Out Of The Dark (Wui wan yeh)
Hong Kong (1995) Dir. Jeffrey Lau
If there is something strange in your neighbourhood whatever you do, don’t call the ghost busters in this film. Okay, they do get results – eventually – but it comes at quite the price, physically, structurally, and emotionally. Maybe it would be better to let the spirits have their revenge and be done with it – it might not be that bad.
When the tenants of an apartment block Mr and Mrs Li (Chow Chi-fai and Carol Tam) report their son is missing, the inept security guards don’t believe their story that Mr. Li’s dead mother (Hau Woon-ling) might be responsible. Enter Leo (Stephen Chow), a professional ghost buster who coaxes the old lady’s spirit from out of her possessed grandson’s body.
One person impressed by this is another tenant, punky young Ah Quan (Karen Mok) who decides to track Leo down, discovering he is in fact a mental patient but she follows him anyway. Along with the security guards, led by Captain Lo (Lo Hung), Leo and Kwan set about ridding the apartment block of evil spirits, although his training methods leave a lot to be desired causing more harm than good.
Quite often, the name of an actor or director automatically tells you what to expect from a film – in the case of 1990’s Hong Kong comedy, you can be assured a zany, nonsensical time awaits if the names Jeffrey Lau and Stephen Chow are attached. Out Of The Dark is a prime example of this, applying their unique and popular brand of esoteric entertainment to the horror genre.
Proving to be one of their more polarising films, the humour is typically hit and miss -more miss than hit if I’m honest – whilst the horror premise means many of the usual body fluid gags are replaced by gore, some of which is a bit nasty. It also doubles as a parody of the US film Leon, but only if you have seen said film, which I have not so whatever was being lampooned here, if anything major, was lost on me.
Admittedly, it was only after reading this fact that Ah Quan’s change of appearance from sporting short orange spiky hair to a black bob cut after the opening made sense that this was a reference to Natalie Portman’s look in Leon. Then there is Leo, a more obvious pastiche, but again I don’t know how close it is, unless Leon carried with him a box of tricks and a pot plant he talks to for advice like Leo does here.
Mocking mental health in cinema has changed a lot since 1995 so the depiction of the hospital patients wandering around open mouthed or shouting nonsense to nobody is a tad cringe worthy. Leo is of course smarter than everyone else, able to convince anyone to do his bidding, but don’t expect the script to explain why he would be in an asylum – in fact don’t expect the script to explain anything, it has no intention of doing so.
Chock full of non-sequiturs, the action jumps from one manic skit to another with any semblance of a plot long since forgotten. The incident at the start of the film with the vengeful granny might have appeared as the start of something but it was more a way of introducing the ghost-hunting premise and the main cast. It is not until the third act that the supernatural element returns in earnest, bringing with it plenty of gore.
Until then, Leo puts his team of followers through a series of rigorous training sessions, each one more ridiculous than the last, usually resulting in him being rushed to hospital! Leo’s main point of contention is to make the team less susceptible to fear, allowing them to face off any evil spirit or presence with extreme violence if necessary. His methods are questionable, using dynamite, knives, dog poo, (don’t ask) and a cross-dresser (seriously, don’t ask) to toughen up his crew.
Since this is a comedy, the security guards are the most hapless bunch, comprising of the usual cross section of sex-starved, suicidal, hot headed, on the take ne’er-do-wells nobody in their right mind would ever hire in these roles. Ah Quan is the only one with any gumption yet remains the token female, flitting between tomboy and cheerleader, narrowly avoiding being eye candy, which is saved for someone else.
Earlier I mentioned the humour was hit and miss. One scene that wouldn’t go down so well today involves a young lady in a tight red mini dress the crew think is a ghost and check her heartbeat to be sure, by each taking it in turns to put their hand on her chest. Not the most puerile gag by a long shot depending on your tastes, but likely to incur more eye-rolls from modern audiences.
Yet there are moments in which the filmmaking itself is actually rather good, coming not so surprisingly when it tries to be serious. During the opening when Mrs. Li is tormented by her late mother-in-law, the atmospheric tension and needling chills director Lau creates are up there with any straight horror film, a scene with a TV predating Ringu by three years.
Led by Stephen Chow, the cast of familiar faces either in their prime or soon to be major names throw themselves into the stupidity with the gusto we’ve come to expect from Asian cinema. Nobody acts like this is beneath them, knowing that this is purely tongue-in-cheek and respond accordingly, making the truly daft scenes, like flying courtesy of special paper hats, easier to swallow.
Fortunately, Out Of The Dark runs for just 79-minutes and moves at such a pace that most of the time, we are too busy wondering what is going on to dwell on the tackiness of the failed humour. When it gets it right we remember we are supposed to have fun with it, which is thankfully quite often.