Xiong zhai mei ren tou [Beauty Head of the Haunted House] (1989)

Mainland China has not produced many horror films.

Not that I’m sure Beauty Head of the Haunted House is a horror film.

In fact, it is about as unclassifiable as any genre film can be.  Certainly there are horror elements, but there are also a lot of other things which do not neatly fit into any familiar genre pattern.

A young nurse, reporting for her first day of work at the private lab of Professor Ke Keer gets the shock of her life.

He springs it on her without warning, although it is a little while before the movie lets us see it.’

But we already know what it is.  We saw it on the movie poster.  It is a beautiful woman’s head sitting on tray, with a few bits of hospital equipment attached.

In fact, the Professor has been keeping her alive for the last ten years, after she was stabbed eleven times, and he is looking for a suitable donor body.

After all, it has to be someone beautiful and physically gifted as Romina was a popular dancer.

The Professor demands that the nurse keep everything secret.  His new discoveries are going to change the world, and he plans to unveil his discoveries soon at a major scientific conference.

Once the nurse overcomes her fear of the head, she finds that she likes her new job.  She and the head quickly build a solid rapport, although caring for a bodiless head isn’t as simple as it sounds.  After all, putting on Romina’s make-up nearly kills her.

But the Professor is carrying out some nasty research on the side to pay for his experiments, and he has other plans in motion to get what he wants.

And who exactly is the mysterious unseen voice telling the Professor’s what to do?

You have to remember, though, that is only one of the many threads at play here.  We also have a classic, almost Giallo plot about a young woman in danger from a bizarre threat (although, as she learns more and more about the Professor and what he is up to — and he adds another head to his collection — you do have to wonder why she never told anyone what was going on), a second thread involving a detective investigating a mysterious disappearance, and ultimately, the bizarre revelation of the full truth about the Professor’s research and who has been behind it all along…

Someone once pointed out that Chinese is a language where something that makes perfect sense in Chinese ends up becoming almost nonsensical once it has been translated.  I’ve also seen the title translated as House of the Beautiful Head, although that ignores the word “haunted” somehow or other.  In fact, another attempted explanation used the word “Murderous” rather than “haunted.”

And perhaps “murderous” is appropriate as much of the film is closer to a crime drama than a horror film, with a criminal gang getting into the mix along the way.

While the film starts out with a serious jump scare and only gradually reveals the head, the tone here is surprisingly serious for the most part, more like a drama than a horror film.  Certainly there is something both reassuringly normal and yet creepy about the lengthy scene where the Nurse and the head chat about how she is doing, her fear that she has become ugly during her time as a head, and finally developing into a very feminine moment when the nurse helps her put on her makeup.

All this in a very sterile setting, with white walls and a huge machine monitoring Romina’s health.

It is a memorable film, one which has somehow eluded the attention of most genre specialists in the West, and yet which is unique, adventurous and undeniably effective.

It seems a shame that only a few of us out there have ever heard of it.  It really deserves a bigger audience and a lot more attention.  I suppose that has been true of Asian films in general, where some of the most extraordinary are unknown to the average film geek.

But, you never know, if we tell everyone about the best of these films, we might just build an audience for them yet…

(Auto-translated subtitles available here)



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