Heaven in a hi-tech hell

A BOOK that bites back. A legion of skeletons, a la Jason and the Argonauts, attack a medieval castle and miniature replicants torment the man from whom they were spawned. This is not your ordinary Hollywood fare, but Sam Raimi is no ordinary director.

In his latest creation Evil Dead III: Army of Darkness, opening this week in Hongkong, Raimi will have Hongkong's technocrazy audiences storming the cinema, much as the skeleton army did the castle.

Demanding Hongkong audiences, whose knowledge and appetite for hi-tech effects continues to grow, have encouraged distributors to release the guaranteed box-office hit in Hongkong this week, before the US release on February 19.

''Evil Dead I and II did quite well here,'' said Ms Ronny Tung, promotion manager for the film. ''The total box office was about HK$4 million. The horror special effects are really popular and we predict this will be big hit.'' Evil Dead 111: Army of Darkness was snapped up so quickly by distributors here there was no time to slap the Universal Studio-sanctioned upbeat ending on the film.

''They are the only ones who will see the original ending,'' said Raimi of Hongkong audiences.

While most Hongkong moviegoers are infatuated with kung fu special effects, there is little doubt they will be impressed with Raimi's latest offering.

With the help of Hollywood effects houses, Raimi has cooked up an array of spectacular effects, from varying degrees of bodily decay to 10 animatronic sword-wielding puppets to the winged ''deadite'' creatures that swoop from the sky to pit animals spewing blood.

The scope of special effects is what makes the film, said Bob Kurtzman, of KNB EFX Group, the creator of the puppets and ''deadite'' creatures.

''In Aliens, there is one kind of monster. This one had five or six different kinds, plus a whole army,'' he said.

The third in the Evil Dead trilogy, Army of Darkness begins where Evil Dead II left off. The one-handed, chainsaw-prosthetic wielding protagonist Ash (Bruce Campbell) has found himself transported to the barbarian medieval ages.

In order to return home, Ash tracks down the evil Book of the Dead, unleashing an army of evil skeletons and ''deadites'' on the locals.

This is a leader of horror-spoof movies, a Wizard of Oz meets Mad Max.

A cinematic process called Introvision was responsible for most of the effects, as well as whole sequences in the film.

Introvision is a system of technology allowing actors to be placed inside three-dimensional replicated environments. The technique creates a foreground and middle ground in front of a background that is already shot.

''You have humans fighting animated skeletons in front of a castle that doesn't exist,'' Raimi said. ''Those types of shots show how to best use the Introvision process.'' The production will raise the level of respect Raimi has already attained in Hongkong.

He and his special effects team speak highly of the Hongkong film industry and their effects technology.

''I'm a big fan of Hongkong movies. My favourite films over the past five years in the action/horror genre have come out of Hongkong,'' said Raimi, from a set in North Carolina where he is filming The Hudsucker Proxy with the Coen Brothers.

Kurtzman said: ''The stuff that really impresses me is the action and stunts, as well as the rubber makeup.

''I hear they are lacking in access to materials, silicons and such but the artistic talent is all there.'' The major difference, according to Raimi, is the number of films produced in the US.

''America has the community of Hollywood, which is an entire city geared to making motion pictures.

''There are a lot of specialists who do nothing but one exact job. There will be one person who designs special props for overlarge scale shots.

''In Hongkong, I'm sure there is a guy with the same talent, but he won't be employed as much so he can't survive.'' Ms Tung said locally-made horror pictures were constrained by budgets.

''They mostly do stunts - Chinese kung fu. The special effects cannot compare with Hollywood productions,'' she said.

Occasionally, Hongkong will go to Hollywood.

''A number of Asian companies contact us,'' said Bill Mesa, special effects supervisor for the Hollywood-based Introvision.

In 1989, Introvision helped film a sequence for a Hongkong co-production Korean Air Disaster.

KNB has finished working on Hongkong-turned-Hollywood director John Woo's picture Hard Target.

''We did a few exploding heads and a great mechanical snake that Jean-Claude Van Damme wrestles with,'' Kurtzman said.

Introvision is hoping to bring the effects to Hongkong.

''We are the only people in the world who do what we do. We are looking for people to work with.

''We were talking about going out [to Hongkong] but we haven't found a partner,'' Mesa said.