Fun-loving Hong Kong girl Kay (Yau Pui-Ling) ignores her superstitious mother (Wang Lai) and spends a summer holiday in a remote region of South East Asia. Whereupon, while snapping photos in the woods, she is swarmed by malevolent centipedes. Kay’s brother Wai Lun (Michael Miu Kiu-Wai) flies to the hospital in time to see her die, as her gaping wounds spew out centipedes. Ick. Understandably befuddled by this turn of events, Wai Lun and his girlfriend Luk Chee (Margaret Lee) consult experts on poisonous snakes along with a local sorcerer (Stephen Yip Tin-Hang). The couple discover Kay’s death was the result of a curse placed on the family by a practitioner of black magic (Hussein Hassan) seeking revenge for a murder committed by Wai Lun’s grandfather. Now the wizard wants Wai Lun dead too and entraps Luk Chee as his sexy instrument of evil.
Prolific producer and assistant director Keith Lee Baak-Ling only directed two films. Interestingly on both ends of the budgetary spectrum: The Supreme Swordsman (1983), a lavish, star-studded Shaw Brothers wu xia epic and Centipede Horror, a grotty slice of low-budget horror schlock. Ironically this is the one he is known for. Among a handful of Hong Kong horror films with reputations that qualify them as honorary "video nasties", it remains infamous for the climax where actress Margaret Lee vomits a seemingly endless spew of real live centipedes. A scene that carried an extra frisson for local audiences aware that she was the daughter of Li Han-hsiang, among the classiest, most venerated auteurs in Asian art-house cinema.
If nothing else, Miss Lee proves she is game for anything. She not only holds a mouthful of the wriggly little buggers but lets them slither all over her naked body during a sex scene. Such gross-out moments came to define Hong Kong horror cinema in the Seventies and early Eighties, in the wake of the all-pervading influence of The Exorcist (1973). Centipede Horror features Hussein Hassan, a Thai actor with a supposedly authentic background in the ‘dark arts’, whose ominous presence also graced the Shaw Brothers horror Bewitched (1981) and grindhouse favourite Red Spells Red (1983). The latter also penned by Centipede Horror scribe Amy Chan Suet-Ming who in addition plays a small role and, playing fair with her cast, also gets engulfed by flesh-eating centipedes.
Films like Centipede Horror, Shaw Brothers’ The Boxer’s Omen (1983) and Golden Harvest’s epic The Seventh Curse (1986) routinely hinge on the clash between ‘civilized’ Hong Kong values and the traditional superstitious beliefs that govern the bulk of ‘South East Asia’ (Chan Suet-Ming’s nebulous catch-all term for what could be Thailand, which serves the same function in HK horror that Transylvania does in Hollywood). Given Chan Suet-Ming’s script plays an equal emphasis on the tension between the modernized siblings and their sternly traditionalist mother, the subtext also implies these kids are paying the price for defying their inflexible elders with their fun-loving ways and obsession with fashion. After all carefree Kay succumbs after removing a protective amulet because it does not go with her chic outfit.
For all its memorably disgusting moments, Centipede Horror lacks momentum. It is much more of a slow build than your average HK horror film. At times this works in its favour. Lee Baak-Ling suffuses the bulk of the film in compelling naturalism breaking out the odd artful, interestingly framed and lit shot to set-up a nicely off-kilter moment. Which include an extended, if underdeveloped nod to Don’t Look Now (1973) as Wai Lun is haunted by glimpses of a childlike spectral figure in red. The film also has an interesting soundtrack that mixes pounding synths with tribal chants, Gothic organ for big Hammer horror-like set-pieces and smooth sax-led yacht rock for more ‘normal’ scenes. Ultimately though the laborious narrative is awkwardly structured. Skewed towards family drama it indulges in a would-be tragic flashback that proves unintentionally hilarious and only intermittently sparks up a real transgressive charge in scenes where a snake burrows through one character’s skull, reanimated chicken skeletons run amuck and a wizard and two invisible ghost children rub blood all over a naked possessed girl.