The Bedevilled (1975)
aka Xin Mo
written and directed by Wei Lo
For me, the output of the Hong Kong-based production company “Golden Harvest” during its golden era is what that of the Marvel Studios is for many others currently: A cinematic treasure trove that rarely disappoints. For a certain magical period of time, it seemed like they could do no wrong.
Historically, Golden Harvest was more or less conceived as a rival studio to the Shaw Bros. in 1970, with stars and directors being lured away from the Hong Kong movie company juggernaut and being taken under contract for the promising new upstart studio. Therefore some of their early movies bear a certain resemblance to the ones of the more established competitor. Like Xin Mo aka The Bedevilled from 1975, which plays pretty much like a Shaw Bros. horror movie.
This is probably not as widely known, but while the Shaw Bros are mainly known for their Kung Fu flicks, they also produced quite a few horror films over the course of the 70s and 80s as well, many of them ripe for being discovered and appreciated in the Western horror fan community in my opinion.
How does The Bedevilled fare in comparison to those?
“A Chinese Ghost Story”
China, early 20th century, approximately around 1920.
The peace at a rural tavern is disturbed, when the sleazy son of a wealthy man and his entourage turn up. He insists that they are serviced by the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter instead of the regular waiter. After a few inappropriate approaches, he disappears in a separate chamber with her. Suddenly his voice screaming in pain cuts through the air. When the startled guests storm into the chamber, they find him dead on a bed, while the woman has disappeared and her husband is standing nearby.
Accordingly, the husband is rendered the prime suspect in this mysterious case and brought to court. It soon becomes clear to the audience that he is innocent and only the scapegoat in a conspiracy of rich men that also involves the murder victim’s father. To eliminate any chance that this dirty secret comes to light, the conspirators have to ensure that the accused is sentenced to death in the trial. Unfortunately, the judge, magistrate Tang, is a notorious goody two shoes who is widely known as unbribable. But when his wife, who is secretly in the cahoots with the rich men, pretends to be severely ill, he reluctantly accepts the money they offer to buy medicine and the assumed culprit is executed via beheading. It isn’t over yet though, as the unrightfully convicted returns as a vengeful ghost, bent on turning the life of the judge into hell on earth. And he is not the only one to come back from the dead.
Does this sound a tad complicated for a premise of a simple ghost story you? And it becomes even more unnecessarily long-winded for a plot that is basically just a set-up for a spooky showdown. Not that all of the details necessarily make a logical sense, to boot. But while the plot is somewhat heavy-handed, the execution is definitely not reflecting that. Somehow writer and director Wei Lo manages to keep us intrigued, even though it takes 45 minutes before any supernatural and horror elements are introduced. And when the horror elements kick in, the entertainment factor even jumps up a few notches more.
Hammer Time in Hong Kong
Like the Shaw Bros. horror films, The Bedevilled is heavily influenced by the classics of the British Hammer studios, an example of a supernatural morality tale painted in vivid colours. But besides the more traditional ghost story structure there are also some unconventional or random choices in tone, storytelling and stylistics that foreshadow the genre-rollercoaster masterpieces Golden Harvest would later become famous for.
The criminal case that gets the stone rolling in the beginning is, in best Rashomon-fashion, told from two perspectives, first depicting the man as a sleazebag forcing himself upon a reputable woman and then portraying her as the evil femme fatale seducing a naive, shy chap.
A hint of sexploitation is spicing up the formula during the first half of the movie, owed to the fact that the producers could hire the Japanese “Pinku eiga” (“Pink film”) star Reiko Ike for the female lead and of course that means she was obligated to do a few nude scenes. In one rather outlandish moment she reluctantly offers her body to a disgusting guy in a move to realize her plan of revenge, which is filmed from her POV and accompanied by a very anachronistic prog rock (!) tune.
The main visual gimmick of the film is the ability of the ghosts to take their head from their shoulders, which is realized with some for its time and budget very respectable FX work. That leads to a hilarious scene of the judge being attacked by a floating head which he defeats by stepping on it. Another amusing bit has two people falling into a small garden pond only to be swallowed by a vortex.
In the spooky showdown though, some genuinely eerie imagery finally provides the adequately creepy atmosphere. Generally speaking is the thick atmosphere one of the strongest assets of the movie, created by some beautifully composed shots and a great use of moody lighting and stark colours, that are tinting the spooky scenes in an almost EC comics- like colour palette with its bilious green and blood red.
The acting is pretty solid as well, with Ike and Chun Hsiung-Ko (as judge magistrate Tang) giving the best performances. Maybe I should also point out that this film is completely devoid of Kung Fu- antics to people who are a sceptical towards the Hong Kong- cinema.
Summoning a summary
A slightly whacky Eastern alternative to Hammer studio movies, heavy with atmosphere and colourful visuals, that is entertainingly oscillating between ghost story, morality play and sexploitation flick and hitting the sweet spot of old-school eeriness with some trademark HK-movie goofy interludes.
I had a lot of fun with The Bedevilled and think it makes for an excellent, equally amusing and spooky Halloween watch.
You want some more “extreme” Hong Kong horror? Then check out my review of Devil Fetus (1983)!