AKA SPOOKY ENCOUNTERS / AKA GHOST FIGHTS GHOST
I don’t need much of a reason to talk about an old-school Golden Harvest classic, but one with a touch of the supernatural is a good excuse. Sometimes simply called Spooky Encounters depending which version you come across, the Western release title feels like a better fit for what’s in store. At first the plot concerns a series of mishaps which befall an everyday guy, while his employer and his wife have an affair behind his back. But soon he comes across a few ghosts and more than one reanimated corpse, as well as other kinds of ghoulish shenanigans. It’s also an example of Hong Kong ‘hopping dead’ movies in which corpses (or sometimes vampires) are revived, but they’re still stiff from rigour and have to jump around to attack. It’s weird, creative and 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. It’s 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 for the top spot. Combined these make for a good trilogy of different action flavours. But here we’ll be focusing on horror themed thrills.
Flying burial urns and voodoo dolls make appearances during a movie which provides a variety of absurd chuckles. The latter comes into play when Cheung’s adulterous boss hires a magician (as you do) to get rid of him. This means that the sequence also 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. There’s even some head over heels backflips and crockery smashing, suggesting Sam Raimi may have taken some inspiration. It’s just as impressive, and of course being a martial arts movie more gravity defying moves are added to the mix. On the other hand, in terms of actual fights, this is quite restrained. Most of them are saved until the third act but they’re worth waiting for.
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. He escapes but soon comes 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 even if it’s not ideal. However the living dead make up isn’t really the focus, and the witchcraft being used to control the powers of evil is a major element. The constant chanting by the villainous wizard as he uses all kinds of incantations is ridiculous. It sounds nothing like a real language and keeps silly tone going.
Silly but sinister is probably a good description. His ritual black magic does include a few ingredients which the squeamish won’t enjoy as chicken blood is drawn (on camera). It’s part of a plan to make the occupant of an unburied coffin kill Cheung. He’s been locked in the tomb after losing a bet, we’ve all been there. Using raw chicken eggs to fight the monster? That’s something new. Luckily he meets a new acquaintance, a more morally upstanding wizard, who 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 seems to believe her. The standard kung-fu movie freeze frame ending will leave some viewers not knowing whether to laugh or not. Even if she probably deserves 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 ever taken entirely seriously. It was made in Hong Kong in the 1980s after all. A few dated moments are worth getting through for a big sorcery showdown as the two wizards set up towering altars. Things reach new heights, literally, as both try to attain power by being closer to the heavens.
Their use of flamethrower magic impressive, and so are the martial arts skills on show. Using the other characters to fight for them by proxy certainly results in a novel conclusion. A variety of spirits are summoned to possess the two puppet combatants, Bold Cheung and his scheming boss. The mixture of weapon styles allows for multiple changes in the fighting moves, as well as the personalities of the characters they’re possessed by. The high pitched (and high speed) voices of the spirits they’re channelling are absurd, but so was the entire movie which proceeded this finale. This is a story where walking corpses do YMCA moves. Ghosts explode after being hit with light from magic mirrors. Did I mention the egg scene? If you need a mixture of hair raising stunts, Eastern folklore and bizarre characters then look no further.