"Attack of the Joyful Goddess" returns from that distant era, the early eighties -- where endless varieties of badly-dubbed, foreign Kung Fu imports with shoddy pan & scan prints once waited to be discovered via back-street video rental stores and viewed on chunky home video equipment -- usually through the forgiving haze of late-night alcoholic inebriation. Prism Leisure's new imprint, 55th Chamber, aims to resurrect these cult gems; and the film under review is certainly as fine an example as can be imagined of that bewildering video craziness that, in those days, could often be found squirreled away at the back of video store shelves. But whereas labels such as Hong Kong Legends have recently started presenting obscure cult classics in a manner that befits the DVD medium (in their original languages with luscious, remastered widescreen prints and copious extras), 55th Chamber present their rarities in a form that is little better (maybe even a lot worse) than the one they would have been viewed in back in the day. A cunning marketing campaign attempts to represent the shoddy state of this murky, video sourced print (pan & scanned from cinema-scope to full-screen so that fully half the image is missing), the muffled audio quality and the horrendous, inauthentic and unsympathetically acted English dub track, as being all part of the nostalgic experience of revisiting an age of Betamax video machines, Ferguson TVs and Frazzles crisps. Nice try! -- but this cheap & nasty presentation proves more than a little frustrating in a flick that, though adequately fulfilling the camp factor with its dizzying display of the full range of excesses from this period in Hong Kong cinema, was also clearly worthy of a great deal more care and attention for its debut on DVD.
Hong Kong writer and director Chang Cheh indulges his love of the Peking Opera in a beautifully choreographed display of supernatural pyrotechnics that is often almost completely ruined by the terrible, faded, full-screen transfer we're lumbered with here -- rendering the film's sumptuous sets, elaborate compositions and colourful costumes ineffectual and pointless. This is a film which was designed to be a rich visual spectacle, clearly influenced by the ornate colour-saturated vistas of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, (coming, as it does, from a period when Cheh's Kung-Fu cinema was dominated by influences from the horror genre) but which is instead left looking like a tatty, cheap travesty. Only the title sequence is presented in (non-anamorphic) 2.35:1 ratio and sets up the otherworldly tone with some of Robert Tai's acrobatic stage Opera choreography: in colourful traditional costume, a stage troupe perform a dance sequence from an Opera which illustrates an exotic exorcism. Plumes of dry ice surround the ritual while an array of red and blue lighting effects revolve through the swirling spectacle in an attempt to create a Suspirisa-esque vibe of occult menace. The effect does end up coming off more like a bad eighties disco but the intent is clear; one is reminded of Mario Bava's magical effects -- created on a bare soundstage -- where dry ice and lighting effects were used to conjure up a forbidding alien planet in "Planet of the Vampires".
A voice-over during this sequence, with its clattering, percussive, cacophonous title music, informs us of the superstition surrounding the creepy puppet effigies known as 'Joy Gods'. These are props used by acting companies but which must not be put away face-up when placed in a trunk, otherwise bad things will happen. But someone clearly ought to have told wardrobe assistant, Jenny, this piece of information -- for after carelessly tossing one of the creepy white-faced images into an old costume trunk, she starts having weird possession-like fits in which she takes on the mannered persona of a spirit from one of the stage plays the small acting company she belongs to regularly perform!
Meanwhile the oily, evil Commander who runs the small district that the company have recently arrived in, attempts to proposition the beautiful lead actress Lilly Fa; this is after his first attempts to chat up one of the supporting "actresses" result in humiliation when the performer turns out to be a man in drag (one of those cringe-worthy gay stereotypes, always found in early Kung-fu movies, that make Larry Grayson seem macho!). The lead actor, rather obviously named Handsome, takes offence at this, since Lilly is his childhood sweetheart. Both performers have been forced to make their living in this "grotty little troupe" out of sheer poverty. A big fight is narrowly averted but the General is not to be deterred: he bribes the troupe manager into trying to persuade Lilly to sleep with him (threatening to kill the entire company if he doesn't succeed) and when this plan comes to naught, he and all of the other actors plot to murder Handsome in order to save themselves from the Commander's retribution.
Up to now, this is all rather standard stuff; but halfway through, the movie cranks itself into a crazed overdrive of bizarre silliness! The possessed wardrobe assistant, Jenny, suddenly becomes heavily pregnant in the space of a day (it is suggested that the company manager may have taken advantage of one of her fits, but it may also all be down to supernatural retribution for her bad Joy God management) and the manager persuades the Wardrobe Mistress to take Jenny away in the night and say nothing about her disgrace. During the journey Jenny dies -- and a little puppet Joy God bursts from her stomach and lollops off into the stormy night to take revenge on the troupe of actors who, at the same moment, are stabbing, smothering and strangling Handsome to death backstage while his lover performs her stage dance for the audience!
The film now goes into its Argento influenced occult phase: one by one the actors are found murdered in unnatural circumstances and Lilly Fa sees a ghostly vision of her dead lover (who has been posthumously accused of raping and murdering the unfortunate Jenny) which leads her to the place where his body has been buried by his killers ... underneath the stage! A replacement lead actor is brought in -- the foppish, white capped Master Shaw -- who quickly comes to the conclusion that the Company harbours a strange secret, and so sets out to discover it.
The whole film comes to a bizarre conclusion that has to be seen to be believed: the dead actors come back to life as an army of spirits; the puppet Joy God appears once-more to do battle (in one instance, launching itself at someone and burying itself in his neck!); and Handsome's mutilated ghost materialises to take bloody revenge on the General and his men. The final sequence is one mad melange of hallucinogenic, supernatural hi-jinx portrayed in an incoherently edited frenzy of crude animation, choppy jump-cuts, simplistic stop-motion and over-the-top gore effects -- all drenched in lurid, saturated primary colours with an orchestra of weird, early synth effects over the top. There is not much Kung-fu action -- most of it being confined to stage Opera theatrics -- but the mix of fight action and supernatural madness at the end certainly makes this flick worthy of ironic late night viewing. It just could have been so much more if the movie had been presented in a manner that represented how it was truly meant to be seen.