The Butterfly Murders (1979)
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I've written before about the collision of horror and science fiction, like in The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein and Son of Frankenstein (1930). But science fiction isn't the only place you can find horror elements. Sometimes, they can be found in unexpected places, like martial arts films and butterflies.
Lepidopterophobia: The fear of butterflies.😱🦋
How phobias develop is still up for debate, but several theories exist. Classical conditioning is one of those theories. Classical conditioning, in practice: imagine that every time you saw a butterfly—an emoji like the one above, a drawing, a photo, or a real one—a man in black armor appeared from nowhere and chopped off one of your fingers. After seeing two butterflies (and losing two of your fingers), you'd likely develop an intense fear of anything related to butterflies.
While martial arts and butterflies may seem relatively unrelated to horror to most, we're about to look at just one of many times these things have crossed paths.
The Butterfly Murders: Wuxia & Horror Collide
Wuxia is a term from the Mandarin Chinese language (Mandarin: 武俠／武侠) that literally translates to "martial heroes." It's a fiction genre typically dealing with martial artists' adventures in Ancient China. Wuxia is a genre that often blends elements from non-martial arts into a rich world of action, fighting, adventure—and awesome kills.
The word "wuxia" isn't pronounced how it's spelled, at least to native English speakers. It's more like "ooO-shah." That will get you to a somewhat passable pronunciation and certainly better than "wuck-see-uh." Listen to a native Mandarin speaker say it here on Forvo for a better idea. To learn even more about this specific term's pronunciation and a tiny bit about tones in Mandarin, check out How to pronounce Wuxia, Xianxia, Jianghu, Wulin and Qi!
If I ask where to find the "best" kills in film, you might answer "horror slashers." (By best, I mean most gruesome, over-the-top, and sometimes ridiculous, with firetrucks full of blood spraying on camera.) Slashers tend to have bloody and imaginative depictions of death. But if you're a fan of fun kills, you shouldn't miss what wuxia offers. They've always given slashers and horror a run for their money on both kill count and entertaining deaths.
It's not just the inventive kills. Back in 1979, The Butterfly Murders was released. It was full of things we see in horror all the time: a spooky castle, a creepy legend, a mysterious killer in black (complete with a secret identity and reveal), a "trust no one" setup, a swarm of deadly insects, and even a murderous bird.
It's a movie you won't hear about in horror circles, and it's a bit obscure, so you may not even come across it in conversation about martial arts movies.
In fact, most of the information in English on it sums up the movie by simply stating, "Butterflies have apparently become a lethal weapon. Several rivals contend for a mysterious prize, using a variety of unusual weapons."
The Butterfly Murders was the directorial debut of a man named Tsui Hark. Think of it like a martial arts adventure restructured into a murder mystery, sprinkled with elements of Gothic horror and with a dash of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963).
The film follows the story of the Shum family and how they've recently fallen victim to an old curse unleashed upon them: killer butterflies. A traveling writer and two martial arts masters go to the Shum family castle after hearing about the killer butterflies.
As soon as they arrive, they find more evidence of murderous butterflies. Then, the butterflies attack, and the group finds shelter in the catacombs. (See? Pretty Gothic.)
When the butterflies take a short break from their murderous rampage, the group manages to cover one of the areas of the castle with netting. This keeps the butterflies out but also traps everyone inside. Unfortunately, there are other ways to get inside, and it's not just the butterflies that are killers...
The entire film is beautifully shot, with a foreboding atmosphere, great martial arts action, and inventive deaths. It even seems to be a bit self-aware and slightly poke fun at its own genre.
This article is intended to be mostly spoiler-free, so I'll stop there. But I will say that a character named "Green Shadow," played by Michelle Yim, is quite memorable.
Exploring Old Movies
I really enjoy exploring and learning about all things horror—no matter the source. For me, the concept of killer butterflies is another drop of dark water in my well of horror that I draw from when I create stories. But even before I started writing, these types of films fascinated me because there wasn't anything else like them. Movies like The Butterfly Murders are fun, entertaining, and full of unique ideas, action, and settings. Sure, parts of them didn't age very well, but that's part of the charm. So the next time you think about popping on a movie, take a quick look at film history. You might be surprised by what you find.
Relevant & Related
- Watch the movie trailer for The Butterfly Murders (1979).
- The actual movie is hard to track down, especially with English subtitles, so the best I can tell you is that you might start with a Google search.
- If you want to learn more about the wuxia genre (and I know you do), you can't go wrong with 2000 Years Evolution of the Wuxia Genre.
- Given that The Butterfly Murders seems relatively obscure, I was surprised to find an actual review of it on YouTube.
- There are a few interviews with the director Tsui Hark, and they're fascinating. Here's one where he discussed The Butterfly Murders and another one where he discusses a different film of his called A Chinese Ghost Story.
- Tsui Hark has had a prolific career in film and has dipped into horror quite a few times. One of those is a film from 2002 titled The Era of Vampires. It was released in North America as Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters. The story is about four martial arts masters on the trail of zombie vampires in 19th-Century China. It's available on YouTube for free! What! Don't miss it: Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters.
- If you enjoyed this article and want to read more horrific history, you might also like these: The Jiajing Emperor | Mirrors: Superstition, Mythology, Psychology, & Sanity | Hauntings of the Forbidden City in Beijing
- For more film-related articles I've written, check out these: The Spooky Bunch (1980) | Godzilla (1954) | Son of Frankenstein (1939) | Coffin Joe of Brazil | The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)