The House That Never Dies II
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D, 95 mins.
Director: Qian Renhao 钱人豪 [Joe Chien].
An okay horror but not much more, with none of the original’s detailed and classy design.
A city in China, the present day. During the final stages of work on the renovation of a celebrated old house, known as No. 81, that burned down during the Republican era, some children’s bodies are discovered, one with a Daoist talisman on it. As the site already has a reputation for being cursed, most of the workers walk off. Though it’s his seventh wedding anniversary, project director Song Teng (Zhang Zhilin) is forced to stay at his office in No. 81 to deal with the problem. His wife He Fei (Mei Ting), a doctor in a hospital’s A&E department, visits him and meets his colleague, Lin Yao (Zhong Xintong), the daughter of Song Teng’s professor. Lin Yao suggests that both of them stay at No. 81 until work is completed, though He Fei is unwilling as it’s far from her work. Over dinner, Lin Yao tells how renovation work was originally started a long time ago by her father; but because of various unexplained accidents, the city’s cultural department ordered work to halt. Lin Yao explains that, during the Republican era, there had been a spate of eight baby murders in the district, for which Niu Menghe (Mei Ting) was arrested. She had been the wife of No. 81’s owner, young warlord Zhang Zhisheng (Zhang Zhilin), prior to him being pressured to marry Ji Jincui (Zhong Xintong), daughter of powerful warlord Ji Chunlong (Gao Jie). Zhang Zhisheng finally had Niu Menghe executed but was haunted by bad luck ever after. Wandering around the old house at night, He Fei starts having visions of that period and comes across an old medical book about obstetrics. After having visions of giant bugs, she finds Hua, a young worker who had stayed on the project, dead in a corridor. She continues to have visions, seeing a young girl whom she becomes convinced is the daughter she lost five years earlier. She also becomes suspicious of the relationship between her husband and Lin Yao, as the past history of No. 81 seems more and more to impinge on the present.
After The House That Never Dies 京城81号 (2014) became the Mainland’s biggest-grossing horror film with a hunky RMB412 million, a sequel was inevitable – even though the movie hardly left room for one. Solution: take the main ideas, reconfigure them with a new cast and a new production team led by veteran Hong Kong director-producer Chen Jiashang 陈嘉上 [Gordon Chan], beef up the visual-effects quotient, bring in a director with a track record in horror, launch it again in 3-D, and hope for the best. Result: box office of only half the original’s amount (RMB215 million), though still sizeable for an average horror.
The House That Never Dies II 京城81号II is an okay frightfest but not much more, and conspicuously lacking the photographic and design polish that made the first film watchable even when its script was jumping the rails. The screenplay of II is equally generic, sliding back and forth between a spooky present and a horrible Republican past; the performances are again mixed; and the final “rational explanation scene” (this being a Mainland horror) is an even bigger hoot than that in the first film, here delivered with an admirably straight face by veteran actress Chen Chong 陈冲 [Joan Chen] in a late-on cameo. Though II‘s visual effects, supervised by Li Zhaohua 李昭桦 (Firestorm 风暴, 2013), are immeasurably better, they completely take over the finale at a point where the screenplay is already imploding.
Advance publicity made much of the script being written by Shanghai-born mystery/horror novelist Cai Jun 蔡骏, 38, several of whose novels have been filmed (Curse of Lola 诅咒, 2005; Kill Time 谋杀似水年华, 2016); but the main billing on the film goes to Hong Kong’s Tan Guangyuan 谭广源, a scenarist who’s worked frequently with producer Chen (notably The Four 四大名捕 trilogy, 2012-14), followed by new name Huang Huihui 黄慧惠. Whoever’s really responsible, the screenplay basically riffs on elements from the original: an old house with the number “81” (which bears no relation to the one in the first film and isn’t even specifically located in Beijing), parallel stories (played by the same actors) of naughty goings-on in the 1920s warlord era and spooky events in the present, and a final cataclysm.
At some point, however, the production seems to have lost its bottle or been sat upon by the censors. After a first half of rote creepiness, the main plot is revealed to spin on some kind of heinous sorcery-cum-medical experiments to ensure the family line – 巫术求子 – but almost all the detail has been eliminated, diluting the true horror, rendering the plot’s psychology vague at best, and contributing a lot to the general chaos of the final 20 minutes. (Some of the detail still survives in trailers for the film.)
Added to which, the house of the title is not really the star of the film in the way it was in the carefully designed original: with most scenes shot in gloom or close-ups, there’s no feel for the house’s geography or overall look, or as a character in the story. The people that fill it are also less interesting, and less colourfully cast. As in horror Bunshinsaba 笔仙 (2012), Mainland actress Mei Ting 梅婷, 42, is given little to do except be scared or unbalanced; an actress who’s very capable when given the chance (Aspirin 阿司匹林, 2006; Blind Massage 推拿, 2014), Mei is actually better in the parallel story, as a young warlord’s abused first wife. The same goes for Hong Kong’s Zhong Xintong 钟欣潼 [Gillian Chung], 36, in her most sizeable role for a while, as the female threat. As the man between the two, fellow Hong Konger Zhang Zhilin 张智霖 [Julian Cheung], 45, with whom Zhong recently co-starred in costume fantasy The Fox Lover 白狐 (2013), is weedy in both stories, though marginally better as the young warlord. When veterans Gao Jie 高捷 [Jack Kao], Wu Junmei 邬君梅 [Vivian Wu] and Lin Xue 林雪 [Lam Suet] turn up in a pivotal period scene, their presence shows up the low wattage of the main cast.
Surprisingly for Taiwan film-maker Qian Renhao 钱人豪 [Joe Chien], 47, who’s made a career in schlocky horror (Buttonman 钮扣人, 2008; Zombie 108 Z108弃城, 2012; The Apostles 诡镇, 2014), it’s the period scenes, which don’t rely so much on shocks or VFX, that are dramatically the strongest: apart from the above-mentioned pivotal one, others with moody Mainland actor Geng Le 耿乐 as a family doctor are also strong. In fact, before the script runs off the rails, Qian keeps a pretty strong hand on the tiller: the film’s opening, which builds atmosphere in three trusty horror locations (a building site, hospital’s A&E department, underground car park), starts things off very effectively. On a craft level, the period costuming by Zhao Wenxiu 赵文秀 has a fresher feel than normal, though it’s not especially well showcased by the photography. Music by Taiwan’s Chen Junting 陈俊廷 is average for the genre.
Presented by Fujian Hengye Pictures (CN), Wanda Media (CN), Chongqing Film Group (CN), Perfect Sky Pictures (CN).
Script: Tan Guangyuan, Huang Huihui, Cai Jun. Editing: Chen Qihe [Chan Ki-hop]. Music: Chen Junting. Title song music: Chen Zhiyi. Lyrics: Wu Di. Art direction: Damon Lau. Costume design: Zhao Wenxiu. Sound: Feng Yanming, Lin Xuelin. Visual effects: Li Zhaohua.
Cast: Zhang Zhilin [Julian Cheung] (Song Teng; Zhang Zhisheng), Mei Ting (He Fei; Niu Menghua), Geng Le (Wang Yuantian; Wang Ruxun, family doctor), Zhong Xintong [Gillian Chung] (Lin Yao; Ji Jincui), Wu Junmei [Vivian Wu] (Xie Meiying, Zhang Zhisheng’s stepmother), Wang Shuilin (Shaona), Chen Chong [Joan Chen] (doctor at end), Gao Jie [Jack Kao] (Ji Chunlong, warlord), Lin Xue [Lam Suet] (Gu, warlord), Lian Kai (Lu, staff officer), Mike Sui, Wan Guopeng.
Release: China, 6 Jul 2017.