Encounter of the Spooky Kind (aka Spooky Encounters)
Hong Kong 1981
Directed by Sammo Hung Kam Bo.


In one of the earliest examples of the horror-comedy genre, we can see the concepts of the genre taking shape: the Taoist priest, the undead, and the slapstick comedy are all there. But unlike later horror-comedy movies, Enounter of the Spooky Kind sticks closely to traditional Chinese beliefs about ghosts, corpses, and the Tao, instead of merging them with Hollywood monsters and vampires.

In one of the earliest examples of the horror-comedy genre, we can see the concepts of the genre taking shape: the Taoist priest, the undead, and the slapstick comedy are all there. But unlike later horror-comedy movies, Enounter of the Spooky Kind sticks closely to traditional Chinese beliefs about ghosts, corpses, and the Tao, instead of combining and confusing these beliefs with Hollywood monsters and vampires. So in this movie we see an evil priest who animates a dead body to kill our hero, whereas in Mr. Vampire 2 we see people recognizing the same type of corpse as a Vampire that drinks blood, fears sunlight, and can be killed by a stake through the heart.

Our hero in Encounter of the Spooky Kind is 'Courageous' Cheung (Sammo Hung), a brash, poor, uneducated carriage driver who suspects his wife is having an affair. We can almost sympathize with her in this when we see what a truly pathetic slob Cheung is, but I was won over to Cheung's side whenever she spoke in her nasal, piercing, whining, bitchy tone.

Cheung is short on work because of the 'Ghost Festival,' a traditional festival which is still celebrated today, occuring in the seventh lunar month, usually corresponding to some time in August. The festival lasts about a week, and at this time the gates of hell are said to open, and the lost souls of the unjust and evil are set free.

'Courageous' Cheung prides himself on being the bravest man in the village. He never turns down a dare. When one of his friends challenges him to a chillingly titled game of 'peel-an-apple' he doesn't refuse. The game ends up killing his friend, serving as a grim reminder to all of us who so nonchalantly slice fruit to be careful what we peel. Apparently not having learned his lesson, when a stranger challenges him to spend the night in the temple for ten taels of silk, he accepts the dare again. But what he doesn't know is that this dare was carefully orchestrated by Master Tam, the wealthiest man in town, who is the man Cheung's wife is sleeping with. Master Tam had to duck out the window once when Cheung got home, so he decides to have him killed, so he can cuckold his wife in peace. Master Tam's assistant knows of a Taoist priest who will do anything for money, and sure enough the priest agrees to kill Cheung. The priest's younger brother, Chin Tsui, does not approve, however, and so goes out to try to foil his older brother's plans. Chin Tsui befriends Cheung, and after a few slight of hand tricks gives him advice that keeps him alive not just for one night in the temple but two.

The evil priest works hard for his money -- setting up an altar in Master Tam's house and performing complex rituals with chickens, bells, fire, and the other usual tools. He succeeds in animating a corpse to attack Cheung, but does not succeed in killing him. The corpse is dressed in Ming period garb and is what will be described in subsequent films as a 'Chinese Vampire' -- but here he is simply a dead body employed by the Taoist priest for his evil purposes. On the second night in the temple, 'Courageous' Cheung seems done for -- the chicken eggs he was protecting himself with were mixed in with bad eggs by the egg seller in the market and so did not have the magical powers they were expected to have (those merchants really have got to be watched). Luckily, earlier that day our hero had a cute little puppy taken to the butcher and drained of blood, so he could use the blood against the animated corpse. Gee, I like him more and more all the time.

Since the priest failed, Master Tam has Cheung framed for murder, and sent to jail under the watchful eye of the police constable, played by Lam Ching-Ying. It's a little disconcerting to see him not playing a priest in a movie about Taoist priests and the undead. But then, this was before his career-defining performance in Mr. Vampire. By Encounter of the Spooky Kind 2, he appears in his usual role as sifu, and all is right again in the world.

Cheung escapes from jail, and the good priest Tsui agrees to help him again. Well, actually he keeps saying 'You're on your own,' but then keeps helping him anyway. Must be a Taoist thing. The evil priest returns with his own grudge, and in the end the two brothers must fight each other the only way they know how -- through Taoist magic. Apparently there is some benefit in higher ground when uttering incantations, and watching them try to make their altars the highest is hilarious. They then summon a series of Chinese Gods, including the Monkey God, who come and possess the bodies of Master Tam and Cheung, who take on the attributes of the God summoned as they fight one another.

The movie has a very episodic quality to it. It begins with a dream sequence, then a dare, then two nights in the temple, then jail, etc. etc., each scene only tenuously connected to the last. By the end of the movie I couldn't remember if the beginning was part of a different movie or if I was still watching the same one. 'Courageous' Cheung is no kind of hero. He doesn't evolve or mature at all through his experiences, in fact, no one does. Each person is who he is. Those that survive, survive unchanged.

On the other hand, I found the fact that the characters were genuinely afraid of the supernatural phenomena refreshing. In later films of the horror-comedy genre, the vampires and zombies are mostly comic relief, and no one is frightened by them for very long. Here though, Cheung, far from being 'courageous' is, in his own words, 'scared shitless' by ghosts. Even Lam Ching-Ying is too afraid to open his eyes when confronted by a rotting, decaying corpse. In the world of this film, the Taoist priests can run roughshod over the villagers, all of whom are uneducated and superstitious. Even the good Taoist priest possesses Cheungs body with careless disregard when he feels it is necessary.

I can recommend Encounter of the Spooky Kind not only because it has kung-fu fights, ghosts, and zombies, but because it made me think a little about superstitious fear and the power gained by those who learn to use that fear to their own advantage.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 25, 2004.


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