More Than Meets The Mogwai

Monday, April 28, 2008

DEVIL FETUS [Mo tai] (Lau Hung Chuen, 1983) HONG KONG

Shown as part of an ongoing weekly horror series at the Winnipeg Cinematheque, and preceded by the trailer for David Cronenberg’s seminal SCANNERS (comprised solely of the gore-laden, brain-busting centerpiece scene), Lau Hung Chuen’s debut film is a messy “see-what-sticks” concoction full of bright phantasmagorical Disney nights, black mass rituals, spotty kung-fu set pieces, and stop-motion trickery involving a possessed spirit parasitically hopping from body to body.

What I recall above all else is what’s not in the film, mainly the absence of any of kind of sickly birthing sequence featuring devil spawn (all we see is the expanding belly of a corpse). Instead, the story’s focus is on what happens when a jade vase/ancient sex toy winds up in the hands of a sexually frustrated woman via an unconventional swap meet. After rubbing it for salacious purposes, a scaly-skinned apparition appears to engage in a bout of lovemaking, impregnating the woman before her suitor enters to catch her en flagrante. It’s a hysterically eccentric sight to behold, and acts almost as if a cue to the viewer that any traditional narrative path has been averted.

Several years pass after the woman’s premature death, but once her consecrated resting place is disturbed, the unearthly spirit awakes to wreak havoc on the remnants of her extended family, namely her sister and her husband, and their two boys (shown in an early scene to be fascinated by their aunt’s potent artifact). What follows involves some quickly paced kung-fu fights between a grand wizard and the demonically possessed young man, an incestuous encounter initiated by said young man, a maggot-ridden birthday cake, and a kindly grandmother whose constant monotonous drum-beating may hold the key to defeating this demon-seed.

DEVIL FETUS is a curious relic to dig up a film print for, but a perfectly ludicrous example from the heyday of anything-goes Hong Kong filmmaking of the 1980s. The practical make-up effects and in-camera deceptions have no choice but to endear themselves to the spectator, reminding people of my generation of “Fangoria” back issues, when a spotlight on a particular special effects artist could coexist with a retrospective interview conducted with, say, director Phil Tucker (ROBOT MONSTER). I have no definitive proof that this film has never before been issued on home video in North America, but some quick ‘net research intimidates that it’s ever only been available on a low-quality VCD; if so, it speaks wonders to the notion that there are tons and tons of similarly minded genre gems the world over awaiting discovery, resurrection, and a prime Midnight Movies' timeslot.

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