One of my favorite bits of marketing genius comes from my local humane society. A few times a year, they host an event that they title KITTEN BONANZA. It sets up expectations in the mind of the potential pet parent of scores of fuzzy little buddies just begging to be cuddled and loved and given forever homes. Kitten Bonanza is a very fucking exciting name for what is actually a pretty standard pet adoption event.
“Corpse Mania” is a little like that, in that it paints a certain brain-picture which is going to be very difficult for any film to fulfill. The title should more properly be “Corpse; Mania,” but that sort of candor doesn’t sell DVDs, does it? Let’s discuss.
“Corpse Mania” is dubbed by many reviewers a Shaw Brothers giallo, and if that sounds like a weird and improbable combination, it is. Best known for their wild martial arts films like “Five Deadly Venoms” and “36th Chamber of Shaolin,” Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studios produced scores of genre films between the 1951 and 1989. These titles included gross-out supernatural horror movies, guy-in-a-suit monster flicks, and kinda-actually-pretty-ill-advised collaborations like “Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires” (made with Hammer Films). With this in mind, the idea of their taking on the kinky, stylish Euro-thriller makes a certain kind of sense.
Set in mainland China in what appears to be the 1920s, the film’s opening scenes depict a mysterious man moving into his new home with a woman who appears to be extremely ill. It’s not long before the local gossips are curious about their reclusive neighbor and decide to go snooping around his home, only to find a maggot-covered corpse in his bed–but no sign of the man. Cut to stern-but-fair Inspector Chang, who is reminded of a similar case from two years earlier in which a grief-stricken husband kept his dead wife in his home until he was discovered and packed away to an insane asylum. It just so happens that this gentleman has recently been released from the asylum, making him the prime suspect in this case. The plot thickens when rumors surface of tension between the necrophile and a wealthy madam whose girls are being murdered one by one. Could it be part of the necrophile’s revenge, or is there a larger conspiracy afoot?
“Corpse Mania” is a assuredly an oddity in the Shaw Brothers body of work, but every shakily-plotted mystery with a gloved killer isn’t a giallo. The movie has some qualities of the giallo–namely: deviant sex, aggressive cinematography, and a be-hatted-and-gloved unknown murderer. Missing are the anxiety about urban life, the troubled protagonist, and references to fashion and music that are also at the heart of the giallo. The period setting and romanticized necrophilia are more characteristic of gothic horrors, and the over-the-top gruesomeness can be found in Edgar Wallace krimis or the stories of Japanese author Edogawa Rampo. If anything, the rapid tonal shifts between tragedy, comic relief, and outbursts of graphic violence are in keeping with Hong Kong filmmaking, as is the style of camerawork. Dynamic cinematography isn’t solely the hallmark of Euro-thrillers of the early 70s–crash zooms, dutch angles and sweeping tracking shots are intrinsic to Hong Kong action scenes.
The giallo-ness or not-giallo-ness of the movie isn’t really material to its success as a strange, gross-out thriller. “Corpse Mania”
doesn’t have the feel of the inspired work of an auteur, but rather plays out like a clunky mystery strung together as an excuse to show really yucky stuff. Not that there’s anything wrong
with that, mind you! Not every genre movie sets out to be a masterpiece, and this film achieves some chilling and wonderful stuff in its eighty-two minute run time (this does feel like a rather long
eighty-two minutes, though, dominated as it is by dialogue scenes). My own squick factor surrounding necrophilia
is pretty well documented, so the lingering scenes of female corpses covered in worms and maggots proved admirably gut-wrenching for this viewer. Every time my finger hovered on the fast-forward button during another sequence of dialog surrounding where someone was or was not at a particular time, something wacky or spooky would happen that would revive my faith in the film. An eerily dusty interior (this movie would have us believe that houses fall into almost instant
disrepair in China), a splattery beheading, or a genuinely tense stalking scene would catch my interest just in the nick of time.
Also, I’ve discovered a new favorite subtitle: the exclamation “ABUSED CORPSE!” which appears several times during this film.
“Corpse Mania” is not an especially taut thriller, nor an especially stylish Hong Kong film, but in taking some of its cues from European shockers and adapting them for Asian audiences, it winds up being a unique effort that’s worth a peek. While it doesn’t achieve the style of the best gialli or the energy of the best Hong Kong horrors, it’s a nifty one-off that provides some truly visceral shocks.