Hapless schoolteacher Sam Hong and his ghostly ancestor Scholar Pik (both played by writer-producer-star Raymond Wong) are back once again in the fourth film in the Happy Ghost series. This time our accident-prone educator has his hands full with four rambunctious but musically talented teenage boys: Kit (Paul Wong Koon-Chung), Man (Wong Ka-Kui), Ying (Steve Wong Ka-Keung) and Mo (Yip Sai-Wing). Meanwhile Hong’s girlfriend, Annie (Pauline Yeung), urges him to straighten his act in front of her father, the school principal (Wu Fung). Annie’s sleazy, rich cousin Chiu (Cho Cha-Lee) has an amorous interest in her, and so hires an inept assassin (Tommy Wong Kwong-Leung) to put a bullet in Hong. All these earthly problems are put into perspective when the teen troublemakers inadvertently unleash the vengeful ghost of “Crazy” Kwan Yeung (Lau Shun), a Ching Dynasty tyrant who seeks vengeance against the girl who ended his life. She happens to have been reincarnated as Annie.
Arriving after films like A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) raised the bar for fantasy films in Hong Kong, Happy Ghost IV is the most ambitious entry in terms of cinematic technique but in its early stage threatens to rank among the most asinine. It is very much a film of two halves: the first painfully ordinary, the latter deliriously inventive full of inspired gags and outstanding special effects. As with Happy Ghost III (1986) the audacious effects, which include a flying severed hand chasing Annie around her apartment to the Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) inspired showstopper wherein a cel animated tiger and kung fu hero leap out of a painting to help Scholar Pik and the boys battle Crazy Kwan, were handled by none other than New Wave maestro Tsui Hark. However, it was not just the effects that propelled this to the top of the box office charts in HK, but also the inclusion of the four members of then-popular boy band Beyond, although the English subtitles hilariously mistranslate their name as “Behind”!
Their presence ensures Happy Ghost IV has an abundance of song-and-dance numbers, making this something of a Cantopop precursor to Glee or High School Musical (2005). Beyond’s infantile antics do wear thin and, like previous entries, some of Raymond Wong’s gags were clearly lifted from western films, notably A Fish Called Wanda (1988) as Chiu’s hit-man drives himself crazy with his continuing failure to kill Sam Hong. The film also unforgivably reduces Happy Ghost Girls: Loletta Lee, Fennie Yuen Kit-Ying, May Lo Mei-Mei and Charine Chan Ka-Ling to walk-on eye-candy with nary a line of dialogue. It takes a good forty minutes or so before the supernatural plot established in the opening scene actually kicks into gear, but once Crazy Kwan arrives on the scene, things get infinitely stranger and more compelling. Using his twelve-foot long tongue, Kwan sucks the energy out of the sleeping boy band and turns them into homicidal zombies who wind up framed for Sam Hong’s murder. Scholar Pik reanimates Hong’s corpse (just as he is about to be cremated!) and joins Annie and the newly revived Beyond to expel Kwan back into the netherworld.
It is a hit and miss effort, but those hits are memorable enough to wipe away the odd lapse, including some surprisingly creepy scenes along with an unexpected reference to A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) when a clawed hand menaces Annie in the bathtub. Although a few gags are admittedly derivative, a good number of Raymond Wong’s slapstick set-pieces are genuinely inventive and, more importantly, funny. These include the scene where he pretends the flailing arms and legs of an unconscious Chiu are actually his own and inadvertently sexually harasses the hatchet-faced substitute teacher, the infamous scene where Scholar Pik turns Chiu’s lower half back to front (use your imagination!), plus one cringe-inducing moment where Hong cavorts through a restaurant thinking himself invisible when in fact everyone can see him. Happy Ghost IV also scores points for the only kung fu fight in screen history where a villain is beaten up by an inanimate corpse.