directed by: Po-Chih Leong
starring: Eddie Chan, Sylvia Chang, Kent Cheng, Billy Lau, Eric Tsang, Simon Yam
"In this wild Hong Kong-based black comedy, a cuckolded husband becomes a cross-dressing night stalker, compelled to strike down any women he sees wearing white fish-net stockings. Leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake, he selects female disc jockey (Silvia Chang) as his next target. Fortunately for every fish-net favouring female in Hong Kong, she proves to be more than a match for the midnight marauder."
Having, it's perhaps fair to say, more than a soft spot for the early 80's slasher movie, I'd often wondered if the craze for knife wielding maniacs had reached beyond the prolific shores of the US and Canada. Now, there were certainly a handful of examples from Europe (notably from Italy, still carrying on the grand tradition of the giallo (although to generally lesser returns)), and even one or two from South America, but what about Asia? FRIDAY THE 13TH had been a massive hit in Japan, but the one example I've found (so far), HE LIVES BY NIGHT, is actually from Hong Kong.
Now, Hong Kong in 1982 is every bit as gaudy as you'd imagine - and then some. In a city filled with neon as far as the eye can see and more make-up caked noo-wavers than you could shake a pair of deely-boppers at, a killer is stalking the streets.
The opening five minutes set the scene nicely: a nightclub awash with dry ice and (of course) wall to wall neon, on the stage a giant fruit machine stands, next to it some guy doing the quintessential early 80's robot dance; he pulls the lever and out pop big-haired ladies who slide down a ramp, mug to the camera and let out an ear-piercing, "Owwwh!". This is followed by one of those heavy breathing point-of-view shots, as somebody leaves the club following one of the dancers, a French woman, and her boyfriend. As she canoodles with him the camera zooms in on her legs, which are clad in white fish-net stockings (a detail which becomes a focal point later on). The woman bids farewell to her beau and makes her way home through the dark streets. She finds herself in an alley, sheets of red and yellow silk hanging, picturesquely blocking her way. Gingerly she makes her way through, pushing the material aside. At one point she thinks there's someone behind her; it looks like a figure standing, silhouetted behind a sheet - but it turns out to be a mop. However, she finds out that there really is someone there; a flick-knife flies open and we see what looks like the silhouette of a woman slashing at the terrified dancer. As she tries to escape her pursuer catches up with her, cuts off her white fishnet stockings with the knife, and brutally strangles her with them.
The dancer's body is soon found by the police: a fat commissioner heading up the investigation with a younger officer, Wong. Unbeknownst to her, Sissy - a local radio DJ, was living just below where the murder happened and stumbles across the crime scene on the way to work. She has an exchange of words with Wong (seemingly a love/hate relationship), and comes to the notice of the fat commissioner, who dismisses her as a tom boy (when, in-fact, he is in love with her voice from the radio). Little do they know it but they will all be caught up in a dangerous web as the white stockings killer continues to cut a swathe through the night shrouded streets of Hong Kong ...
Now, I've seen a handful of Hong kong horror movies before and they are certainly, what I think it would be fair to say, an acquired taste. What may seem odd to Western audiences (and indeed many other Asian audiences - all the Japanese horror flicks I've seen have taken themselves very seriously indeed) is the way that pratfall humour is mixed with the horror. You could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a romantic comedy at times with HE LIVES BY NIGHT (especially when the fat commissioner goes hell-for-leather to woo Sissy in a series of comic interludes), thankfully, however, the film plays its horror and slasher scenes pretty much straight.
The killer, it is revealed early on, is not a woman at all but rather a transvestite, who was seemingly driven mad by finding his wife in bed with a man dressed as a woman (who was wearing white fishnet stockings); he killed them both and was sentenced to ten years in the looney bin, but was seemingly released before his sanity was restored. Now working as a shoe salesman he is outwardly normal and charming (even going as far as saving a little girl from a speeding car - not something I could imagine Freddy or Jason doing!), but, when he glimpses white fishnet stockings he is filled with murderous desires and takes on his alter-ego to stalk down his intended prey.
If truth be told much of the comedy works (surprisingly), a lot of it due to the talented actors and actresses and some witty dialogue (although, like many subtitled Asian films, the translation can be a little hit-or-miss sometimes). There's also much fun to be had for fans of 80's cheese as the film is populated with some pretty wild characters in the craziest new wave fashions this side of NEW YEAR'S EVIL (lookout for a couple of snarling shoplifters who get on the wrong side of the slasher); even the seemingly dour fat cop puts on a Duran Duran headband and glitter eyeshadow in a effort to impress the nonchalant Sissy with his robotic dancing skills (and just wait till you see the couple in the closing five minutes, with the garish matching outfits!).
And, if truth be told, the straight-laced slasher action is excellent, too: the first murder, of the dancer, is beautifully shot and very tense (a set-piece that really wouldn't have been out of place in one of Argento's earlier movies, and was probably, in-fact, influenced by them). Other influences show, especially from the very successful American slasher movies of the time; there's one protracted and very tense scene (which does, in-fact, mix very wry humour and horror pretty well) where two women, who had been shopping for shoes (one of which was wearing white stockings), return home only to find themselves under attack from the tranny with the box-cutter and the wicked glint in her eye. The film adheres to the standard slasher movie formula pretty faithfully, inasmuch as it concludes with a showdown with a final girl (not surprisingly Sissy, who through a twist of fate find herself alone with the killer in a near deserted radio station after the police trap the wrong man), which is as tense and gripping as they come. Watch out, by-the-way, for a great scene where Sissy finds herself menaced by a 7UP dispensing machine; plus there's a very witty variation on that old HALLOWEEN standard of where's-the-killer's-supposedly-dead-body-gone?
All-in-all definitely worth a look if you're in the mood for some old school
slashing, but with a fresh twist!
BODYCOUNT 8 female:4 / male:4
1) Female stabbed in back with knife and strangled with fish-net stockings
2) Female strangled with fish-net stockings
3) Female slashed with boxcutter and strangled with fish-net stockings
4) Male has throat slashed with boxcutter (flashback)
5) Female strangled with fish-net stockings (flashback)
6) Male killed (method unseen)
7) Male hit over the head with knuckle-duster
8) Male dies in fall