DEVIL FETUS: Cross-Pollinating Eastern Folklore And Western Shocks

The early 1980’s was a unique time for the horror genre in Hong Kong.  Hollywood’s horror boom of that era trickled over to the Far East,  inspiring the local filmmakers to take the style, techniques and shocks of those films and mix them with their homeland’s own distinctive folklore.  This cultural cross-pollination often produced colorful – and demented – results.

Devil Fetus is a prototypical example of this East-meets-West horror fusion.  The plot is, well… a bit freeform but here’s a quick attempt at a summary: a young woman finds herself hypnotized by a jade vase and brings it home to her well-to-do family.  It is quickly revealed that the vase is possessed by a disembodied human spirit who is full of mischief towards humans, both murderous and sexual(!).  When the vase kills the woman and her husband off (after leaving the titular devil fetus in the woman), a priest manages to keep the spirit at bay via a spell. 

The remains of the victims are bottled up with specific orders for them not to be disturbed for several years.  Cut to a few years later when the remains are accidentally disturbed by the family’s visiting god-daughter.  This prompts an array of ghost-driven treachery that leads to a pileup of corpses, lots of spell-casting and a goo-spewing final battle between human survivors and the evil spirit.  

One shouldn’t go into Devil Fetus expecting a chilling story or serious scares.  The stitched-together plot has tons of lapses in logic (why are the remains left unguarded?), the characters all act in ways that defy logic and the effects are too cheaply done to raise a chill from the audience.  If viewed in terms of “serious” filmmaking, it’s downright ramshackle in its approach.

But “serious” and Devil Fetus have nothing to do with each other so it’s pointless to fret about such conventional criteria.  This flick is the cinematic equivalent of a ride through a carnival spook-show, where the plot is just a contrivance that strings together crazed setpieces and characters are mere grist for its mill of mayhem.  The filmmakers don’t worry about such subtleties and instead focus on delivering as much carnage as they can wring from their low budget.   

If viewed on this level, Devil Fetus offers a cavalcade of trashy highlights.  It’s fun to play “spot the references” with this film: it’s easy to note overt borrowings from films like Poltergeist, The Evil Dead and John Carpenter’s version of The Thing and it is fun to see how these borrowings are reinterpreted on a budget by the filmmakers.  It’s also easy to assume that the filmmakers were paying attention to Italian films because there is some candy-colored lighting that harkens back to Suspiria, plus a gut-munching effect that would do Gianetto De Rossi proud.

Best of all, the filmmakers figure out clever ways to mix Chinese folklore and homegrown stylistic elements into the stew as the story progresses.  Priests and spells come into play during the second half, including a show-stopping exorcism that includes plenty of flying parchment, wire work and one really show-stopping fire effect.  Better yet, the finale really goes for the gusto, offsetting the expected grue and transformations with swordplay and some full-contact fighting in the classic HK style.  

Director Lau Hung Chuen gives the proceedings as much atmosphere as the budget will allow (he doubled as the film’s cinematographer) and keeps the mayhem rolling at a breathless pace.  The combination of his style and the film’s sense of the outrageous keeps Devil Fetus going all the way through to its over-the-top ending. The end result never quite hits the crazed heights of The Boxer’s Omen or Seeding Of A Ghost but Devil Fetus moves fast enough and seasons its purloined Hollywood shocks with enough sleazoid eccentricity to keep the trash fans smiling.  

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