Chances are, if you’re a cinephile, you’ve heard of a good chunk of the big cult films out there. While they may be obscure in some circles, the likes of Troll 2, Eraserhead, and Death Race have been thoroughly explored by movie buffs for years. That’s what Uncharted Territory is for. In this series, we take a look off the beaten path at forgotten films that, for good or ill, deserve your attention.
One cannot overstate just how enjoyable a good Shaw Brothers film is. Back in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, the Shaw Brothers put out literally hundreds of bloody martial arts movies, ranging from the more traditional wuxia pictures like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and The Avenging Eagle (See ‘A’ section) to the more fantastical flavors of Legendary Weapons of China and the bizarre Hammer Horror collaboration The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. Yet, despite all of the studio’s wanton violence across their martial arts films, very few of them have ever come anywhere near as brutal and graphic as the 1981 release Masked Avengers.
Masked Avengers follows a group of expert martial artists lead by the noble Qi Shanyun (Chiang Sheng), a man who has one thing in common with the rest of his clan. A common hatred for the mysterious Masked Gang. Not much is known about the Masked Gang, other than the location of their hideout their gimmick.
I’ve got a weakness for villains with a gimmick. Armies of faceless goons can get real tiring, but as soon as you give them a unique hook? My interest is piqued. And as far as unique hooks go, making your rank-and-file baddies be a gang of blood-drinking, mask-wearing, athletic assassins that live in a trap-laden Buddhist temple is pretty high up there.
Speaking of the ancient temple, it should be noted that the Masked Gang are introduced in proper within the walls of their inner sanctuary. Less than ten minutes into the movie, you see them returning home from a raid and celebrating their victory by drinking blood. How do they get this blood? Why, one of their three leaders turns a swastika-engraved dial, causing a Buddha statue’s chest cavity to open and reveal a man trapped inside. The leader then impales the prisoner’s now-exposed stomach, causing an impossible amount of blood to spray out and fill the men’s bowls. As far as establishing how evil your villains are, this over-the-top sadism is only slightly less subtle than their demonic masks and insistence to only fight with blood-spattered tridents.
Naturally, this reliance on a signature weapon means a majority of Masked Avenger’s fights involve tridents. In the hands of lesser choreographers, this would lead to boring and repetitive showdowns, but as always, the Shaw Brothers seal of quality ensures that every fight is going to get a lot of mileage out of these tri-pronged spears. In just one fight, you may see tridents being used as everything from a simple staff to a javelin to an axe, with skilled stuntmen effortlessly swapping between the styles.
Unfortunately, a lot of time in Masked Avengers is spent with our heroes investigating a sleepy town to find clues on the identity of the Masked Gang’s mysterious leaders. This would be fine if two of the three leaders were so blatantly foreshadowed, and the third wasn’t so devoid of interesting personality. Thankfully, this investigation period is peppered with almost slasher-like assassinations of martial artists (Seriously, one of the kills is suspiciously similar to Friday the 13th’s arrow through the throat) at the hands of masked men, as well as the introduction of the mysterious chef Kao Yao (Philip Kwok).
While Kao’s origins and intentions may not be the most original or surprising in the world, Kao is easily the best fighter of the cast, utilizing a wide variety of weapons in creative ways. Perhaps the best of Kao’s fights comes relatively early on in the movie, which manages to make the unlikely matchup of spatula vs trident downright enthralling.
But none of the fights can even hope to hold a candle to the film’s last ten minutes – a gruesome battle royale of epic proportions set within the heart of the gang’s temple hideout. Yes, it features swarms of the masked men doing battle with our remaining heroes, but Masked Avengers is kind enough to add all of the sanctuary’s diabolical deathtraps to the equation.
So not only are you watching swordsmen and kung-fu experts do battle with vicious killers, you’re watching both sides try to use the temple’s deadly architecture to their advantage. Newcomers enter the arena by way of rotating walls and rope-activated elevators, men meet their graphic fates at the hands of sprays of acid and Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque arrow traps, and one of the heroes finds himself impaled after by being unlucky enough to discover that a massive set of double doors is hiding spring-loaded spear tips (Also used as the film’s poster).
It’s a brilliant, bloody finale – one that ramps up all of the movie’s beautiful choreography, visceral carnage, and hellish imagery up to eleven. I’ve always been a firm believe that a good ending is one that perfectly encapsulates the best aspects of a film. And going by that criteria, Masked Avengers’ ending is one of the best in the Shaw Brother’s filmography. And that’s more than enough to forgive an underwhelming middle.
Watch Masked Avengers on Amazon.