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That Ol' Black Magic: Encounter of the Spooky Kind on Blu-ray

  Sammo Hung, or Sammo Hung Kam Bo, was a talented graduate of the Peking Opera when he was younger, and seeking a foothold in the Hong Kong movie industry he did what his friends Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao and got himself cast in smaller roles when he was pretty much a child, which opened the door to greater things. Despite his somewhat bulky size, or perhaps because of it, he became known as an exponent of acrobatic martial arts as for a fat guy he could really throw himself around, but even so it seemed up until about Christmas 1980 he was going to be relegated mostly to supporting parts with exceptions like Enter the Fat Dragon (1978).

It's not as if he was doing badly, with other titles like The Magnificent Butcher (1979) under his belt, but he was ambitious and wanted to do more than appear in front of the camera. Then Encounter of the Spooky Kind, or Gui da Gui as it was originally called (literally: Ghosts Fight Ghosts), happened in 1980, and Sammo's career moved to a different level for the rest of the eighties. Hong Kong had made horror movies before, but usually, though serious in intent, the effect was rather absurd, and while some of them embraced the potential for humour, those were usually in the service of delivering a dose of martial arts action rather than being truly scary.

Encounter of the Spooky Kind, its English language title bizarrely adapting Steven Spielberg's UFO epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind despite there being no connection evident, saw Sammo take the reins and design a star vehicle for himself that definitely paid off. It was a comedy horror that could be said to have kicked off the style for the decade, as while Ghostbusters certainly made the supernatural mixed with laughs a viable concern, and An American Werewolf in London had done the same a few years previous, Hong Kong favourites like A Chinese Ghost Story or Mr Vampire had their roots in the 1980 movie - aficionados will immediately recognise Sammo's hopping vampire.



He did produce the latter effort. Whether this has an actual vampire is a moot point, it could just as easily be a hopping zombie, but it undoubtedly popularised the character and was identifiably of Hong Kong or Chinese origin, something as original to the region as their kung fu. Sammo included that fighting as well, though it was not merely two blokes with grudges meeting up to knock seven shades out of one another, they had more to it than that, even if the premise was suitable for any number of comedies out of the territory that had been released in the decade leading up to it. It was adultery that concerned us this time, a tale as old as the hills, yet escalating into wilder and wilder scenarios.

That was down to the fantastical element, and there was a lot of it, increasing as it went along until it culminated in an all-out magical battle with two exponents of the dark arts flinging all they had in their arsenal at each other for a crazed, if somewhat ramshackle, finale. No, Sammo was not one of these sorcerers, he was the hapless one caught in the middle as his wife tries to get him killed so she can run off with his boss. They do so by arranging for Sammo - playing Big Guts Cheung! - to stay overnight in a haunted house where they believe he will be attacked by the reanimated corpse in the coffin that is there, which is where the classic form of the hopping "vampire" entered into the picture.

However, Sammo, giving himself the most crowdpleasing role in the film, naturally, was the source of the laughs and the thrills. We have already seen there are unscrupulous types who will pretend to use the supernatural for their own gain in the early stages, yet despite a mood of Scooby-Doo about how this goes about its plot, the fakers are swiftly dispensed with and the real proponents of the black magic make with the spells and incantations. Therefore when Sammo is stricken with a possessed hand as he dines in a restaurant with his closest ally, it gives rise to a great bit of physical comedy slapstick as the local bailiff shows up to arrest him and the place descends into utter mayhem.

But something else eighties horror fans might notice is the resemblance between some scenes and concepts and that of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series, specifically Evil Dead 2 (1987). It's not outwith the bounds of possibility that Raimi could have seen Encounters of the Spooky Kind, especially as the madcap stylings were not a million miles away from what he and his team concocted on a not dissimilar set of means, but it does add a certain degree of respect to what Sammo achieved and how influential it was. Indeed, while there is a lot of fun to be had, there is only one real misstep, not only in retrospect but was probably not too acceptable back then either. Big Guts Cheung's wife gets her comeuppance as well - when he starts laying into her in a vicious display of domestic violence. Sure, she was trying to get him killed, but for a supposed comedy it strikes a sour note to conclude with. If you were happy to overlook Sammo's embrace of bad taste, not for the first or last time, this was a frenetic experience like little else in the West at the time, setting the standard for the East.

[Eureka release Encounter of the Spooky Kind on Blu-ray with the following features:

Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling | Limited-Edition Reversible Poster featuring the film's original HK artwork | 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a brand new 2K restoration (worldwide debut of this restoration on home video) | Cantonese audio (original mono presentation) | Rare alternate Cantonese soundtrack | Optional English dubbed audio | Optional English Subtitles (newly translated for this release) | Brand new feature length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival) | Archival interview with Sammo Hung | Alternate English opening & closing credits | Stills Gallery | Original trailer | Limited Edition Collector's Booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver.]

Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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