Devil Fetus (1983)

Rating: N/A

Dir: Lau Hung Chuen
Star: Aai Dik, Lui Sau-Ling, Liu Pui-Pui

To mis-quote Twelfth Night, “Some are born bad, some achieve badness, and some have badness thrust upon them.” I think that Devil Fetus falls into the last category, since a good few of the people involved in this 1983 film should have known better, or would do much better later in their careers:

  • Producer Lo Wei directed Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury and The Big Boss, as well as being involved early on in Jackie Chan’s career.
  • Editor David Wu would go on to cut some of John Woo’s classic Hong Kong movies, including Hard Boiled, before moving to Hollywood and editing films such as Crying Freeman. But on Devil Fetus, he also did the music, though some of it sounds suspiciously like it came off the soundtrack to the Alien movies…
  • Director Lau had also worked with Woo, as his cinematographer, and would go on to shoot Jackie Chan’s Thunderbolt, as well as one of the most lyrical gun-fights ever — Cynthia Khan’s blood-spattered wedding in Queen’s High.

All good omens: so why is this film such a total mess? I think it’s largely a script which fails to convey the simplest information. You’ll find yourself rewinding to try and work out who did what to who: the plot description that follows should thus be regarded as a best guess, pieced together from a variety of sources. The film itself was not the most helpful of these, with subtitles which fell off the sides, and occasionally bottom, of the screen. However, even allowing for this, failure to mention when we leap forward a dozen or more years is somewhat inexcusable.

The film is based around the family Cheng, consisting of one grandmother, her two sons, their wives, and two grandsons. One of the wives buys a jade vase at auction; unfortunately, it’s possessed by the spirit of a Tibetan monk who advocates sex as religion (another point the subtitles make less than clear – I gleaned this nugget from a review by a Cantonese-speaker!). She’s soon taking the vase to bed and being humped by the horny spirit, much to her husband’s understandable distaste. But when he smashes the vase, his face rapidly gets covered in boils (top), and he decides to charge through a window. It was at this point that the films potential IBFS status became apparent, and it hardened when his wife suffers that horror-cliche, the Thrown Cat Attack, and falls down the stairs to her death.

At their funeral (I wonder if it’s cheaper to bury two at the same time?), the Taoist priest sees the demon foetus of the title erupting from her belly – its only appearance in the movie – and seals it in there with incantations, and dire warnings to Granny Cheng not to let anyone disturb the remains. You don’t need to be Nostradamus to see where that is eventually going to lead.

We are now introduced to Kent, a Kendo champ: it’s only when he returns to his family that we realise this is the same kid seen playing with toys previously. This is the point at which the film leaps forward a decade, without bothering to mention it – you’re left to infer it, though apart from the sons, no-one else looks any any older. He meets Juju (Lui Sau-Ling), a nebulous “friend of the family”, who is obviously the love interest. While picking Granny up for a party, they disturb the urns: anyone who didn’t see this coming needs a white stick.

Back at the party, the birthday cake turns into worms, although the only person who notices is the one we see eating the worm-infested cake in close-up, and the family’s pet dog gets possessed by (we assume) the evil monk. We now enter Psycho mode, with the dog as Norman Bates, stalking Juju while she sings selections from Strauss and Rogers & Hammerstein in the shower. Kent arrives just in time to slice up the dog with a handy samurai sword, but when the dog is buried, the spirit leaps into his younger brother Kwo Wei, with a dazzling array of visual effects, unsurpassed since…since..well, you know that screen-saver where lines bounce all around the display? In comparison, that’s a masterpiece

Kwo Wei begins to behave a bit strangely. He digs the dog’s corpse up and eats its entrails. He tries to kill Granny. And just to show what a total lunatic he has become, he puts on women’s clothes. This behaviour, as well as trying to drown Juju, and slaughtering a servant (whose body he keeps under the bed for purposes I’ll gloss over), leads his concerned relatives to consult the Taoist priest once again. He soon susses what has happened, and reveals that you need eagle’s blood to slay the spirit. So he summons Kwo Wei, and the duo engage in a battle of dodgy optical effects, and even worse filmic ones, with techniques that look a good quarter-century out of date. I suppose this could be a homage to classic fantasy movies – if so, it sits somewhat uneasily with the corpse-raping (oops, was supposed to gloss over that).

With the priest dispatched, Daddy follows, attacked by a cloud of dry ice. Actually, he meets his end in the sauna, the room collapsing in on him, crushing his head in spectacular, if highly implausible, fashion. Mummy is next for the chop, levitating round the room over a carpet which is bulging for no apparent reason. I suspect the idea was to evoke berserk spirits; it’s so obviously people pushing it up from underneath, they’d have been better off not bothering. She too gets chased by furniture, and the mirror seeps blood in one of the film’s occasional genuinely eerie images. Kwo Wei is now drinking gin straight from the bottle – does his evil know no bounds?

Kent and Juju return home to rescue their mother; while Kent tends to her, Juju goes to call for help. The phones are, inevitably, out, and the lights rapidly follow. Juju runs round screaming – everywhere she goes, Kwo Wei is there already. Kent’s attempts to fight his brother are foiled by the latter’s ability to teleport, though since he can’t be hit even when he stands still, this seems like overkill. Granny turns up with a bowl of eagle’s blood (the movie is unclear over whether this is a standard item in Hong Kong kitchens) which she drops. Just as Kwo Wei is about to kill everyone, Juju drives a spade through him; because the spade has lain in the spilt blood, it causes…I can’t believe I’m about to write this…a series of flying heads to sprout from his neck, which Kent decapitates with a similarly-smeared sword. This triggers stop-motion footage slightly reminiscent of the climax to The Evil Dead. Credits roll. The End.

The early 80’s were something of a golden era for Western horror, with the likes of The Thing acting as a showcase for new-found special effects techniques. Devil Fetus clearly springs from these, with nods to others already mentioned. However, despite a gratifyingly serious tone, the gulf between idea and execution is too enormous to bridge. However, it’s hard to deny the energy that goes into it, and the cheerful lack of concern over trivial things like story-telling can only endear it to the viewer.