by Ian Whitney
Movies were made for horror. In North America and Europe, frightening films appeared not long after the first narrative films. The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, considered the first psychological horror film, was made in 1920 and less than 10 years later, horror films were an established genre. Whatever the reason - World War I, industrialization, immigration or other unnerving assaults on the status quo - westerners wanted movies to frighten them. The feeling was not universal.
Leslie Cheung on the verge of succumbing to the tempation that is Joey Wong in A Chinese Ghost Story.
In Hong Kong, horror films were not big business; or, at least, no native filmmakers embraced the genre. Before 1980, all of the icons of western fears - the creeping vampire, the lumbering undead, the misunderstood freak - had little impact on films in the British colony. The Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s and the Hammer remakes of the 60s did not inspire, as they did in so many other countries, endless knockoffs. Hong Kong, it seems, simply didn't want to be scared.
One reason, perhaps, is that Chinese mythology and religion have a radically different idea of the afterlife. Although it's typically called "Hell," the afterlife in China is usually described as an endless shadow world that's more of a waiting area than a torture chamber. More important and frightening than the western notion of a fiery underworld were souls that had lost their way or corpses who had absorbed too much energy from the moon. These creatures, while dangerous, simply needed the guidance of a Taoist priest towards reincarnation. These creatures of legend made few appearances in Hong Kong film before 1980, either because no one was interested or because the audiences were perfectly happy with their operas, romances and swordplay films.
The Enchanting Shadow, an early supernatural romance from Shaw Brothers.
Not exactly scary, it it?
It wasn't until the late 70s that Hong Kong made a serious attempt at western-style horror. As Shaw Brothers, the dominant Hong Kong film studio, faced real competition from upstart companies like Golden Harvest and western imports, they responded by adding horror films to their lineup of period kung fu and romance films. After co-producing Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1973) with England's Hammer studios, Shaw released a few films like Human Lanterns, and Black Magic - psycho meldings of period kung fu and western third-generation horror imports like Italian zombie films. These films went on to inspire a slew of Asian exploitation horror, eventually evolving into films like Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome, but for most of the 80s, these films were on the fringes of the Hong Kong cinema industry. In 1983, Shaw Brothers ceased movie production and focused on TV; apparently kung fu killers wearing monkey costumes were not more lucrative than soap operas.
During the late 70s, Hong Kong audiences were more interested in laughing than screaming. New filmmakers like Sammo Hung found increasing success with a mishmash of kung fu, slapstick, bathroom humor and word play. Hung, who had been working in films since 1969's A Touch Of Zen, used his Chinese opera school classmates Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao in a series of revolutionary comedies like Fearless Hyena (1979), Drunken Master (1979) and Knockabout (1979).
Based on the broad physical comedy of the stage, the films were juvenile (it's not a true comedy until someone gets kicked and/or punched in the testicles), sexual and unsubtle. They were also incredibly successful. Throughout the 1980s, a river of comedies poured from Hong Kong studios, probably outnumbering the bullet-blasting ballets and fist-filled films that most western audiences identify with Hong Kong filmmaking.
Sammo Hung is an innovator in a film industry that's more than willing to repeat past triumphs. While he has made his share of straightforward comedies, he is also willing to try something untested and bizarre. In 1981 (or 1980, depending on the source) he took his potent mix of bizarre comedy and elaborate fight choreography and added a third element, Chinese myths of the supernatural. With Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind (aka, Spooky Encounters) a new genre, the vampire comedy, was born and Hong Kong finally discovered a love for being scared.
Sammo has spells painted onto his body by Chung Fa in Spooky Encounters,
one of many films in which Sammo shows off his butt.
Like most genres, the vampire comedy is bound by specific rules, many of which came from Chinese folklore and were set in celluloid stone by Spooky Encounters. Knowing the rules is vital to understanding the films.1
Rule 1: Vampires Hop. Stiffened by death, the undead are not known for their agility. Instead, they hop, arms outstretched. Obviously, hopping monsters are not all that threatening, which is probably the main reason Hung used them for comic effect.
Indeed, Chinese vampires (sometimes called gyonshi or jiang shi by fans) are not what most people consider vampiric. They generally don't suck blood; instead, they stab their victims with long blue/black fingernails. They don't transform into bats or fear garlic. They don't have bug-eating assistants or chase after long-lost loves. They are often blind and use their nose to find their victims, who can be treated with sticky rice and snake wine. They aren't killed by crosses or stakes, but by a combination of magic and kung fu. And no monster is truly dead until it explodes.
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