Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Ghost Snatchers (1986)

Original title: 俾鬼捉

Thanks to the help of his libidinously overactive uncle Fan Pien-Chou (Stanley Fung Sui-Fan) somewhat shlubby, chubby Chu Bong (Wong Jing – yes, that Wong Jing) has gotten a job in a new high-rise. Why, it’s even the same building his girlfriend Hsueh (Joey Wong, which isn’t exactly the actress I’d cast as a guy’s girlfriend if I want to sell him as a loser, because clearly, something must be pretty right with him) is working in, so things do seem to look up for now.

Unfortunately, the building has been built on an execution ground from the time of the Japanese occupation during World War II and is about the most haunted place imaginable, so soon, Chu Bong, Fan and Hsueh have various troubles concerning the building ghost king’s plan to finally gather enough victims to be reincarnated (and lead Japan back to imperial glory). Chu Bong and Fan are in particular danger because their horoscope is especially wrong for the place; as luck will have it, though, Hsueh’s sister – I think, she could also be an aunt given the quality of the subtitles – Ling (Joyce Godenzi) is a feng shui expert and Taoist mage, so all might not be lost (except for the future of imperial Japan).

The Ghost Snatchers’ director Lam Nai-Choi (or whichever version of his name you want to use, because he’s got a bunch of them) is one of my unsung heroes of Hong Kong filmmaking during the 80s, a guy with a surprisingly diverse portfolio of films when you keep in mind he only directed thirteen at all, and quite a talent for very different genres, from weird fu masterpiece The Seventh Curse, over the excellent rape revenge piece Her Vengeance to this cute bit of HK horror comedy.

Now, The Ghost Snatchers is probably one of the director’s lesser films, with a structure so episodic it lets The Seventh Curse look like the tightest film ever made (and a plot that is much more meandering than my write-up suggests mostly because I left out oh so many details one really doesn’t need to know to understand the gist of the film), and its lack of any character who’d make a true anchor for its plot.

This doesn’t mean the film isn’t hugely entertaining in its own way. Like many of Hong Kong’s horror comedies of the period, it changes emotional tone from one scene to the next, going from mild stupidity through complete absurdity to outright horror, with more than just a few moments of typical ickiness – of the last, we get an exploding head, a ghost who rips his own beating heart, followed by its eyes, out, and other delights, of the first a “mah-jongg ghost” embodied by a perfectly ridiculous hand doll.

These things leave little room to base much of what’s going on in the characters, so everyone is a one-note caricature: Fan is horny yet kind, Chu Bong dumb yet loveable, Hsueh is Joey Wong and a virgin, Ling the modern female magician having to cope with the trouble of having a period (which is a plot point, of course), and so on. Nobody changes, and nobody learns anything because everyone’s only there to provide an opportunity for Lam to show the audience crazy, icky stuff and make (generally low-brow) jokes. Some of the jokes, like Fan’s funeral speech at the funeral service of Hsueh’s brother, are even very funny.

And when it comes to the weird stuff, Lam delivers the goods. Apart from the Mahjongg ghost, there’s also a TV ghost trying to bore one of our heroes to death and growing a pair of naked, hairy legs out of its TV when his victim tries to flee; a climactic fight against a rickety skeleton you need to see to believe; detours like the hunt for three of Fan’s ten souls (don’t ask me, I’m German) that can be found in his favourite places, like a bordello and a porn cinema; and for the finale a hellish pocket dimension mostly made out of papier-mâché, red fluids, dry ice smoke and the traditional (and always excellent) red and blue lights of supernatural Hong Kong. Also, there’s a grabby giant hand doing its grabby giant hand thing. And so on, and so forth, without much time for thought, and most certainly without any pause that could leave the audience bored or (much, much worse) thinking too much about what’s going on.

So, screw “lesser film”, this is actually grand entertainment in the 80s Hong Kong style I sorely miss.

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