Five Immortals from the Shaw Brothers Crypt
By Chuck Stephens
They were grindhouse producers—this list shows you where to begin
Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (83): Interrupted by the mid-production death of its star, Alexander Fu Sheng, Liu Chia-liang's darkest case study of martial arts-inflected psychosis begins with one of the weirdest battle-as-ballet showpieces in the director's career: the costume cues will have you swearing you're watching Santa's elves facing off against a troop of killer Boy Scouts, but the choreography will have you weeping with dismay. It also features one of the most fanciful of Liu's many great fighter-training contraptions: a pack of wooden wolves designed to be beaten with poles until their metal fangs fall out.
One-Armed Swordsman (67): Released in the wake of the Hong Kong labor riots, this is the film that put director Chang Cheh, the strangely delicate martial arts superstar Jimmy Wang Yu, and the Shaw Brothers' "new wuxia century" on the map. Far less violent than many a SB action flick to come, the whole thing hinges on the castration-metaphor scene that gives the hero his name-a moment of snowbound, fairy-tale agony as haunting as anything in the collected Brothers Grimm.
The Flying Guillotine (74): Liu Chia-liang was the Shaw's contraption master, even going so far as to make a film called Legendary Weapons of China, but he didn't have a patent on the studio's every death-dealing device. Here, the star is a kind of collapsible metal-mesh hatbox at the end of a long length of chain: Frisbee it at your opponent and it flops down over his noggin like a birdcage; jerk the chain and off comes the sucker's head. Inspiring enough that Shaws designed two sequels around it (the third in the series is called Vengeful Beauty); it also provided partial inspiration for Go-Go Yubari's orb of death in Kill Bill.
Buddha's Palm (84): The best pus-squirting dwarf film ever made, Taylor Wong's martial arts fantasy is a cheapo-extravaganza of mind-boggling silliness and sudden savagery: one minute you're watching what is obviously two little guys inside a woolly dog costume that might have waddled in Sid and Marty Kroft-land, the next minute someone's biting a bloody chunk out of his opponent's arm. Synthesizer blorps and blurts, jarringly displaced dialogue looping, and two chicks battling a piece of killer tin foil—the bridge between The Evil Dead and Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain. Wong went on to make the Kowloon romance-comedy Behind the Yellow Line—the film with Leslie Cheung and that bird-flipping monkey—the following year.
Kidnap (74): While the wait continues for the bulk of the Shaw's Seventies crime flicks to be reissued, this ultra-grim urban thriller from directorial all-rounder Cheng Kang serves as a nail-biting placeholder. Veteran character-actor/gargoyle Lo Lieh stars as a gas station jockey whose wounded pride and financial lack of means inspires a botched boss-napping that terminates in a trip to the gallows for Lo and his buddies. Death By Hanging remade in the manner of Hawaii Five-0.