Sammo Hung was an innovator in so many ways that it’s easy to forget just how influential he was in determining the style and look of the martial arts films of the late 70s and early 80s. A veteran of the Seven Little Fortunes peking opera company and previously stunt-man and choreographer at Shaw Brothers, Sammo always had work but would find massive success after Jackie Chan’s breakthrough roles in SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW and DRUNKEN MASTER, playing a variety of overweight, bufoonish characters who either posessed, or were trained to possess, massive kung-fu skill. But Sammo was certainly more than just a martial arts star, he also continued to innovate through his choreography, his stunt team, and, eventually, his direction – which pushed the boundries of the Golden Harvest formula into places well beyond most of his contemporaries.
Perhaps the most original (and later lucrative) of his ideas involved the mixture of the sturdy kung-fu comedy with elements of the supernatural. Following THE EXORCIST, CARRIE, HALLOWEEN and THE OMEN, horror was having a large mainstream impact on the late 70s, but was still – like the humble kung-fu film – seen as a “low” genre by many. The previous attempts at mixing the two genres – most notably the brief partnership between Hammer Studios and the Shaw Brothers – produced mixed results, and didn’t focus heavily on the unique mythical elements which would make ENCOUNTERS OF THE SPOOKY KIND (and the many films it spawned) so fascinating. Pulling from SPIRITUAL BOXING, zombie films, and even the colored filters of the Italian giallos, Sammo created a whole new genre that would serve to take martial arts audiences – who probably didn’t expect moments of outright horror – by storm.
The film begins with a dream sequence with Sammo being tormented by two vengeful spirits trapped in funeral urns. It’s oddly reminiscent – and not for the last time – of Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD films, particularly when skeletal hands burst forth, eventually unleashing two demons who (graphically) bite Sammo, before the opening credits start to roll. It’s a rather odd opening, but accurately displays the unique mix of comedy, martial arts and supernatural horror that will define the rest of the film. It’s also the most graphic violence in the film, which generally takes a lighter touch towards its scares.
Post credits, Bold Cheung (Sammo Hung) wakes suddenly from his dream. His wife (Leung Suet Mei) chastises him repeatedly, particularly when he asks her where her new clothes have come from. Cheung works as an assistant for the wealthy Master Tam (Huang Ha), and he leaves quickly to meet up with some friends at a local inn. Ah dooh (To Siu Ming) seems unimpressed with Cheung’s boasts of bravery, and suggests he prove himself by taking part in a rousing game of peel-apple. For those unaware (like me), Peel-Apple involves lighting some candles and looking in a mirror at exactly midnight, while you attempt to peel an apple with a knife without breaking the skin. If the skin breaks, there will be HORRIBLE CONSEQUENCES.
It should be noted that the events of the film take place during the traditional Chinese Ghost Festival, where ancestors are worshiped and ghosts are said to roam the earth. Many of the ceremonies and “magic” present in the film are based on actual taoist beliefs, and Sammo had experts in withcraft consulting on-set – though obviously the final results end up being necessarily exaggerated.
So, to prove his bravery (and get a free breakfast) Cheung heads to an abandoned building at midnight and starts peeling an apple. Things seem to be going well until a gust of wind and leaves blow suddenly through the window, causing him to break the skin. Suddenly a long-tongued vampire woman appears in the mirror, frightening Cheung until he realizes that the spooky apparition is wearing men’s shoes. It’s actually Ah dooh in costume, and the wind and leaves were caused by two other friends trying to teach him a lesson. Cheung is pissed (“you scared the shit out of me!”), but Ah dooh calms him down by showing how he pulled off the trick with a false mirror. However, a REAL ghost appears in the mirror, pulling Ah dooh inside before grabbing Cheung with its incredibly long arms. Cheung chops off the arm at the wrist before stabbing the creature, just barely escaping as the entire house collapses around him. Whew. This scene has little impact on the rest of the film – and its odd that Bold Cheung doesn’t seem traumatized by these events – but it certainly sets up the “reality” of the supernatural elements during the Ghost Festival.
The next day Cheung brings a hidden Master Tam to a whorehouse. He doesn’t want to be seen visiting a house of ill-repute, but he loves the danger! While he’s waiting for Tam to get off, Cheung begins to suspect his wife is being unfaithful – a feeling spurred when Uncle Fok (who makes him sweet tofu) tells a story of his own wife’s infidelity. Seeing two older men peeping at his door, he looks in to find his wife in bed with another man! Though he doesn’t know it, the other man is actually Master Tam, who has been intentionally keeping Cheung busy while he screws around with his wife. Cheung rushes in, too late to discover who was in the room, and yells at his wife. She denies his accusations as the townspeople rush in, but Cheung finds a forgotten shoe on the floor and dedicates himself to finding the owner. Like some twisted variation on CINDERELLA.
Master Tam, recognizing how close he was to getting caught, decides that it’s time to get rid of Bold Cheung for good. His advisor (Tai Bo) knows of someone skilled in witchcraft who can take care of Cheung easily, and the two hire the devious Chin Hoi (Peter Chan). Chin Hoi is enthusiastic to use his skills for financial gain, while his partner Priest Tsui (Chung Fat) tries to remind him of what their master taught them – they must not be greedy, they must not kill, and they must not insult their god. Chin Hoi scoffs at the moralizing, while Tsui leaves in a huff.
Chin Hoi’s plan is rather simple. He hires someone to offer Cheung 10 taels of silver if he’s able to stay overnight in a supposedly haunted temple. Hoi then plans to use his black magic to resurrect a Jiang Shi – a hopping vampire – which will then finish Cheung off for good. The plan might have worked, but Bold Cheung runs into Tsui (literally) on his way to the temple, who gives him some very specific advice to deal with the “spooky encounters”. He’s to climb into the rafters of the temple at 2:20, while at 4 AM he’s to hide underneath a coffin. Then he just needs to wait until 5 AM when the sun comes up. No problem!
Jiang Shi have little resemblance to the North American view of vampires, and in this film have as much in common with zombies. They hop around due to rigor mortis with their arms outstretched, and have the ability to move in various unnatural ways. They sometimes have extended, sharp nails and long, lizard-like tongues, and – at least in later films like the MR. VAMPIRE series – can only find their victims by detecting their breathing. Once 2:20 hits, the Jiang Shi leaps from its coffin and starts hopping around in search of Bold Cheung, who hides in the rafters. Eventually he moves under the coffin instead, and is discovered just as the sun comes up. Whew.
Almost comatose, Bold Cheung wanders out of the temple, where he (ridiculously) agrees to spend another night in the temple for 50 taels of silver. Now, he made this agreement in a rather harried state, and any reasonable person would just have said “fuck it” and not show up, but this is BOLD CHEUNG, so to hell with that. Of course, he’s still terrified, so he goes to visit Tsui who suggests that he collect 50 chicken eggs, four dog’s legs and dog’s blood. When the coffin opens at 2 AM, he’s to throw a chicken egg inside. If he continues to throw an egg inside every time the coffin opens, by the time he’s thrown all 50 it’ll be morning. Alternatively, if the eggs are ineffective he’s to use the dog’s legs and blood as a last resort. Of course, while Tsui is VERY SPECIFIC that they have to be chicken eggs, the marketer runs out and replaces a bunch with duck eggs instead. Uh oh. We do, however, get treated to a scene of Sammo bringing a dog to a slaughterhouse. Eww.
That night Cheung is back in the temple, and things seem to be going fairly well. The coffin opens, and he throws an egg in. Rinse and repeat. Until he unwittingly throws in a duck egg and the Jiang Shi goes apeshit. We cut back to Chin Hoi beginning another ceremony, and he’s not taking any chances. This leads to the film’s first major fight, and it’s a fascinating one as Cheung has to battle a straight limbed hopping vampire who has a speed and strength advantage. Almost beaten, Cheung uses the dog’s legs (and blood) against the creature, which breaks the spell and sends Chin Hoi flying through the air and into Master Tam’s roof. Painful stuff. Check out the whole thing here:
Everything from here on out is amazing. Bold Cheung arrives home to see the two men peeping in his door. Suspecting his wife is cheating on him once again, he breaks in only to find the room ransacked and blood on the floor. What’s more, the local Inspector (played by the late, great Lam Ching-ying) arrives and accuses him of murdering his wife – a theory supported by the variety of townspeople who say they were constantly arguing and that Cheung has threatened her in the past. He’s taken to prison, but – after a suspicious visit from Master Tam – escapes and hides in a nearby crypt. In fact, he sleeps right next to a corpse, and accidentally brings it back to life by touching it in his sleep. But this creature – very much a zombie – just repeats all of Cheung’s movements (which leads to a GREAT gag involving a brick), until a black cat wanders by and the creature goes APESHIT. Yep, that’s bad luck. The corpse starts chasing Cheung, who finds himself running towards the Inspector, eventually sending the creature directly into the Inspector, who orders his men to burn the body.
Sammo escapes again, this time finding Priest Tsui preparing bodies for burial. He hides inside an empty coffin, and narrowly avoids being discovered by the Inspector, who pretends to looks inside the coffin but is too afraid to actually open his eyes. Impressed (and believing Cheung to be innocent) Tsui asks him to work as his assistant until this whole MURDER CHARGE thing blows over. Oh, and he brings up the shoe that he discovered on his floor much earlier in the film. Will that play into something coming up? IT MIGHT.
Some time later Tsui and Bold Cheung wander into a restaurant to grab something to eat. While eating, Cheung suddenly loses control of his arm – Bruce Campbell in EVIL DEAD II style – and begins assaulting Tsui and the other customers. Suspecting foul play, Tsui heads off to confront a nearby Chin Hoi (and has a great, brief fight with him) while Sammo has to contend with the arriving Inspector and his men. What follows might be Sammo’s finest martial arts sequence, and shows off some amazing choreography and his awe-inspiring acrobatic skills. In fact, my description couldn’t possibly do it justice. Check it out:
I mean, that’s just INSANE. Even ignoring Sammo’s trademark rotund figure, the fluid movements and complicated sequences are just a joy to behold. The scene ends with Tsui, who has managed to get the better of Chin Hoi, using some of his own magic to turn the Inspector’s men against him. Tsui reveals that Chin Hoi had been using Cheung’s birth date in his ceremony, something only known by his wife and Master Tam. COULD IT BE? Tsui decides he’s going to protect Cheung by any means necessary.
This involves painting incantations all over Bold Cheung’s naked body. And getting him to wear a woman’s red slip. Hey, I don’t make the rules. Chin Hoi sends over three weird zombie creatures to attack the pair, and they have a brief scuffle before fighting them off. Deciding that enough is enough, Cheung and Tsui head to Master Tam’s house to have their final confrontation. This is aiming to get awesome. And it does.
So, apparently in Taoist magic the person with the highest altar is the one with the strongest magic, as a high alter brings you closer to the heavens. Chin Hoi has his altar mounted high in the air, but Tsui and Cheung one-up him by rolling a portable alter in, that they then hand-crank it until it extends to match Chin Hoi’s. Tsui and Cheung have a battle of magic, which ends up involving SPIRITUAL BOXING. In this case, Tsui and Chin Hoi call upon the spirits to enter their various assistants and have them face off. Bold Cheung is inhabited by the Monkey God while Chin Hoi’s lackey (played by Yuen Mao) is possessed by Nacha, the kid warrior who wields a ring. The two have a brief, but completely amazing, fight.
After besting the assistant, Chin Hoi throws an enchanted sword to Master Tam, while Tsui possesses Bold Cheung (still wearing the red slip) with the spirit of the female war God Mrs. Ho. They have a tremendous fight, with the slip eventually being torn – breaking the magic. Outgunned, Tsui remembers THE SHOE, which he gets Cheung to throw to him. Using an item belonging to Master Tam, he breaks Chin Hoi’s spell which breaks Tam’s spell as well. A furious Cheung stabs Master Tam with the sword, while the two Taoist magic masters have an old fashioned magic fight, sending streams of fire at one another. Just when it appears Chin Hoi has the upper hand, Cheung chops at his altar, sending him off balance and allowing Tsui to surround him with flames. This leads to a great stunt where a burning Peter Chan takes a dangerous looking leap off of the alter onto the ground. Ouch. Unfortunately, Tsui is in bad shape as well, and – despite Bold Cheung’s best efforts to catch him – falls off his own altar to his death.
The film ends with a truly bizarre moment. Cheung is distraught, and his wife – who had been willingly hiding with Master Tam – runs out and feigns that she was kidnapped. She pretends to cry, and Cheung suddenly BEATS THE SHIT OUT OF HER. I mean he punches her repeatedly in the stomach, before picking her up over his head and throwing her while screaming “I know you’re lying!!”. Yeah, this happens! It’s an odd ending, though is obviously meant to be comical. Admittedly, Cheung’s wife is shown to be an absolutely awful person, but it makes for a rather disconcerting – though certainly memorable – ending.
Doesn’t that just sound nutty? It might take some adjusting to get used to some of the wonderfully bizarre customs which would become regular features of supernatural kung-fu movies, but at their best they make for deliriously fun and unpredictable viewing. ENCOUNTERS OF THE SPOOKY KIND would influence a whole decade of supernatural horror films, from the Sammo Hung produced MR. VAMPIRE series (which would give Lam Ching-ying his most famous role as the unibrowed Taoist priest) to Tsui Hark’s A CHINESE GHOST STORY series. Perhaps more importantly, it showed that audiences would accept martial arts films with slightly higher concepts and visual effects; a precursor to the higher budgeted Jackie Chan-starring kung-fu films that were come. Finally, it showed just how far Sammo’s abilities as a director had come in just a few short years – and his productions would get even larger and more polished from here.
Those expecting non-stop kung-fu action might find themselves initially disappointed by ENCOUNTERS OF THE SPOOKY KIND, which takes its time getting to the martial arts action. However, the film’s second half is a non-stop stream of incredible fighting and effective scares, and is ably set up by the film’s first half. As with many martial arts films of the time, it feels a bit disjointed, but things eventually settle down before the truly original finale blows things into the stratosphere. Sammo is in rare form, and he assembled a familiar and talented supporting cast who are all working at the top of their game. A must-see for those interested in horror or kung-fu, and an important film in the development of the martial arts film in the 1980s.
NEXT WEEK: ZU WARRIORS OF THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN (1983)