With the rent long overdue plus a baby on the way, poor, luckless Keung (Charlie Chin) searches desperately for a job. He eventually finds work as an after hours security guard at a commercial building and strikes up an instant rapport with his fellow night watchmen. One night Keung is lured inside an elevator that inexplicably fills with water before descending into a basement shrouded in green fog. The doors open to reveal a wall on which scrawled in blood is a creepy childlike figure. On hearing an eerie high pitched squeal, Keung flees the scene. But when he returns with his colleagues they find nothing out of the ordinary. Shortly thereafter fellow guard Big Hulk (Wong Ching) chokes on his stew in front of the horrified men. He then freaks out in surgery and almost murders the surgeon before expiring in a spray of blood. Then Keung finds Old Uncle Han (Chan Shen) smothered to death in his home by living newspapers. At the funeral wise Taoist sorcerer Master Chiu (Yueh Hua) takes note of the bad vibes surrounding Keung and his surviving friends Fatty (Kent Cheng) and Little Ting (Hui Bing-Sam). He grows especially concerned when Fatty's normally docile dog reacts violently to Keung's pregnant wife Lan (Dorothy Yu). It seems Keung has been targeted by a restless spirit with malevolent intentions.
Horror stories are often commentaries on the correct way to behave in society. More often than not characters that stray from the rules suffer an unpleasant fate while the virtuous get to live another day. This ethos is especially apparent in Hong Kong horror, indeed Asian horror in general, only more dogmatic and complex. Fate and karma are significant factors in Asian horror. In Hong Kong horror films things like feng shui or even someone's birth date play a major role in determining one's fate. A fate that is all but inescapable. Jackie Chan once commented on his distaste for a popular belief in Chinese culture that one should avoid people who suffered great misfortune lest we be tainted by their bad luck. This idea manifests in The Imp wherein Keung's friends all suffer freak deaths as result of his 'unlucky' presence. The weight of responsibility eventually drives poor Keung to an impossible dilemma. When he chooses compassion over self-preservation it seals his doom. The unsavoury message here tries to justify putting yourself first and turning one's back on people in need, but if the measure of a scary movie is how disturbing it is conceptually then The Imp is undeniably an effective, unsettling work of horror.
Dennis Yu dabbled in a variety of genres throughout a relatively brief directing career but showed a particular talent for horror: e.g. The Beasts (1980), his stab at a Last House on the Left-style revenge thriller, and the flawed, goofy but interesting Evil Cat (1987). The Imp stands as his strongest genre effort. Beginning in very low-key, slice of life fashion the plot is grounded in the mundane yet relatable concerns of decent people in financial desperation before gradually escalating into surreal, supernatural terror. Influenced by Hollywood films like Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976), Yu focuses on a husband and father to be slowly cracking up, not solely through unearthly influence but also pressure to provide for his family. The film was among several attempts by Taiwanese matinee idol Charlie Chin to break away from the sentimental romances for which he was best known. He is highly compelling here as an unusually vulnerable, even pitiful male lead. Veteran Yueh Hua brings the weight of decade's worth of martial arts heroes to his role as the ghost-busting Taoist sifu while co-star Kent Cheng (later a multi award-winning character actor) injects mild levity with his amusing T-shirts but also figures in one of the film's scariest scenes.
The Imp is a rare HK horror film with a thoughtful, measured pace. Yu wisely takes time to detail Keung's relationship with his wife and fellow security guard and explore his earthly problems before bombarding viewers with some of the most nightmarish imagery in Asian horror. His creative direction makes use of ingenious lighting tricks along with masterful sound effects to create the sense of something otherworldly intruding on our realm. Equally Yu makes imaginative use of space, demonstrating there are few things scarier than a dark, empty room. Cinematographers Bob Thompson and David Chung – later director of among others Magnificent Warriors (1987) and I Love Maria (1988) – start out with a crisp white and blue tinged colour palette for the more 'realistic' early portion of the drama, then take a leaf out of Dario Argento's book and burst into surrealistic colour for Master Cheung's magical battle with a supernatural force and Keung's journey into a gold-and-emerald subterranean realm to confront a malevolent little ghost girl in red. Joseph Koo's eerie electronic score is gut-wrenching stuff as indeed is that shocking final scene.