One day handsome farm boy Cheung Fu (Wong Yuen-San) happens upon a sea snail surrounded by some angry snakes. He revives the stricken snail with a few drops of his own blood, little suspecting she is really the beautiful Sea Snail Fairy (Candice Yu) who dwells in a kitschy underwater kingdom full of floating bubbles and pretty girls cavorting inside giant seashells. Poor Fu leads a rather downtrodden life, routinely bullied and abused by his nasty Uncle (Wu Jia-Xiang) and Auntie Chow (Wang Lai), and their weedy, lecherous son Wang Chow (Tin Ching). What Fu doesn’t know is his relatives are living off the fortune his late father bequeathed him. So they shunt him off into the woods before he learns the truth. But the Sea Snail Fairy has fallen in love with Fu. Aided by her loving sisters - who watch the action unfold on their seashell/satellite surveillance television screen - the fairy descends to Earth where she cooks him a hearty meal, does his housework and brightens his life with her stop-motion animated magic powers.
Grindhouse distributors tried to sell Deadly Snail versus Kung Fu Killers as a bare-knuckle fight fest, when it’s actually a fairytale romance closer to those European oddities that used to pop up on children’s TV. One can only wonder what 42nd street patrons made of it all, but if you imagine a gender-switched Cinderella with bits from The Little Mermaid and I Dream of Jeannie thrown into the mix, you’ll get the idea. Quite charming in parts, the film is hampered by haphazard editing, complete with missing reels (sometimes the screen goes blank for thirty seconds!), and the fact that by 1977 this sort of movie was old hat. Fantasy films would get a lot funkier come the Eighties, one example being Buddha’s Palm (1982) which also features this film’s lead actress Candice Yu.
Yu is easily the most personable among the leading actors, a Shaw Brothers veteran she also appeared in the groundbreaking Swordsman II: Invincible Asia (1992) and still works to this day, with notable roles in Jackie Chan’s recent hit Rob-B-Hood (2006) and the film industry satire My Name is Fame (2006). Lookout for a brief cameo from Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, the veteran character actor/fight choreographer who went onto belated screen immortality in the following year’s Drunken Master (1978).
Episodic, the film gets caught up in sub-plots involving a servant girl with an unrequited crush on Cheung Fu and Wang Chow’s ongoing attempts to abduct and ravish the fairy bride. Cheung makes an especially gormless hero, often standing aside while his wife does all the work, except for one instance where she turns him into a kung fu dynamo. Traditional values demand he endure ongoing violence from his elders without fighting back. Chinese viewers will appreciate why, but the rest will find it tiresome.
Things pick up when an evil scaly-faced Snake Master (Unicorn Chan - also this film’s fight choreographer and a frequent Bruce Lee collaborator, e.g. Way of the Dragon (1972)) arrives to help the Chow family get rid of the Snail Fairy. The weirdness factor gets cranked up a notch via the monk eating forty-nine live frogs to strengthen his powers; some pretty good monster makeup; a glow-in-the-dark plastic skeleton; fireballs on wires; those ever-present cartoon lasers; and a big rubber snake. Strangely, the lovers have nothing to do with the climax. It’s the Snail fairy’s cheerful sisters who battle the bad guys and save the day. All in all, this is closer to watching a pantomime or a community play, slapdash but enthusiastic. But where else can you see a snail crucified and surrounded by a ring of burning snakes; a man dressed like a giant tree stump; or two fairies fighting a gold-painted hippie with ginger hair in a seaweed kilt? I could go on, but you get the idea.