The Plot: Taking place in the Sung Dynasty, we are treated to a tale of espionage and ever-twisting loyalties. Our story begins with the death of Emperor Kuang Yin who was rumored to have been killed by his brother De Zhao. When the new Emperor Guang Yi took the throne he immediately ordered De Zhao to commit suicide. We skip forward several years and now De Zhao’s son Zhao Jue has been crowned as the prince of Xiangyang and he has his mind set on vengeance. Zhao Jue looks to overthrow the Emperor and he starts off by ordering his men to steal several precious objects from the current government. Zhao Jue keeps himself locked away in his House of Traps, where he fears no spies due to the massive number of booby-traps within this home. Inside of the House he keeps a membership list that holds the name of all those who have joined his rebellion, as well as the precious jade and ivory horse that he has stolen from the government. Zhao Jue has his eyes on becoming all powerful, but at the same time Judge Pow (Chien Sun) is heading up an investigation into the accusations that Zhao Jue is a traitor. As Judge Pow heads off to do some investigating, the prince sends out two pair of hitmen in order to end his snooping. Along the way the judge, who is not skilled in kung fu, runs into Pai yu-tong (Chin Siu-Ho) who is enlisted as a bodyguard and defeats the men. As the tides keep turning, other groups continue to step into the battle. Who will win in this battle of government officials and rebels?

The Review
Chang Cheh, Ni Kuang and the Venom Mob were in my humble opinion the greatest team in all of martial arts cinema throughout the seventies and eighties. There is an argument that often comes up between martial arts film fans about who the greater force was from this era: Chang Cheh or Lia Chiang-Liu. While I concede that Liu was a master in his own right and created some of the most memorable and brilliant pictures that the genre has ever seen, Chang Cheh was just so consistent and versatile in his output. When comparing the two, you have to concede that Liu was certainly the more traditionally artistic of the two. His work is generally more dramatic, character driven and has slightly less emphasis on superficial gimmicks. This is where Chang Cheh differs from Liu, because I don’t think that there is a gimmick that the man ever met that he didn’t love. That reason by itself explains just what I love about the man and his movies, but there is still so much more to his work. The gimmicks are just a part of what makes his work so special. While so many other directors were going to Shaolin and using monks in all of their work, who dressed in dreary clothing and were universally ordinary. Cheh would instead throw his cast in an assortment of brightly colored outfits that seemed more fitting for astronauts than for actual turn of the century martial artists. You know what though? That’s the point and that is partially what makes his work so great, in that he creates a different atmosphere and a different universe for his characters.

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!

The Trivia
  • The consensus holds that this was one of the very last films to truly be considered a “Venoms” title.

  • The Image Video DVD release of the film is easily the best version of the movie currently available, but is unfortunately missing over twenty minutes worth of footage. The remaining footage was unable to be restored and thus was simply cut out.

  • The Conclusion
    It isn’t the best nor the worst in the career of these filmmakers. With some solid plot structure and a more jaunting pace, this could have been a classic. The choreography is spectacular as usual, but I must admit it takes some trudging to actually get to the epic fight sequences. I give the movie a three out of five, due mainly to the charismatic leads and the always blistering fight sequences which are quite spectacular. Particularly in the final minutes, where we see many excellent weapons put to great use. For Chang Cheh and Venoms fans, this is a must see. For those not initiated with the genre, this is something you need to come back to eventually. Either way it goes, it deserves a look.