Centipede Horror (1982) Centipede Horror / Centipede Sorcerer / Ng Gung Jau / Wu Gong Zhao (1982) ***

     With a title like Centipede Horror, it would be natural to expect an animal attack movie of some kind— maybe something like Kingdom of the Spiders or It Happened at Lakewood Manor, only with even more legs. At any rate, that’s what I was expecting. But in fact, Centipede Horror is a tale of supernatural vengeance, hinging upon several successive clashes of black and white (or perhaps pale gray) witchcraft, seemingly aimed at an audience that still halfway believes in such things. The centipedes— massive, terrifying Scolopendra centipedes, of the kind that prey upon small rodents and reptiles as readily as on other invertebrates— enter into it because they are, for lack of a more culture-specific term, the evil warlock’s totem animal. It’s bad enough that he can summon and control the venomous, 44-legged little bastards, but they’re also the instrument through which he casts his deadliest spells.

     Kay Pak (Yau Pui-Ling, from His Name Is Nobody and The Surgeon), the younger sister of Canadian-educated third-generation Hong Kong agribusiness and mining baron Pak Kwai-Lum (Michael Miu Kau-Wai, of Scared Stiff and Maniacal Beauty on the Loose), is bored. She wants a vacation, and she wants to take it in Southeast Asia. (The subtitles on my janky old bootleg print of Centipede Horror are never any more specific than that about Kay’s destination, but much of the film was shot on location in Singapore. The subtitles also indecisively render Kay’s brother’s name as either “Kai-Lum” or “Wai-Lum,” but it sounds more like “Kwai-Lum” in the audio dialogue, so that’s what I’m going to call him.) That’s a big no-no in the Pak family, for obscure reasons having something to do with the years that the siblings’ grandfather (played in revelatory flashbacks later on by Tai Kwan-Tak, from Return of the Dead and Hex After Hex) spent in that part of the world, administering the family business on a hands-on basis. Kwai-Lum therefore tries to talk his sister out of her plan, which involves staying for seven days with her friend, Amy (I think this may be screenwriter Amy Chan Suet-Ming, although my main reason for believing that is process of elimination). Kay’s mind is made up, however, and Kwai-Lum eventually relents on two conditions. First, she mustn’t mention the trip to their worrywart mother (Wang Lai, from Curse of Evil and Hong Kong Emmanuelle). And second, Kay must promise to bring along Grandpa’s lucky necklace, and to wear it at all times until she returns.

     Ironically, it’s the good luck charm that gets Kay and Amy into trouble. While the two girls are out jogging one afternoon, they stop for a snack from the pushcart of a Malay street vendor (Hussein Hassan, of Red Spell Spells Red and Bewitched). They don’t realize this, of course, but the man in question is locally infamous as a warlock of the most fearsome sort. Kay’s necklace catches the vendor’s attention, and although he doesn’t say anything about it, the bauble very clearly means something to him. Kay leaves behind her sweatband by mistake when she and Amy jog off down the road, and instead of calling out to her to return it, the warlock pockets the object, no doubt with an eye toward using the sweat soaked into it for some nefarious purpose. Then that evening, the fashion-conscious Amy convinces her friend to put aside the clunky, old-fashioned, and in her opinion ass-ugly necklace. Uh-oh. The next day, during a visit to one of the Pak rubber plantations, Kay and Amy wander into a patch of heavily forested land, and are swarmed by humongous centipedes. Amy dies on the spot of sheer fright, while Kay is stung over and over again. She’s in a bad way by the time anybody from the tour group notices that the girls are missing, and goes looking for them.

     Word that Kay has been hospitalized in Singapore reaches Mrs. Pak before it reaches Kwai-Lum, and the old lady is as pissed off as she is terrified when she hears the news. Kwai-Lum rushes off immediately to take charge of the situation, and learns from the doctors treating his sister that they have no idea what’s really wrong with her. Sure, she got stung by a lot of centipedes, but whatever ails her, it’s like no reaction to centipede venom that they’ve ever seen. One doctor goes so far as to compare the runaway necrosis of her tissues to the acute radiation poisoning suffered by atom-bomb casualties at Hiroshima and Nagasaki! Kay is conscious but delirious, and since her doctors have been unable to come up with a diagnosis, they’ve also been able to give her no more than palliative treatment thus far. At the same time, though, they think it unwise to try transferring her to Hong Kong.

     Pak has friends there in Singapore, including and especially an old university classmate (and possibly former lover?) by the name of Yeuk Chee (Margaret Lee Din-Long, from Journey of the Damned and The Supreme Swordsman). At first, Yeuk Chee is only looking to cheer Kwai-Lum up when she suggests an afternoon excursion to the big city market, but while the pair are there, they overhear a sales pitch by a practitioner of folk medicine who calls himself Chan the Centipede King. (Chan is just one of surprisingly many important characters whom I’ve not been able to pin to any specific actor.) This guy claims that his centipede ointment can cure all disease and counteract any poison, and while Pak certainly doesn’t believe that, it isn’t as though Western-style medical science has done Kay much good so far. One look at the patient is enough to tell Chan that her case is far out of his league, but maybe the healer who taught him could do something for her. Assuming, of course, that Kay lives long enough for the Centipede King to find the old sifu, since he lives pretty far off the grid. As it happens, though, Kay dies that very night. It’s the damnedest thing, too. No sooner do her final convulsions subside than live centipedes start crawling out of the lesions covering her body. After Kay’s funeral, Pak bows to local custom by going to have his fortune told. Alas for him, it isn’t a private session, and one of the people in attendance (no idea who plays him, either) is an associate of the warlock who put the centipede curse on Kay. When the guy at the astrologer’s shop hears Kwai-Lum’s family name, he goes at once to inform the wizard that there’s another Pak in town, and to give him all of Kwai-Lum’s horoscopic particulars.

     Back home in Hong Kong, Pak begins suffering from sudden, debilitating headaches. He keeps catching glimpses of a red-clad girl, whom he now realizes he saw for the first time right before he got the phone call from the hospital announcing Kay’s final turn for the worse. He also starts seeing phantom centipedes all over the apartment he shares with his mother, which gets him thinking about the ones that emerged from his sister’s wounds after she died. Mom, meanwhile, descends into seemingly irrational self-recriminations about what she might have done to bring such misfortune upon herself, but then mentions a “shameful thing” that her father-in-law supposedly did while working in Singapore in the early days of the family firm. Put it all together, and it’s enough to get Kwai-Lum thinking that maybe the Paks really are in the midst of a brush with some supernatural evil. On his mother’s recommendation, he pays a visit to his granduncle (Wong Mei, who spent most of his career playing nameless bruisers in movies like The Silver Fox and Vengeance!), who was with his grandfather during those years in Singapore. The old man doesn’t know much, but he does recount a strange story about a narrow escape that his brother had back then, when he was one of the merest handful of people to survive a fire that destroyed an entire village on the company’s land. Soon thereafter, Kwai-Lum dreams of his sister’s funerary urn spontaneously exploding, only to learn subsequently that it really did happen. That settles it. Pak is going back to Singapore to get to the bottom of all this.

     Naturally, getting to the bottom of his family’s supernatural persecution will require learning exactly what Grandpa did back in the early 30’s, but that’ll be just the beginning. After all, that Malay warlock doesn’t strike me as the sort to let bygones be bygones after a gentlemanly handshake and a pint of Kirin. Pak’s going to need a lot of help, too, even above and beyond Mr. Chan and his mysterious sifu. Fortunately Yeuk Chee’s family is well connected in its way. One of her rich relatives, a fellow named Ping Keung (Every Man for Himself’s Stephen Chan Chue-Kwong), happens to know an exorcist (billing order suggests that this is the otherwise unheard-of Chan Fook-Chi) who has a pair of surprisingly powerful ghost children at his beck and call. The exorcist, meanwhile, is tight with a priest known as Larong (Stephen Yip Ting-Hang, from Disciple of Shaolin and Devil Cat), whose magical powers are reputed to be great indeed. Maybe between two wizards, two alchemists, and two friendly ghosts, Kwai-Lum can muster up enough occult firepower to save his ass.

     Centipede Horror belongs to a subgenre of fright film as uniquely Cantonese as kung fu movies started off being: films about Southeast Asian witchcraft in which the lifting of curses, the breaking of spells, and the casting out of possessing demons is symbolized by showing the victim vomiting up live animals of species that most people don’t like to spend much time around. But whereas kung fu caught on all over the world, permanently altering the norms of action cinema everywhere as soon as audiences outside of Hong Kong got a look at Five Fingers of Death and its ilk, critter-puking witchcraft doesn’t seem to have taken root abroad, except possibly in Thailand and Indonesia. Indeed, given the West’s combination of labor protections and animal welfare laws, I’m not sure movies like these could be made here even if anyone had wanted them. I mean, try to imagine Michelle Bauer or Fiona Lewis ever agreeing to shoot a scene with her mouth full of tarantulas or hornets! Among the few weirdos in the Anglophone world who have developed a taste for critter-puking witchcraft, Centipede Horror seems not to be highly regarded. It’s possible, then, that my own positive reaction to it owes less to the film’s own merits than to my having seen so little like it before. Be that as it may, I had a really good time with Centipede Horror, once I adjusted to the idea that it wasn’t going to be about centipedes in any ordinary way.

     It probably helped that, unlike most of Centipede Horror’s detractors, I didn’t actually come to watch anyone vomit up bugs. If that’s specifically what you’re after, then I can see how you’d be disappointed, since there are only two such scenes, and only one of them is explicit. What appeals to me in this film is rather its detailed depiction of forms of magic totally divorced from the cosmic dualism of Christianity. Although the practitioners of magic in Centipede Horror sort comfortably enough into good and evil factions (although more on that in a moment), they all rely on the same sources of power, none of which are presented as having an inherent moral valence. Both the malign warlock and the helpful exorcist employ the ghosts of children as agents, the former as a spy and messenger, and the latter as something like what Western magical traditions would call familiars. Furthermore, the method whereby the exorcist originally raised his ghosts (adorably named Big Pea and Small Pea, by the way) is horrifying— the kind of thing that only the vilest of villains would do in a Western film about magic. The Pak family’s protective amulet turns out to run on cobra venom, and to have very different effects when worn by pure-hearted or corrupt individuals. And even centipedes are shown working both sides of the fence here. Remember that Chan the medicine man calls himself the Centipede King.

     The motivations of the magicians are a shade less polarized than I’m used to as well. During Pak’s consultation with Larong, I got the impression that the good wizard’s reproach against the evil one was not so much that he casts deadly curses upon his enemies, but that he’s still casting curses on his enemy’s grandchildren decades after his enemy’s death. And indeed once the story of Grandpa Pak’s activities in Singapore comes all the way out, it’s hard to argue that just one centipede curse, judiciously applied, wasn’t warranted. There’s some interesting subtext here, too, about colonialism and its attendant daisy chain of economic exploitation, but I don’t have the historical background necessary to pick it all the way apart. It’s clear enough, though, that lurking in the background of this story somewhere is a great deal of semi-articulated discomfort over being among the middlemen of the British Empire.

     What really sold me on Centipede Horror was the sheer vividness and creativity with which director Keith Lee Pak-Ling, writer Amy Chan Suet-Ming, and the uncredited staff of special effects technicians depicted both the techniques and effects of witchcraft. Curses delivered via the stings of the world’s creepiest, crawliest bugs! A recipe for ghosts involving dolls pickled in melted corpse-fat! Squadrons of spectral chickens, puppeteered via the birds’ animated skeletons, conjured up to devour hordes of possessed centipedes! The wreckage of one of those phantom fowls transformed into the magical equivalent of a radiation-seeking missile! Every bit of conjuration is nifty in and of itself, but when Larong squares off against the centipede warlock for the climactic battle, it is— in the best imaginable way— like a game of Magic: The Gathering played in the depths of a peyote trip.



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