Hopping vampires, Taoist rituals and cheating wives all sing together to create Sammo Hung’s rhapsodic supernatural martial arts comedy…
Bold Cheung’s nickname is well earned; a sucker for a ghostly dare and the bravest, good-natured buffoon in the village. His self-serving wife is less affable though. She’s sleeping with his boss, Master Tam (Wong Ha). Cheung (Sammo Hung) accidentally uncovers the affair, although not the man’s identity, leading Master Tam into hastily hiring an unscrupulous Taoist priest, Chin Hoi (Peter Chan) to knock off Cheung, so he can continue to knock up his wife. Cheung is challenged to stay the night in an old run-down temple by the Taoist’s assistant and, of course, he takes the bait. The Taoist’s more honourable partner, Tsui (Chung Fat) is unimpressed by his partner’s misuse of his Taoist magic for financial gain. He intercepts Cheung and gives him instructions on how to survive the night, thus cementing his role as Cheung’s protector for the rest of the film while Chin Hoi does his best to cast a death curse that sticks.
And what a rest of the film it is. Sammo Hung has put out films in a variety of genres and his ability to combine familiar, broad, international genres, (horror, thriller, crime, western, buddy) with martial arts, action and comedy is just one of the many things that make him stand out from his peers. Spooky Encounters’ narrative will be instantly recognisable to anyone who’s seen any Shaw Brothers horror; likeable protagonist, usually prone to bouts of bad luck, falls victim to a curse or vengeful acquaintance, often under the direction or employ of a disreputable Taoist priest. But Sammo also puts in so much more, so much so that every time I watch it I forget many of the memorable scenes are actually in Spooky Encounters rather than another, equally exceptional, Sammo film.
Before you judge and shout, at volume, paraphrasing Alan Partridge, ‘stop getting Sammo wrong!’ it’s not entirely my fault. No two scenes in Spooky Encounters seem to belong in the same film. Farcical set-pieces, that wouldn’t be out of place in a (good) Scooby Doo episode (such as when his friends play a prank on him pretending to be a ghost only to have the real ghost appear or my favourite involving a reanimated corpse who imitates Sammo) play alongside classic tea-house punch ups, hoping vampires and a little monkey kung fu; Sammo gets possessed by a monkey god. There’s even a clichéd jailbreak thrown in for good measure. All of which builds up to an iconic Taoist stand off where both priests stand atop high towers and try to magic each other to death. That bit I always remember.
Of course Sammo’s (hypnotic, hilarious) screen presence keeps everything somehow consistent and everything happens with more than enough energy that you probably won’t even notice that such a variety of scenes shouldn’t sit together.
Spooky Encounters isn’t the first horror / comedy / martial arts film (surely that’s the definition of ‘niche’?), Lau Kar-Leung beat him to it five years previous with his directorial debut, Spiritual Boxer, that, if memory serves correct, also had hopping vampires. [Sort of, and elaborated on in the sequel The Spiritual Boxer II, aka The Shadow Boxing – Ed.] Spooky Encounters is a stronger film though, with a wider international release, so is surely the more influential. It predates Yuen Woo-ping’s brilliantly ridiculous Miracle Fighters, which also combined the supernatural with slapstick comedy and martial arts, by a couple of years too.
As for the horror it’s more Hammer; bold, colourful and trashy (it also has a historical setting), than Shaw Brothers more exploitative fare, although vibrant primary colours, blue being the favourite, fill the frame like many a good Shaw Brothers films before it. Spooky Encounters is creepy at times too but mostly the tension is deliberately undercut by humour. The make-up is cheap but the vampires and reanimated corpses retain a crusty menace to them; all teeth and long sharp finger nails, and, like many Chinese vampires, are also in possession of great supernatural strength, making them ideal opponents for which to choreograph interesting fights for.
Spooky Encounters also has a rich Chinese cultural heritage, full of its own unique superstition, ritual and folklore from which to draw upon for it’s horror. This is key to what makes me return to Chinese horror again and again, they’re just so different from my favourite western horror.
The literal translation of the original title is, Ghost Fights Ghost. So, yes you get a lot of fighting, and, yes, some of it is involves the undead. And just because it’s a comedy this doesn’t mean any of Sammo’s cast get off lightly, especially not if they’re a chicken. The fights are as brutal as any of his other films (okay maybe not The Prodigal Son) and are full of Sammo’s trademark power, acrobatics and selective slow motion. Sammo directs with a level of sophistication far above the requirements of the film’s genre too, the camera is always in just the right place to capture the power of the fights (usually low and wide) and edited so as not to undermine the skill of the martial artists on screen. Keep an eye out also for the shoe that Cheung carries around with him, knowing it belongs to his wife’s secret lover, for the entire movie; it plays a small but vital role in the film’s finale.
If that still isn’t enough for you Spooky Encounters also marks, Mr Vampire himself, Lam Ching Ying’s first appearance in a horror movie! And although he’s not playing his iconic Taoist priest role, he’s a police inspector, he’s still given a handful of comedy and kung fu moments of his own in which to shine.
Spooky Encounters is just a gem of a crossover movie. I don’t recommend it just because it’s the first of many supernatural themed martial arts movies that Sammo (and Lam Ching Ying) would be involved with, such as the aforementioned Mr Vampire series, The Deadly and The Deadly, Hocus Pocus and the inevitable sequel, Spooky Encounters 2. No. Assuming you have a passing interest in at least one of the genres on offer, I recommend it because it’s just about as perfect a movie as you’re going to get, produced by one of Hong Kong’s finest and most talented film makers. 5 (vampire hopping) stars!