The Phantom Killer 1981
Directed by: Shui-Fan Fung
Starring: Pai Wei, Nora Tsang, Wah Cheung
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Not to be confused with the English pretending to be Polish soft-porn slasher from Trevor Barley, The Phantom Killer is more proof, if ever it were needed, that Halloween’s success had a global reach rarely seen to such an extent in cinema.
Bruce Lee’s rapid rise to stardom in the sixties and seventies helped to make Chinese cinema globally accessible. Martial Arts flicks and the sport in general became very fashionable for Western kids and growing up first in Spain, then in London, I shared my love of slashers with a lesser-passion for Ninjitsu. Back in those days, me and the rest of my buddies used to wrap black scarves around our heads, get dressed in dark colours, climb the fence of our school and split in to groups of two. Then we would try and locate the each other in order to pull off our finest Jackie Chan impressions and attempt to make the other kid submit. Just to think, if we were to have done that in these times, we would most likely have caused the local Boys in Blue to get involved. Back then however, it was all just harmless, if slightly rough, fun.
Cinematically in some ways, those two forgotten genres have a fair bit in common. Both are fairly exploitive and filmed on low budgets and they also share bad acting and shoddy effects. Hunting out titles like Ninja Wars, Zombie vs Ninja and the authentically titled Ronald Marchini flick, Ninja Warriors, was almost as much fun as searching for cruddy slashers on big box VHS. As I grew older and spare time became a rarity, I had to give up on Ninjas and remained focused on the titles that you see here on a SLASH above.
Fen Ku Lou in effect is much different from the same year’s Si Yiu, because instead of going all out to impersonate the mega-popular Giallo and slasher genre, director Shui-Fan Fung has attempted to merge a few of the trappings with old-school Kung-Fu. Fung himself was more celebrated as an actor, having appeared in over one hundred films. Under the Westernised name of Stanley Fung, he was a member of the ‘Lucky Stars’; a Chinese comedy troupe that were active throughout the eighties and nineties. There’s nothing intentionally comedic about this flick though and it keeps its tone impressively grim.
After helping a small town to defeat a gang of bandits, Master Siu becomes extremely popular, but more so with the local ladies. Everywhere that he goes, he is propositioned by single girls, however he already has found his one and only. Things take a turn for the worse, when a masked killer turns up and begins to slaughter the women that he rejects. Siu joins the Inspector to help uncover the psycho in order to save the true apple of his eye.
You know what I hate with a passion? When someone posts a review of a film somewhere and calls it a ‘slasher flick’ and then I go out of my way trying to track it down, only to eventually find out that it’s not at all. If I had ten-pounds for every time that’s happened to me dear reader, well I’d be writing this from a warm Cuban beach with a bottle of Dom and a Playboy Playmate on my knee. But fear not my good friends, because old uncle Luisito would never do that to you guys and gals. So brace your sweet selves and allow me to tell you how it is: Fen Ku Lou is not a stalk and slash flick, it’s a Kung-Fu film. Well, I mean, if you’re looking for a bread-knife clenching maniac stalking a summer camp, then you’re gonna be in for an upset. But with that said, it packs in a fair few genre clichés that allow it to grab a page on the celebrated hall of fame that is a SLASH above.
For example, the killer is dressed in a skull mask of all things and his choice of victims are flirtatious young teenage girls. He also leaves a calling card of a skull and a note informing the cops who will be next. The plot is a giallo-like mystery and is handled fairly well for three quarters of the runtime. It’s one of those, where you are continually picking different people whom you suspect to be the killer. Everyone shows a reason that they could be behind the mask, but in truth, the first thing that I’d guessed turned out to be correct.
The story flows well, with an addictive pace and it keeps your eyes glued to the screen. Like most Kung-Fu flicks, almost every situation turns in to a reason for a fight and the action scenes are numerous if a tad too darkly filmed. The use of an eerie sound effect whenever the nut job turns up is really quite creepy, but the score seems to have been ‘borrowed’ from a popular eighties horror film. (I can’t recall which one). There’s no gore worth mentioning, but the maniac hides the corpse of one girl inside a statue and it’s quite nasty thinking about the way they have to chisel her out.
When the conclusion finally comes around, it has an intriguing message to convey, but it’s not as unpredictable as I’d hoped for. I guess that it was most likely because I’d already guessed the best part of it and if I did, then most likely, you will too. There’s another ‘twist’ that is a bit unfair, due to the physical impossibilities of it actually happening, but that sums up the ‘virtual’ world that the plot lives in.
You see, Fen Ku Lou is hilariously OTT in places, especially in the desperation of the town’s female inhabitants to spend a night with Master Siu. One girl even goes as far as to beat up four guys because they won’t tell her where he is! The dialogue is also funny, however I am always of the belief that this is due to the weak translation of the script rather than a screenwriter with an awkward sense of humour.
I made a vow when I launched a SLASH above that I would never allow the site to focus on anything other than slasher movies. There are so many places on the web that claim to be dedicated to this style of film, but include many titles that fall outside of the template. Although this could well be my first step in to the ‘dark side’, I still think it has enough of the stuff needed to be considered as an entry to the category. I just want to warn you that if you hate Martial Arts movies, then you should definitely not pick this one up. If, however, you are a little like me and can appreciate a bit of craziness from Hong Kong, then it’s really quite an alluring treat.
Personally, I had a great time with it. I liked the silliness of the ‘hunky’ Master Siu, the mystery was fairly well handled and the killer was effectively creepy. When the conclusion is revealed, it is in one part hilarious and in another fairly thoughtful. The movie most definitely lacks the technical flair that made Si Yiu such a noteworthy entry, but it stands out solely because it is the only periodic Kung-Fu/Giallo cross-breed that the world has ever seen and more than likely ever will see.
It may well be impossible to find nowadays, but if you look hard enough and you are willing to accept a dose of fisticuffs in your horror, then I think you might quite enjoy its oddball pizazz.
Killer Guise: √√√
Final Girl: √√