really tell what you're going to get. The makers of Cat III horror may go as far as they dare in either one direction or the other -- graphic bloodshed or just-shy-of-hardcore sex -- but chances are the further they go in either direction, the less successful the resulting movie will be.
I've come to this (admittedly broad) conclusion by sitting through a number of stinkers. The film makers will usually start with an interesting premise (judging either from the title or the brief summary on the jacket), and proceed with great gusto to ignore the possibilities of that premise, and laspe into familiar patterns of schtupping or slaughter (or both... sometimes simultaneously). In fact, the premise as outlined in the "official" synopsis often has little to do with the completed film. It's as though someone, at some point, had a carefully-worked-out script -- probably the very thing which sold the idea to the producers in the first place. They summarized the script for the promotional material, then threw it away as quickly as possible so it wouldn't get in their way.
Beauty of the Haunted House is the most recent film to trick me like this. I can't resist a good ghost story, and on the surface this sounded like just the thing:
One night, four young people find that the cellar of an ancestral house was a bacteria weapon laboratory of Japanese army a hundred years ago. After that night, they are harassed by evil spirit, so they employ some wizards and taoist priests to expel the ghost but all of them fail and are killed strangely. Later, they find that all these are related to a Japanese consortium...
This description is wildly inaccurate. I went into the film expecting, at worst, a sort of Hong Kong Ghosts of Sodom, but what I ended up watching was pure drivel. There isn't a single scare in the whole movie, which instead consists of a series of mildly distasteful erotic episodes, tied together with some incredibly overstated Japan-bashing.
The film opens with a brief prologue: a man walks in front of a large old house at night, bellowing prayers and scattering Hell money to the winds. The camera swoops along rows of blue-lit statues, and with an ominous surge in the soundtrack, the credits begin.
The film proper begins in Hong Kong Harbor. There is a peaceful establishing shot of the water, as a ferry comes into port (the opening of Fulci's Zombie sprung into my mind).
So far, so good. The movie has established a certain tone in its first two minutes. After the swooping camera work of the prologue, and the plain-text, moodily-scored credits sequence, the shot of the distant harbor feels like an expectant pause. It's as though the film was stopping to take a breath before jumping into the main story.
Then, suddenly and fatally, the movie plunges off in a different direction. We cut to a boat on the bay. Bad porn-movie music starts playing, and we see three scantily clad girls swaying and dancing. They draw closer to each other, exchanging lascivious glances and gestures. After a little over a minute of the three girls making giggly noises at each other, we change perspective and see that the girls are being watched by two men. One is a middle-aged, slightly nervous man called Ai; the other is a stolid and impassive young Japanese. The nervous man has provided the girls as entertainment for the Japanese businessman, Mr. Taro, in gratitude for his help in obtaining a much-needed loan. Taro remains modest about the loan and his part in it... but then casually inquires if it is true that Ai has an old house on Lantao Island. When answers that he does, Taro insists on buying it at once. Ai demurs, saying he'd be happy to help him find one in the area. But Taro is adamant: he wants Ai's house.
In the meantime, the three girls have adjourned to the bow of the boat, where they remove their scant clothing and get down to business. Ai goes off to watch, and gets drawn into the action. Ai can hardly believe his luck (and we can hardly believe we're watching this dirty old man cavorting with three girls, one of whom turns out to be his employee)... while Taro, unnoticed, starts taking pictures.
Later, those snapshots almost end up in the hands of Ai's "comically" large and overbearing wife. With the pictures comes an ultimatum from Taro: sell him the house or the pictures will be all over the newspapers. Ai would be happy to oblige, except that the house is in the posession of his reclusive brother, who refuses to leave. Ai's secretary -- one of the girls he was bonking on the boat -- convinces him to send his son, Eddie, to get his brother to leave.
Eddie goes off to Lantao with his aide, Ho, and his aide's secretary-who-is-also-sleeping-with-him (it's amazing to see this ghastly stereotype still being used so blatantly). When they arrive, they find Eddie's Uncle to be as sullen and uncooperative as they'd been led to believe. Eddie, though, seems bewitched by the house. He has visions of himself, dressed in an old-fashioned white suit, wandering through the house. He seems to know where everything is, as though he'd been there before.
Gradually, Eddie is taken over by the spirit of his late grandfather. He finds his grandfather's white suit, and a picture of a girl who seems strangely familiar. Ho and his secretary point out she looks like a prostitute -- hey, they should know! -- but Eddie chases them out. As they leave, they fail to notice the sad-eyed woman in red who has appeared suddenly in the mirror...
That night, Ho has a spooky encounter in the bathroom. As he finishes having a wazz, he reaches for the toilet paper... but can't find it. A ghostly hand emerges from off-camera and hands him a fresh roll. Shaken, Ho walks back to the bedroom, where he expects to find his secretary. Instead, he finds the girl in the picture. "You thought I looked like a prostitute," she says, though she seems to be pleased by the comparison. In a moment, they're screwing. Yes, that's right: he's having sex with a girl from a picture that's 50 years old, in the room he shares with his secretary-cum-girlfriend. It soon becomes evident to us that he's hallucinating: the girl opn top of him is actually his secretary... Again, we see the sad-eyed girl in the mirror, as we (but not Ho) see who's really in the bed with him. Suddenly, Ho looks up and sees... his partner is an ancient crone! Eek! He runs out into the hallway, clutching his clothing, where he is seen and chided by Uncle.
I don't want to go into much more detail about this movie. You can see where it's headed, and what sort of things pass for scares in this movie's vocabulary. In passing, there's a loathesome mock-S&M scene between little old Ai and his voluptuous secretary (Ai in leather is a sight that'll make you want to Brillo your eyeballs); and another scene wherein Mrs. Ai almost surprises Ai with his secretary (whom he's supposed to have fired), so he hides her under his desk... and she proceeds to, er, inflate his ego as he talks with his wife. This leads to some bungled Farrelly-brothers style "comedy" involving bodily fluids. Then there's a sequence in which Ho convinces his secretary to seduce Taro's fat, greasy representative in Lantao, so that Ho can take some equally incriminating photos for reverse blackmail. The girl agrees to do it -- if Ho will give her a nice big ring... I take it this means she'll get to be Mrs. Ho, a title she richly deserves.
But the main part of the story -- or what would be the main part of the story if the director could just stop thinking with his Super-8 equipment -- is Eddie's involvement with the sad-eyed ghost. Eddie voluntarily leaves his personality behind, and for the moment becomes his grandfather. He relives the romance with Chanel, the prostitute with whom he fell in love. Though his love cost him his family's support, he went to make his own way in the world, with the now-respectable Chanel by his side... until the war came. He was too late to get home and save Chanel from being abducted by the Japanese soldiers, for use in horrible genetic experiments. Not knowing that she had in fact been imprisoned and killed in his own family's home, Eddie's grandfather had returned there after the war to start a new family, and that was that.
But in the meantime, Chanel's unhappy spirit had wandered the house. Evil Japanese spirits live there, too, but are kept at bay by the terracotta Chinese warrior statues in the basement. Now, Eddie's presence has opened the gateway to the spirit world and allowed Chanel one last chance at altering her fate.
In a bizarre sort of Somewhere In Time twist, it seems that if Eddie and Chanel bring together the two pieces of a talisman which had symbolized the couple's love, they could go back in time and try to alter the terrible events of Chanel's last day. The only trouble is that if Eddie fails to save her, Chanel's spirit will be utterly destroyed. In spite of the risks, they agree to try it; and in order to make time and space bend to their will, they get all nekkid and...
Ohhhhh shit: I'm doing it again. I'm making this movie sound a lot more interesting than it really is. Even relating the outline of the story as it should have gone makes the movie seem somewhat involving. But I can't stress enough how badly executed the whole thing is. This human-ghost-reincarnation love story could have been at least a little bit moving, had it been approached with respect. But Beauty of the Haunted House is a skin flick first and foremost. Scenes that should have been played straight are accompanied by ludicrously inappropriate music (actual honky-tonk piano in one scene). Moments that are meant to reach us emotionally are undercut by their context, or by the sloppy way they've been scripted and edited. By the time we get involved in the ghost's dilemma, it's too little too late: we've been porned out.
Where was I? Oh yeah: Ho and his companion have contacted a greedy Taoist priest to come exorcize the house. He starts his ritual just as Eddie and Chanel are getting busy. Understandably miffed at being interrupted, Chanel confronts the priest, and the two begin an indifferently choreographed wire-work fight scene. Any movie can be salvaged momentarily by a little fantasy kung-fu: the fight is a brief but welcome relief from the low-grade smarm we've been seeing so far. All too soon, Chanel smothers the priest in red fabric and goes back to her reincarnated lover.
Together the two go back to that day 50-some years ago (not 100 as the box said). And Eddie screws it up. He misses his opportuinty and arrives just a moment too late. Desperate, he follows the Japanese soldiers to the house, where he is found and dragged into the torture chamber. As he is tied to the electric chair for pain threshold experiments, Chanel's ghost flies out of nowhere and restores him to the present. A single scrap of red fabric floats down from the ceiling, and Eddie realizes that Chanel is lost forever.
You're probably wondering how Chanel's ghost could have saved Eddie. After all, she should either have been in her physical body or utterly destroyed. Forget it, and gird up your loins: the movie's saved the biggest disappointment for last. Ho and his secretary find Eddie in the abandoned torture chamber. At least they now know why the Japanese wnated to buy the house, and at least they have the war crimes evidence the Japanese were trying to surpress. Suddenly, the offensive Japanese bad-guy stereotype rushes in with his goons and guns: nothing will stop him from destroying the house and all the evidence with it, ha ha haaaaa. But wait: the cavalry, in the form of Uncle and the police, come in on the Japanese guy's heels, and the day is saved.
And now maybe you're wondering what warrant the HK Police had for barging in like that. Were they intending to arrest the Japanese for attempted real estate purchase? Forget this, too, and here's the kicker: note Eddie's reaction to all these goings-on. After a moment of moping, he's forgotten Chanel completely. The whole ghost story might never have existed, to see him celebrate over the happy ending.
The worst thing about Beauty of the Haunted House is its insincerity. It pretends to be a horror film, and it borrows bits of ghost story lore to back up its absurd claim. But it fails to deliver even a single scare, and never establishes a convincing presence for its principal ghost. The bulk of the film is taken up with unappetizing softcore sex scenes, usually involving an unattractive but powerful male and his man-hungry female employee.
And for crying out loud, the movie doesn't even have the courage of its convictions as a sex film! Far from being erotic or suggestive, it's separated from hard-core porn only by a coy refusal to reveal that last bit o' skin. It's not as though anything is being left to the imagination; it's not as though any artistic effect were being gained here. The film could hardly be more distasteful if it had completed the slide into porn. In fact, it would have been more enjoyable had it been an uncompromisingly filthy romp. But as it is, it claims to be a horror film. It presents us with the outward trappings of a ghost story, a kind of plot that could only succeed if its characters were strongly drawn. By the standards the movie has set for itself, it's a complete and humiliating failure.
In case anybody's interested, the movie was directed by Ka Ka. I don't know if he's directed anything else, but I do know this: if any movie has ever deserved to be called "a Ka Ka film", it's this one.