Bet you didn’t realize there were Kung Fu Horror Comedies. Do you think I’d let October go by without talking about a spooky film? I use spooky liberally because everything contained in Spooky Encounters (whose original title is Encounters of the Spooky Kind) is actually fairly tame. There’s certainly a supernatural element here and one scene is disturbing as hell, but the film is fairly traditional when it comes to its setting.
I’m actually not entirely sure why I ever gave this film a shot as a teen. I was just getting into Kung Fu films around 2004 and 20th Century Fox (RIP) had acquired the international rights to distribute a bunch of Golden Harvest productions. These manifested in some rather excellent DVDs that were updated with full anamorphic widescreen transfers and even surround sound. I think the low price and the fact that Sammo Hung directed it is what put me over the edge.
At the time, I didn’t realize how important the film actually was. Upon its release in 1980, Spooky Encounters kickstarted a whole sub-genre of Kung Fu Horror Comedies. Referred to as the “jiangshi” genre, it mixed traditional Chinese folklore with martial arts and gave birth to ridiculous hopping vampires that can also kick your ass. If you’re a fan of Capcom’s Darkstalker games, the character of Hsien-Ko is directly inspired by Hung’s work.
The plot is a weird mish-mash of different themes and almost comes off feeling like a few films stapled together. Bold Cheung (Hung) is a man that is known in his hometown as being fearless. After having a gruesome nightmare where he is eaten by some zombies, he wakes up and sets out about his daily life. A rickshaw driver, he makes a modest living, but always longs for more.
After being challenged by some of his colleagues to prove his bravery, the film quickly starts dabbling in the supernatural by pitting Cheung against some mirror vampire…or something. It’s never quite explained and the film moves past this so quickly that I don’t think that was the intention. Soon after, Cheung hears a story from a tofu shop owner about a cheating wife and returns home to check on his spouse. Wouldn’t you know it, she’s cheating and this spooky story seems to be happening to him.
If you want more description, just check the Wikipedia page. For a Kung Fu movie, the various twists and turns are so numerous that the plot section looks like an absolute mess. It’s not necessarily hard to follow, but you can tell that Hung’s main goal with Spooky Encounters wasn’t to create an engrossing narrative with complex characters. It was clearly to introduce some classic monster madness to the fray, which he absolutely succeeded in doing.
For Cheung’s second challenge, he needs to spend the night in a dark, secluded temple that’s full of caskets. It’s kind of random as all hell, but this is where we’re first introduced to the hopping vampire. The makeup is excellent and the lack of digital effects really lends an air of authenticity to the whole spectacle. Then there’s the fight choreography, which is just amazing.
Because of how stilted and funky the zombie looks, he actually exudes a terrifying presence that helps create some dread at the moment. It’s not long before you’re laughing, though, and Spooky Encounters never shies away from the absurdity of its premise. Despite the beginning being a little dark, the film quickly relaxes comfortably into camp and echoes exactly what Hollywood was doing with its endless horror sequels at the time.
What I mostly fail to understand is why this horror element isn’t more pronounced. For all of the talk Cheung does about zombies and ghosts and such, the entire middle of the film is more about Cheung’s boss trying to kill him. There’s even a rather classic restaurant brawl that feels like it belongs to a Jackie Chan movie instead of a horror film.
I can’t be too harsh about that, though, as Spooky Encounters was the first of its kind. It’s also got such brisk pacing that the nearly two-hour runtime feels like 40 minutes. Things keep going and the film never stops to let you analyze how flimsy some of the connections between scenes are.
At this point, you’re likely wondering why I wrote “disturbing as hell” in the opening paragraph. As I rewatched Spooky Encounters, I had forgotten a lot of the humorous touches that Hung sprinkled about. What I could never forget is this wild scene where I swear to god they beheaded a live chicken. Since the plot revolves around the occult, a shaman is hired to kill Cheung and he needs to perform this ridiculous ritual to control the dead. That involves drinking chicken’s blood and I hope to god that China’s lax animal safety laws didn’t result in a poor bird getting slaughtered (it just might be real, though, according to this Den of Geek retrospective).
This one scene is the thing I remembered vividly after 16 years. I obviously remembered the zombies and the funky name -which was attempting to piggyback off the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind-, but one doesn’t simply forget seeing a chicken getting its head sliced off. Would you believe me if I said that’s actually not the most shocking part?
I understand the context of the ending, but the scene of Cheung beating the shit out of his cheating wife in the finale is ludicrous. Clearly Hung doesn’t endorse spousal abuse, but that is definitely something that wouldn’t fly in modern cinema. I have to give him props for not backing down from showing it, but you need to see the entire movie before you take that out of context.
That’s actually something I could use to describe the entire movie. If you’re going in for the horror elements, Spooky Encounters doesn’t hold up in that regard. Knowing the history behind the film, I understand why Hung didn’t go further with incorporating those elements. If you just want to watch an oft-kilter Kung Fu film, though, Spooky Encounters is an absolute blast. That it happened to lead to the creation of Mr. Vampire a few years later is also extraordinary, since that movie is a masterpiece.
There are a ton of wonderful Kung Fu horror films that came in the wake of Spooky Encounters, but this isn’t one to pass up if you’re into Sammo Hung’s style of comedy. It has his unmistakable signature all over from set design to fight scenes and wild tonal shifts. Maybe there are better films that share these themes, but every genre needs to start somewhere.
February: Enter The Dragon
March: Come Drink With Me
April: The Prodigal Son
May: 7 Grandmasters
June: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
July: The Big Boss
August: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
September: Dirty Ho