AKA SPOOKY ENCOUNTERS / AKA GHOST FIGHTS GHOST
Time to look at something a little different, which means an excuse for me to review an old-school Golden Harvest classic. Sometimes simply called Spooky Encounters depending which release you come across, the Western release title somehow fits more than the original translation. The overall plot concerns a series of mishaps which befall a hard working guy while his employer and his wife have an affair behind his back. Along the way comes across a few ghosts and more than one reanimated corpse, as well as other kinds of supernatural shenanigans. This is one of the early examples of the Chinese ‘hopping dead’ movies in which corpses (or sometimes vampires) are revived, but as they’re still stiff from rigour and have to jump around to attack. It’s weird but as a horror creation there’s nothing else quite like it.
He’s built like an elephant but moves like a monkey; Sammo Hung. While only Jackie Chan could ever get away with saying this about his old friend it’s never been more true than here, in a film where Sammo’s fugitive rickshaw operator ‘Bold Cheung’ leaps around after being possessed by the Monkey God in the final showdown. I’m not sure the kinds of gruesome things portrayed here ever happened in Journey to the West. Mixing both supernatural fantasy, horror and kung fu, it’s often absurd and frequently spectacular. This is up there with his best martial arts adventures and is probably tied with Odd Couple and Eastern Condors – which combined make for a good trilogy of different action flavours. But here were focusing on ghoulish thrills, so let’s take a look at those on offer.
Flying burial urns and voodoo dolls make appearances during the a which provides many absurd chuckles. The latter, which comes into play when Cheung’s adulterous boss hires a magician to get rid of him also creates some of the most intricate fight scenes. With his own arm under sinister influences he’s forced to try and stop himself hitting tea house patrons Evil Dead II style. They even have some head over heels backflips and crockery smashing, which suggests it led to Sam Raimi taking some inspiration. It’s just as impressive here, and of course they add more gravity defying moves to the sequence. In terms of actual fights however this is actually quite restrained, and most of them are saved until the third act.
Usually this would be a draw back for movies in this genre, but here it allows for the finale to be that much more spectacular. They throw all kinds of spells at the hero, and after framing him for murder he goes on the run only to come across more ghostly trouble. For the most part the zombies and spectres are pretty cheap looking, but it’s all lit well enough to maintain the atmosphere. The flaky grey skin is pretty neat in some shots but it’s not ideal. However the undead make up isn’t really the focus, and instead witchcraft being used to evoke the powers of evil is a major element. The constant chanting by the villainous wizard as he uses all kinds of incantations is ridiculous and sounds nothing like a real language, but it keeps silly tone going.
His ritual black magic does include a few ingredients which the squeamish won’t enjoy as chicken blood is drawn (on camera) to send the occupant of an unburied coffin to kill Cheung. After losing a bet he’s locked inside a tomb and must use … raw chicken eggs to fight the monster. That old chestnut. Luckily his new acquaintance, a more morally upstanding wizard, decides to help by interfering in the scheme. However even his tricks use some odd ingredients like dog’s blood (off camera). These inclusions are brief but the culture shock is still very real. But if you’re here to be spooked out I guess that’s part of the experience.
The same thing could be said of the very last scene where Cheung’s cheating wife tries to lie her way out of the aftermath, only to be drop kicked by him after he almost believes her. The standard kung-fu movie freeze frame ending will leave some viewers not knowing whether to laugh or not, even if she probably deserved it for being complicit in ruining several lives. Ultimately these questionable inclusions are very minor in the grand scheme of things and nothing here can be taken entirely seriously. It was made in Hong Kong in the ’80s. It’s worth it for the big sorcery showdown as the two wizards set up towering altars, both trying to attain more power by being closer to the heavens.
Their use of flamethrower magic impressive, as are the martial arts skills on show as they use the other characters to fight for them by proxy. A variety of spirits are summoned to possess the two puppet combatants, Cheung and his boss, and the mixture of weapon styles allows for changes in the fighting moves and in the personalities of the mythic characters being portrayed. The high pitched and high speed voices of the spirits they’re channelling is very silly, but so was the entire movie which proceeded this conclusion. This is a story where walking corpses do YMCA moves and ghosts explode after being hit with light from magic mirrors. If you need a mixture of hair raising stunts, Eastern folklore and bizarre characters then look no further.