Hong Kong horror cinema, from kung fu ghost movies to adults-only shockers like the human flesh eaters of The Untold Story
- Ghost films in 1950s Hong Kong weren’t about ghosts at all. Sammo Hung created authentic Cantonese horror by mixing jokes, action and Chinese superstition
- The advent of Category III films for adults only saw the rise of truly nasty fare, from true-crime slashers like Dr Lamb to cannibalism in The Untold Story
As for horror, cheap copies of American movies were produced in the early 1970s to ride on the success of the international mega-hit The Exorcist. But seriously nasty shockers such as The Untold Story, which featured Anthony Wong Chau-san as a crazy food vendor who served up human flesh in his pork buns, didn’t become an industry staple until the early 1990s.
Why the delay? Ingrained Confucian values and a desire to educate the population about the perils of superstition meant that the Cantonese ghost films of the 1950s and 1960s weren’t really ghost films at all – the ghostly events always had a rational explanation, and the so-called ghosts were usually humans in disguise.
For instance, in 1957’s The Nightly Cry of the Ghost, the supposed ghost turns out be a human girl posing as a spook to scare the people who murdered her family into giving a confession.
“Many of the ghost movies of the traditional Cantonese cinema of the 1950s and 1960s were psychological, didactic films using the idea of ghosts to impart a materialistic point of view,” wrote Cheng Yu in an essay entitled “Under a Spell”. “Such movies were invariably anti-superstition, preaching the non-existence of ghosts.
“Their line of argument reflects the fact that the traditional Cantonese cinema was carrying the burden of Confucianist ideology on its back. It’s said that Confucianists do not believe in the existence of ghosts and spirits. There is not a single outstanding horror or ghost movie produced in the era of traditional Cantonese cinema.”
But the genre really took off with Sammo Hung’s rambunctious Encounter of the Spooky Kind in 1980, a lively mix of jokes, action and Chinese superstition.
“In 1980, Western horror movies were huge in Hong Kong, and straight kung fu movies were dead. So Sammo Hung zapped more life into the genre by splicing together Chinese horror traditions and kung fu flicks,” says expert on Asian film Grady Hendrix, who is also a bestselling horror novelist.
“The resulting movies, like Encounter of the Spooky Kind and The Dead and the Deadly, found success where earlier attempts, like Lau Kar-leung’s The Spiritual Boxer had failed. Giving the hometown audience some home-grown horror, and pairing it with the comedy kung fu craze that was still huge, turned out to be a magic formula,” Hendrix says.
The kung fu and horror genres contain elements that are compatible in some ways, wrote academic Stephen Teo. “They lend themselves easily to a costume period setting, and both invariably deal with a struggle between life and death, good and evil … symbolically speaking you could liken their coupling to that of John Wayne and Frankenstein.”
The biggest horror hit of the 1980s was the Mr Vampire film series, which combined Chinese superstition and folklore with comedy and a bit of kung fu.
The story of Mr Vampire revolves around bouncing, zombie-like corpses – the vampire reference in the English title was reportedly just a savvy international marketing move by the film’s producers – who are under the control of a fat si, a Taoist priest of the mysterious Maoshan sect. The fat si animates the corpses by sticking magical yellow papers on their foreheads.
“Mr Vampire is genuinely entertaining and still feels fresh today. It spawned at least 31 knock-offs between 1985 and 1992, and it’s still getting poached for material today,” says Hendrix.
“It’s an unstoppable entertainment juggernaut. Sammo Hung produced it, Barry Wong wrote it, Yuen Wah choreographed the action, and Lam Ching-ying, Chin Siu-ho and Moon Lee are on fire [in the film]. There’s also Lam Ching-ying’s ultimate role as a zombie-busting, witch-kicking beat cop in 1990’s Magic Cop.”
According to a fascinating article by film historian Ng Ho, the idea of the bouncing zombies might be drawn from a Hunanese practice called “corpse driving”, which evolved from the belief that the dead should be buried in the place of their birth.
The fat si would lead a procession of corpses – presumably in coffins and not animated! – through the mountainous parts of the province, striking a gong to warn travellers to get out of the way. “As yet, no one has been able to ascertain the authenticity of the corpse drivers,” wrote Ng.
Horror in the West is often based on literature like Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. But there is not a wealth of ghostly Chinese literature, and many films draw their inspiration from a collection of stories by Pu Song-ling (1614-1715) called Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, or Liaozhai Zhiyi.
“Pu’s stories are suited for cinema adaptations,” Teo wrote. “Indeed, there have been a number of films over the years which have expanded on his stories and tried to keep the mood and atmosphere intact.”
Gore and shock movies followed a similar trajectory to ghost stories, and didn’t really gain a foothold in the mainstream market until the 1990s.
Schlocky low-grade horrors about jungle magic and witchcraft, often set in Southeast Asia, which one critic referred to as Hong Kong’s cinematic “Dark Continent”, had been made in the 1970s, but the genre picked up steam in the 1980s.
“The new cinema of cruelty began with a spate of films from smaller independent companies, but established companies like Shaw Bros and Seasonal have been quick to jump on the bandwagon,” wrote local critic Mel Tobias in 1980.
Tobias noted that “there seems to be no end to the rape, buggery, murder, robbery, and mauling … to simply kill a character is too easy, it’s the prolonged suffering that seems important”.
The 1990s saw gruesome and misogynistic gore and terror movies like The Untold Story and Dr Lamb released in mainstream cinemas. The introduction of the adults-only Category III rating paved the way for such films, says Hendrix.
“Sensing that audiences would be hungry for novelty, Hong Kong producers began including more sex and violence in their movies and, always hungry for material, they began basing some on true crimes. It led to a big true-crime boom in the 1990s that included films like Dr Lamb, The Untold Story, and Red to Kill,” Hendrix says.
In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved industry.