Bold Cheung (Sammo Hung) did not earn his name for nothing. To uphold his reputation as the bravest (some would say foolish) man in his turn-of-the-century Chinese town the portly kung fu hero agrees to spend the night in a spooky old abandoned house. As part of the agreement Cheung must also peel an apple in front of a mirror to disprove a local superstition that something bad will happen. A no-good friend seizes his chance to play a mean prank on Cheung, but then a real ghost shows up! After a narrow escape Cheung returns home unaware his slutty wife (Leung Suet-Mei) is having an affair with his employer, Master Tam (Huang Ha). Worried Cheung will find out, Tam tasks black magic sorcerer-for-hire Chin Hoi (Chan Lung) to get rid of him. However, fellow Taoist Priest Tsui (Chung Fat) is appalled to learn what his old partner is now up to. Tsui finds Cheung spending the night at yet another haunted temple where as result of Chin's black magic trickery, he ends up tangling with a coffin-sprung 'Jiangshi' or hopping vampire. Now the unwitting butt of all sorts of supernatural mayhem, Cheung seeks Tsui out to learn the tricks of supernatural kung fu and turn the tables on his tormentors.
Along with Tsui Hark's visceral Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind this was the second Hong Kong film released in 1980 with a title to cash-in on Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) despite having nothing to do with UFOs. With Encounters of the Spooky Kind, stuntman turned superstar actor-director Sammo Hung gave Hong Kong horror its distinctive voice. Prior to then venerable Shaw Brothers auteur Lau Kar-Leung field-tested similar ideas with his innovative though uneven Spiritual Boxer (1975). However it was Hung who truly set the template for the fast-paced blend of comedy, kung fu and wacky supernatural lore that spawned the likes of the Mr. Vampire (1985) series, which he also produced, and A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) along with lesser known gems like Kung Fu from Beyond the Grave (1982) and Hello Dracula (1985). Future Mr. Vampire star, and staple of Hung's acting company, Lam Ching-Ying appears here not in his stock role as ghost-busting occult know-it-all but a police inspector hot on Bold Cheung's trail when he is framed for murder.
In traditional Taoist beliefs the divisions between the spirit world and our own are blurred. Ghosts and demons can be invoked, appeased or occasionally manipulated by means of feng shui mirrors, burning incense or even a certain variety of sticky rice! In Hong Kong it is not uncommon for people to burn paper 'hell money' for deceased relatives to spend in the netherworld or in some extreme cases paper food, paper bikes or paper game consoles. Unlike say Hammer horror films, although the undead are regarded with a degree of fear, relations with the living are not entirely antagonistic. Hence, in Encounters of the Spooky Kind the 'Jianghi' reanimated corpse or hopping vampire is merely part of a supernatural arsenal pitted against hapless hero Bold Cheung, not really any different from a poison dart or booby trap in a plot that is equal parts The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Black Magic (1975) and a Three Stooges movie. Rather than a Christopher Lee-styled satanic schemer bent on world domination, the evil sorcerer is more akin to a hit-man in a film noir thriller, a low-rent killer for hire slinging spells just to earn a crust. In Hung's film, selfish ordinary people such as Cheung's adulterous wife and manipulative boss are far nastier and more dangerous than abstract supernatural forces.
Hung's martial arts background infuses his unique attitude to the supernatural. The underlining philosophy behind martial arts is to enable a hero to overcome all obstacles in their path including ghosts and goblins. At its root is the idea that the universe can be interactive provided you know how to push the right buttons. Not that it is easy or even dignified as poor old Cheung endures such humiliations as possession by monkey god or, in a possible nod to Kwaidan (1964), having his not exactly svelte naked body painted with ghost-warding Taoist symbols. This complex, semi-benevolent attitude to the paranormal is very different from the fear at the root of much mainstream western horror, which is chiefly: the loss of control to outside forces. Coupled with the traditional Hong Kong film fondness for outrageous genre mash-ups combining scenes of genuine visceral terror with slapstick silliness and hi-octane action, this made HK horror something of an acquired taste for an international audience. Nevertheless a fervent fan-base sprang up around these films and arguably permeated the mainstream through Joss Whedon's seminal television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, to a lesser extent, the Blade films. Sadly these two schools of thought could not co-exist for long. Following the rise of J-horror, the dismissive attitude of the mainland Chinese censor (who famously removed vampires from the sequel to massive hit The Twins Effect (2003)) and young HK film-goers being exposed to mainstream American tastes, the old style of Cantonese horror eventually died out. Hopping vampires eventually returned in far darker, humourless form in Rigor Mortis (2013) which renders the once-dauntless Taoist ghost-busters of yore downtrodden, vulnerable and scared witless.
Which leaves Sammo Hung's trail-blazing masterwork even more worth cherishing. Paced at lightning speed, the film essentially updates old Chinese theatrical devices, combining kung fu with old-fashioned optical effects and sleight of hand trickery that really works. A killer combo of crazy comedy, jaw-dropping stunt-work and mind-blowing occult lore, Encounters of the Spooky Kind is an essential Hong Kong film.
Hong Kong born actor, producer and director and one of the best known figures in Hong Kong cinema. Hung's large frame belies a formidable martial arts ability, and he's best known for his collaborations with Jackie Chan during the 1980s and more recently for his US TV show Martial Law.