Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Centipede Horror (1982)

Written by: Suet Ming Chan
Directed by: Keith Li
Starring: Some actors, and a bunch of bugs.

Have you seen Austin Powers 3? Do you remember the only funny joke in the movie, with the subtitles that keep showing up over a background that completely wipes them out? Imagine that, but it goes on for the entire movie, and it isn't funny. That's the experience I had watching tonight's movie. Maybe a third of the subtitles were actually legible, and they tended to go by so fast that I couldn't get through them all even when they were if there was more than one or two lines of dialog being represented at one time. As a result, I don't have a damn clue who any of the actors in this movie are, or what any of the characters' names are. I apologize for being the Ugly American here, but I've got nothing. At least half the reviews on IMDB are either for the wrong movie or are an elaborately organized prank. They praise the movie as being the most disturbing thing the reviewers have ever seen, haunting them days or even weeks after viewing. They also all mention an actress whose name doesn't appear anywhere in the cast list (which unhelpfully has no corresponding character names) and talk about events that clearly have no correlation with those of Centipede Horror, so their reliability is roughly that of Donald Trump saying Latino voters love him (this joke best used before November 8, 2016). I'd really love to see whatever movie they're talking about, though. It sounds awesome.

I bought this flick from a little print-on-demand company called Apprehensive Films, sort of like a Warner Archive for weird sleaze. They did a pretty nice job putting the disc together, adding a trailer and a short film. Probably not worth the full $20 asking price, but on sale for $11 I don't feel swindled. At least they put some effort into it. It even came with a little taste of the exploitation advertising experience, with cover copy hailing it as the most notorious nature run amok (spelled “amuck”) movie ever made, and a quote from Sam Raimi saying it's the most disgusting film he's ever seen. Either Raimi hasn't seen many movies or this is an outright fabrication, and my money's on the latter, considering it's not even a nature run “amuck” movie. It is, in fact, a more appropriate selection for the recent vengeful witches round table than the movie I wound up picking, but we'll get to that in due time.

A young woman enters her brother's study and asks him for permission to go on a holiday with her friend to South East Asia (it's almost certainly supposed to be Thailand for reasons I'll explain in a bit, but whenever you can actually make out the subtitles, they always just say SE Asia). He refuses, saying their mother had forbidden them from ever going there. She persists, saying it'll only be for a few days, and he relents on the condition that she wear a special amulet passed down from their grandfather, which is meant to protect the family from evil.

We see just how effective that amulet is in short order. Not even a day after arriving at their holiday destination, the girls spot a street vendor selling grass jelly (just like grandma used to mulch) and run over to buy a bowl, because who can pass up delicious grass jelly? The vendor spots sis's amulet and it clearly upsets him. As soon as the two are out of sight around the corner, he scarpers back to his hut to start whipping up some evil. When the girls wander off the path during a guided tour through a plantation, they are set upon by dozens of gigantic centipedes. The friend dies on the spot, but sister manages to survive a few more days in the hospital – long enough for mom to find out and send brother down to see what happened and try to save his sister.

He fails miserably to do the latter, but runs into an old school friend while he's there and figures maybe she can at least help him manage the former. Everyone he tries to talk to becomes very reluctant to talk to him once they find out his family name, and it starts to dawn on him that what happened to his sister wasn't a fluke; that she had been specifically targeted because of her family and it all hinges on something that happened while his grandfather lived there decades ago.

Turns out granddad married the grass jelly vendor's daughter way back when, and was given that amulet as a wedding gift. See, selling grass jelly is just his day job. After hours he's an extremely powerful sorcerer, and he was suspicious of the Hong Kong hot shot who wanted his darling daughter's hand in marriage. Sure enough, just as soon as she got a bun in the oven, gramps started making time with the village hussy, and the missus followed him to her house one night to give them a bit of the ol' coitus interruptus. In the course of trying to apologize to his bride and reject his mistress in front of her so she knew he really really meant it, he had the lousy luck of managing to push both of them into walls so hard he cracked their skulls and killed them. In full-on panic mode now, gramps set fire to the house and got the hell out of Dodge, with the old wizard vowing that anyone from that family who ever dared set foot in “SE Asia” again would be on the receiving end of the nastiest spell he could cook up. Naturally, this involves centipedes.

Now brother's school friend has been taken over by the sorcerer's magic, he's honor bound to avenge his sister's death, and the race is on to find a sorcerer powerful enough and willing enough to help him break the curse so his sister's soul can find peace and his family's name can be cleared of bad mojo. But will a band of ghost chicken marionettes be enough to stop the most powerful black magic in all of Thailand? How about that head burrowing cobra that shoots out of the protective amulet? Tune in to the creepy crawly finale of Centipede Horror to find out!

If memory serves from some articles I read on the topic years ago (and if I'm fucking this up and you know it, please feel free to correct me – I like to have good information in these things), Chinese horror movies set in Thailand are sort of the HK equivalent of backwoods hillbilly horror here in the States. The southeastern part of Asia, and especially Thailand, is considered to be both culturally backward and full of strange and mystical things by the Chinese. A civilized person from Hong Kong going there is like some city slicker Yankee from New York City heading to the backwoods of Alabama for a vacation. One ends in pig squeals and banjo picking and the other ends in barfing up centipedes, but the idea is essentially the same even if the specifics differ.

As with Black Magic, the warped stuff is primarily concentrated at the beginning and end of the movie, although this one does boast a few extra bits of lunacy and gruesomeness throughout. The big difference is, while Black Magic filled the time in between with an aggressively boring and unfunny romantic comedy of sorts, Centipede Horror actually tells an engaging story. There's a well-paced and steadily building journey of discovery as brother tries to track down his sister's killer and the truth about their grandfather. Every time it seems like he's reached a dead end and the story is about to stall, another new twist or character or clue arrives to keep things moving. If you don't mind the often barely legible subtitles, and you curb your expectations on seeing fountains of gore and crazy optical effect magic battles, this isn't a bad way to spend an evening.

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