Incredibly, Sammo Hung had already been involved in over 100 films before he made his name with Encounter of the Spooky Kind in 1980. This horror comedy not only popularised the sub-genre of Jiangshi (stiff corpse) that would reach its zenith with the excellent Mr Vampire, but provide a showcase for the amazing skills of its (relatively) roly-poly director and star. As energetic, inventive and restless as its main man, this madcap hybrid works decidedly better in some areas than others. But it can still draw gasps of disbelief, whether at Hung’s athleticism, or at some of its absurd plot developments.
Hung plays Courageous (or ‘Big Guts’ in the subtitles) Cheung, a humble pedicab driver in early 1900s whose wife (Suet-Mei Leung) is engaged in an affair with his employer Tam (Ha Huang). After nearly being caught by Cheung, Tam resolves to kill his employee. Using Cheung’s self-proclaimed bravery against him, the dastardly Tam tricks him into spending a night at an eerie temple. He also employs the services of unscrupulous necromancer Choi (a scenery-chewing Lung Chan) to off Cheung using supernatural means that couldn’t be traced back to him. Choi’s underling Tsui (Fat Chung) is appalled by his master’s actions, and resolves to assist Cheung through a series of undead mishaps.
Essentially a string of highly entertaining set-pieces, Encounter of the Spooky Kind balances its comedy and horror in a way much closer to Scooby Doo then Evil Dead II, although its easy to see certain scenes here firing Sam Raimi‘s imagination, such as an incredible piece of physicality from Hung involving a possessed hand. That is not to say Hung is incapable of generating tension. The first night at the temple sees Cheung involved in a tensely-staged game of hide and seek with a vampire (Yuen Biao, also fight choreographer), a scene that plays like Soviet classic Viy filtered through a Hausu prism. However, the film is played primarily as a vehicle for Hung’s self-effacing personality and stunning athleticism. Fat Chung and the late, great Lam Ching-Ying also get to showcase some serious skills, but Hung gets the bulk of the plaudits. In a stunning 20 minute sequence he adopts two different fighting styles as Cheung is possessed by two different gods, the physical prowess involved matched only by its insanity.
This lunacy, along with the ancient spiritual dimension, is occasionally disorientating. At times, the film’s immersion in Taoist traditions can be baffling to the casual Western viewer. Coupled with the Jiangshi hopping vampire myth, the Chinese take on the supernatural may be too unfamiliar for some. For some however, it will give the story a real sense of unpredictability. This adds a real zest to the universal language of slapstick comedy. Hung also demonstrates an irreverence for the ancient principles that keeps the balance tipped in favour of the comic. And it never quite reaches the heights of bewilderment reached by movies like Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, or recent Netflix release The Yinyang Master.
Encounters of the Spooky Kind unfortunately also leans into another less savoury aspect of Hung’s style. Like his later work in the Lucky Stars films, there is an unpleasant streak of misogyny culminating in one unfeasibly misguided scene. Unlike in those later films, where this old-fashioned sexism is slightly tempered by the characters’ relatively harmless buffoonery, there is a real virulence that leaves a nasty taste. Animal lovers would also do well to make note of a scene in which Choi decapitates a live chicken as part of a ritual.
Fuelled by both the best and worst of Hung’s style, Encounter of the Spooky Kind is an otherwise vastly entertaining and charming kung-fu action comedy let down by some worryingly outdated attitudes. Especially as this nasty streak is played for laughs. If that can be viewed as one of a few unsavoury aspects rather than an outright deal-breaker then this is both an impressive and endearingly silly treat.
Available on Blu-ray now