2 January 2004 | BrianDanaCamp
WEB OF DEATH – another great fantasy adventure from Chor Yuen
THE WEB OF DEATH (1976) is another of director Chor Yuen's masterful costume and swordplay adventures done for Hong Kong's Shaw Bros. studio in the 1970s. It ranks with some of his other fine work, such as THE MAGIC BLADE, KILLER CLANS, CLANS OF INTRIGUE, SWORDSMAN AND ENCHANTRESS and HEROES SHED NO TEARS. Those films were based on literary works by novelist Ku Lung, while WEB OF DEATH may not be since Ku Lung gets no on screen credit, nor do I find anything similarly titled in a bibliography of his. But it sure plays like a Ku Lung adaptation, with its intertwining clan rivalries and intense competition among a large cast of characters to take over the "boxers' world." It's a wild, fast-paced, entertaining ride, with a host of intriguing characters played by a superb cast of Shaw Bros. regulars. And, given its preponderance of magical special effects, it looks forward to Taylor Wong's similarly-styled BUDDHA'S PALM (1982).
The plot, in a nutshell, has to do with the Five Venoms Clan and its hidden, not-so-secret weapon, the Five Venom Spider, a lethal creature that causes great carnage when unleashed. The Snake Chief of the Venoms Clan (played by Lo Lieh) wants to unearth the spider to use against the other clans when they all meet on Mount Wudang for an upcoming festival. These other clans all want to find the spider first to keep the Venom Clan from using it on them. Complicating matters is the fact that Fei, the senior student of the Wudang clan (played by Yueh Hua), meets and falls for Susu (Ching Li), who doesn't tell him she's the Venom Clan chief's daughter and decides to secretly help him get the spider. Misunderstandings and near-fatal complications result, making it very hard for the course of true love to prevail. It all leads up to a magnificent finale on Mount Wudang involving all the clans and the spider. Things move at a rapid clip with surprises and twists every step of the way. There are a lot of major characters and the script and editing keep pretty good track of them all, never once plunging the viewer into confusion. Without giving away any details, I should point out that the ending is a real tearjerker.
The explosive, smoke and lightning effects employed during the spider attacks are not, I have to admit, the most convincing of effects work. Nor does the "web" that's supposed to encircle and suffocate its victims seem particularly threatening. The spider appears to be a real tarantula in some shots and a mechanical creation in others. Still, there's so much else to admire in the production that the effects take on far less importance. The sets are spectacular, ranging from the massive castle interior that marks the Venom Clan headquarters and the dangerous trap-filled Clan Chiefs' Graveyard to the picturesque mist-shrouded vistas on Mount Wudang and the exquisitely beautiful lakeside pavilion on Silver Lake where the two lovers first meet in the moonlight. All are created in the studio.
The big news here is that Ching Li, as the Venom chief's daughter, clearly has the dominant role in the film, a point of major interest for fans of this pretty and versatile Shaw Bros. star known for her work with Chang Cheh (BLOOD BROTHERS, ANONYMOUS HEROES) and Chor Yuen (KILLER CLANS, SWORDSMAN AND ENCHANTRESS). Often simply a romantic object in these films, she's actually seen here performing a lot of action (with considerable help from an acrobatic stunt double, of course) and she gets to dress up as other characters on more than two occasions. She has to go through the greatest emotional turmoil of any character in the film. She's also more strikingly beautiful here than I've ever seen her.
Yueh Hua, the nominal leading man, was usually seen to better effect in supporting roles (HEROES SHED NO TEARS), making him ideal for this film by allowing Ching Li to shine in a way that a more charismatic male star might not have. Also in the cast are such Chor Yuen regulars as Lo Lieh, Wang Hsieh, Lily Li, Wang Chung, Ku Feng, Norman Chu, Chan Shen, and Cheng Miu. The big finale with the last spider-and-web attack features nearly a dozen major Shaw Bros. actors in one scene together. Chor Yuen liked large casts and large-scale confrontations like this and he certainly knew how to stage them for maximum effect.
The Five Venoms Clan and its subdivisions, Snake, Centipede, Toad and Scorpion will, of course, remind viewers of Chang Cheh's THE FIVE VENOMS, which was made two years later (1978). The only connecting tissue between the two films is screenwriter I Kuang, who wrote both scripts. Perhaps he simply wondered what would happen to the Five Venoms Clan after the events of WEB OF DEATH and took off from there, with Chang Cheh adopting a more no-nonsense kung fu-oriented approach to the material.
THE WEB OF DEATH is a remake of an earlier Shaw Bros. film, THE THUNDERING SWORD (1967), which starred Cheng Pei Pei in the role that Ching Li plays here. Interestingly, Ching Li played a supporting role in that film, as Cheng Pei Pei's maid.