Having scored an award-winning smash hit with A Chinese Odyssey (1995), Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow Sing-Chi and writer-director Jeff Lau re-teamed for this horror spoof produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers studio. In a rundown tenement block, Mr. Li (Chow Chi-Fai) and his wife (Tam Suk-Mooi) are being terrorized by the ghost of his dead mother (Hau Woon-Ling). Meanwhile, sexy punk-rock chick Ah Lung (Karen Mok) is intrigued by Leon (Stephen Chow Sing Chi), an enigmatic ghost buster in dark glasses, who drinks milk, carries a potted plant everywhere and generally imitates the lead character in a certain Luc Besson movie…
As dead bodies start piling up, head of security Captain Wu (Lo Hung) and his hapless men, including lovelorn Jiang (Ben Wong Chi-Yin) and suicidal Tieh Dan (comedy regular Wong Yat-Fei), realise they’re way out of their depth. So they turn to sagely Leon with his expertise in all things paranormal. Problem is, Leon is really an escaped mental patient and his ghost-slaying methods are somewhat unorthodox.
Out of the Dark did not repeat the success of the team’s earlier hits and earned a reputation as Stephen Chow’s darkest film, adding brutal violence, copious bloodletting and pitch black humour to the usual movie spoofs, slapstick social commentary and general nonsense. Its scenes of supernatural terror are surprisingly suspenseful and showcase Jeff Lau’s range as a filmmaker. A woman is chased by a demonic TV set, Chow tangles with an axe-wielding devil child, we have a gory elevator death and a security guard melts into a spectacularly putrid mess.
While the setup recalls Lau’s feature debut, Haunted Cop Shop (1986) and scenes spoof Poltergeist (1982) and The Shining (1980), the loopy plot mostly mocks Shaw Bros. horrors like Black Magic (1975) or Seeding of a Ghost (1983), with the traditional exorcist unmasked as a delusional clod. Unlike his later films, Chow plays a total loon who merrily shoots people by accident, uses a drug addict as a human shield and uses jumper cables to revive a corpse.
A few gags cross the line into bad taste, including references to rape and paedophilia, but there genuinely gut-busting laughs to be had. These include Leon’s repeated trips to A&E following disastrous demonstrations of how to handle explosives; a surprise reference to Sixties TV show The Flying Nun when the heroes take to the skies using magical paper hats; and the impromptu use of an electric guitar, banana skin and a bag of Maltesers to perform a chocolate coated-rock’n’roll exorcism. Talented co-star Karen Mok lends enthusiastic support, costumed identically to Natalie Portman’s iconic adolescent while also spoofing her own role in Fallen Angels (1996), directed by Jeff Lau’s old screenwriting partner Wong Kar Wai. Blink and you’ll miss a cameo from Shaw Bros. kung fu actor/director Leung Kar-Yan.
Jeff Lau is a past master at blending disparate elements into a helter-skelter ride. However in this case, the tonal shifts fail to blend comfortably within the largely comedic atmosphere. Sympathetic characters die gory deaths. Even Chow gets his face crushed to a bloody pulp, yet miraculously revives (“Death and massive blood loss are two completely different things!”). Coupled with a jarringly downbeat, if poetic ending and a foregrounding of zaniness over a witty plot, this is one of Jeff Lau’s weaker films.