Monday, April 11, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Baby Blues

Year: 1982
Director: Yao-Chi Chen
Cast: Emily Y. Chang, Alan Tam, Sha-Fei Ouyang
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

Plot: Devil Returns follows a young woman named Fang Mei-hsun (Emily Y. Chang) who was attacked by an escaped criminal. Two months later, she has married her fiancé Lo Yu-ching (Alan Tam) and discovers she is pregnant with her attacker's child. When the baby is born, she suspects it of being possessed. A variety of supernatural accidents begin to occur until she gets the baby exorcised and a shadowy figure with a knife begins stalking her home.

Analysis: Like many of the Hong Kong films we've been covering recently as we swing back around and check out the films that slipped past my radar during my first (several) rounds of research, Devil Returns (aka Jing hun feng yu ye) is a real kitchen sink affair. It's tremendously hard to pin down what subgenre this film wants to exist in, as it seems to slide effortlessly between the type of supernatural slice-'n-dice picture that would become much more common post-A Nightmare on Elm Street and a formula slasher so traditional that it literally steals entire scenes from Halloween, including the car horn death, the closet scene, spying the killer out the window, and pounding on a door screaming for it to be opened by a sleeping child.

But also it spends the whole first half of the film riffing on The Omen and Rosemary's Baby while ripping off the score to Suspiria and wholesale stealing the score to The Exorcist, so it takes some getting used to. Eventually I was won over to the film's wavelength, but it takes some time after the slow-paced first act that keeps trying to capture the "women's picture" thrills that made its superior 1982 peer Exposed to Danger so thrilling but bogging it down in a supremely boring and ill-paced execution of the "am I imagining things?" trope. Once things start clicking, they really click though, especially when the film realizes that it can use the trappings of motherhood (the home, the belly, and the baby itself) to spin out terror both metaphorical and entirely immediate.

Part of why the film is so slippery is that it's never clear what the fuck is going on with the killer, and not in a way that makes it a compelling mystery. Is the killer possessing her son? Or is he just wandering around in a Michael Myers jumpsuit? And why are some kills entirely Omen-fueled supernatural mayhem (including a woman whose chest starts spontaneously erupting with blood) while others just involve people being poked with a big knife? There's no consistent M.O. established, so it's hard to grasp the actual stakes involved. I will admit that the film ends on an epigraph that is untranslated, which may have helped explain everything, though certainly not soon enough for it to help the film in the moment.

Luckily, the kill sequences (which are entirely backloaded, because that first half really can't get anything right) are pretty fascinating, and at one point act as a wildly kinetic shot of adrenaline at the exact point where the movie begins to flag the most. The film is also occasionally pretty, particularly in an early scene where Fang Mei-hsun is kidnapped on a rainy street, dropping her umbrella, which is left upside down to forlornly fill with water. And the first half is stuffy but not terribly made, so while it's a bit of a slog to get to the superior second half, it's not the most punishing.

Killer: There's too much going on here to land on calling this entity anything other than what the title suggests: Devil
Final Girl: Fang Mei-hsun (Emily Y. Chang)
Best Kill: The abortion specialist is slashed in the face with a scalpel by a possessed nurse, at which point he begins to be thrown around by a telekinetic force before being defenestrated and falling several stories to his death.
Sign of the Times: There is an extended sequence that takes place at an aerobics class.
Scariest Moment: Devil appears in the hallway watching Mrs. Chou while she cooks, visible through the open door behind her.
Weirdest Moment: Shen Hsiao-ling starts brushing her hair and laughing maniacally.
Champion Dialogue: "Let's have a steak for your health."
Body Count: 5
  1. Doctor is slashed in the face and thrown out the window.
  2. Mrs. Chou is impaled through the back of the neck.
  3. Lin Haui-teh is stabbed in the back though his car seat.
  4. Shen Hsiao-ling is smothered with a shower curtain.
  5. Devil is shot.
TL;DR: Devil Returns is a little slow paced, but it throws caution to the wind in terms of ripping off the best of horror cinema and pouring 18 different subgenres into its bubbling cauldron.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 800

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