House of Traps comes at the tale end of the old school movement and is indeed one of Chang Cheh’s last films featuring many of the Venom clan. It came about right before action-comedy would become the prevalent dominating force within the community. While House of Traps is far from the best film the director or this team ever made, it demonstrates everything that made Chang Cheh such a visionary and it at times also demonstrates the pitfalls that he was known to sink in. The name Chang Cheh has almost become synonymous at this point with certain types of melodrama. His work exemplifies chivalry and honor amongst men and House of Traps is no different. The good guys are remarkably good and the bad guys are just dastardly in their evil attitudes. Cheh and Ni Kuang did not usually dabble in the gray areas of life (with House of Traps playing both sides of the fence to a certain degree, but I’ll get to that shortly) and the old fashioned sentimentality of these movies adds a certain charm to them. Cheh’s heroes are kind to all men, fair in their view of justice and are generally amicable in all respects. Chien Sun’s character in House of Traps is the definition of this trait, as he takes in The Black Fox (played by Phillip Kwok) despite his obvious attempts at grifting him for money. Although Sun Chien seems a bit wasted in the shoes of this character (he never has a single fight sequence), he correctly demonstrates how definite the moral equation is between these two groups who are waging war with one another… or so it would seem.
There is a particular twist that comes about in roughly the last thirty seconds of House of Traps that defies much of what has come before it in the film. Although I don’t want to spoil anything, if you are at least vaguely familiar with the formula for a martial arts film then you know that this movie will end with an elaborate battle. It’s as if the filmmakers decided to throw a monkey wrench inside of the machine and call into question the very formula of martial arts cinema itself. Although not played in nearly that profound of a fashion, the final lines of the film seem to make a statement that perhaps war and fighting are not the way in which to settle disputes. Heave, right? Not really. The main problem with House of Traps comes from this elaborate and unnecessary plotting. Quite literally within the first minute of this movie, you are going to be confused. House of Traps opens with a succession of quick cuts and random facts dealing with the actual House of Traps from the movie, its history and the two warring factions. If you can keep track of this information as well as the endless series of characters who are introduced and their responsibilities within each faction, then you are a far better man than I. Writing down names and phonetically spelling out the names for their characters, it was still tricky to keep up with everything that House of Traps throws at its audience. I had similar issues with Ten Tigers From Kwangtung, where it seemed as if Cheh tried to gather too much information with too large of a cast to be conveyed in such a short amount of time. Ultimately, this is the greatest downfall of the movie. No matter how great the martial arts and how charismatic the actors may be, when you’re having trouble keeping up with the vigorous plot then your enjoyment level is going to be severely limited.
Cheh and his crew do manage to flaunt some of their better qualities as well. I mentioned the gimmickry of Chang Cheh’s movies up above and this title is no different. The house of traps from the title is actually a really fantastic and entertaining idea. The house is essentially a booby trapped hut meant to house the Prince and his secret documents and stolen goods. A lot of the action is set around one single set piece that features a staircase that leads to a cellar/pit area. When a martial artist is trapped in this room, spikes begin to raise up from out of the floor and they are left with only the option to try and run back up the stairs. This holds another trick for the unlucky victim, as the staircase quickly has its steps drop, leaving anyone on them to fall to their death. If a quick witted martial artist somehow manages to evade the spikes and quickly flip up to the second story, then they have to fend off several nets that feature wooden boards on their sides which are adorned with massive spikes. The movie features many other secret booby traps throughout that of course have a secret weakness to some given martial arts technique. Not everyone can survive however, and that leads us to a few instances of traditional Chang Cheh gore. Known as the most violent filmmaker of this period, Cheh does not disappoint as we are given several very bloody death scenes throughout. One of which includes a man having half of his foot chopped off within the house of traps!