Let’s get on with it.
A Chinese Ghost Story (Hong Kong) (1987)
A Chinese Ghost Story is considered a landmark piece of Hong Kong horror entertainment, almost a quintessential example of the genre fusing genuine scares, comedy, romance and incredible martial arts action into a cacophony where one does not outweigh the others.
I don’t know if it’s right to call A Chinese Ghost Story the Chinese version of Evil Dead, specifically Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. I feel that way, but then I looked at the releases of both movies and they came out the same year: 1987. There are certain sequences where the camera moves erratically and swiftly in first person, like the one in Evil Dead 2, chasing after poor Ash in and around the cabin. It is a serendipitous coincidence and would honestly make for a great double feature seeing them one after another.
Set in late 19th century mainland China, in the dying era of the Dynasty system, it follows a tax collector called Ning( played by the too quickly departed HK star Leslie Cheung, also seen in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow). He’s just trying to stay afloat in an unfair world and will learn in time that death is just as unfair to those who exist on the other side.
Looking for a place to stay during his travels, he is given the joking suggestion to stay at a haunted temple on the outskirts of town and our somewhat bumbling hero does just that. In quick succession, he meets a Taoist Ghost Hunter called Yin and a mysterious, beautiful woman named Nip.
Yin steals the show as this absolute badass warrior against monsters of the East Asian variety, using his sword, spells and skills to be a chimera hybrid of Van Helsing, a Jedi, and even a Dragonball character due to using his Ki( chi) as an energy based weapon. He best demonstrates the unique form of cinematic martial arts that was introduced more prominently in the West through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Wuxia.
This floating and flying form of martial arts which often includes weapons like swords and spears mesmerized audiences throughout the world in 2000 and A Chinese Ghost Story was among many things, seen as a watershed moment for Wuxia becoming a box office draw in its native market.
Gradually, in an almost Inspector Closeau manner, Ning stumbles across a plot that involves the lovely Nip being forced into an arranged marriage with an evil spirit of the nearby mountain. Her mother is a powerful demoness that resides in the forest’s tree. If you hadn’t already figured it out, Nip isn’t exactly human, not anymore. She is a Jiangshi, a mythical being that combines vampire and zombie into one. There are different interpretations of Jiangshi in Chinese culture, another famous version being of the hopping variety, as seen in 1985’s Mr. Vampire, which was sadly unavailable for me to view at this time and place along with another Hong Kong horror comedy, Encounters of the Spooky Kind, with HK legend Sammo Hung.
She has preyed on hapless visitors to the haunted temple for a long time, not that she really wants to, as the tree demoness gives her no choice. However, the arrival of Ning into her “life” so to speak gives her a chance to refuse that job and with help from him and Yin, an opportunity to avoid a twisted arranged marriage and even better reincarnation into a mortal body.
There is a lot to take in for A Chinese Ghost Story’s narrative though due to its mostly madcap pace and tone, as well as a very humorous attitude, it is never confusing, just pleasantly bewildering. The pace in concert with the humor and action makes A Chinese Ghost Story one of the most purely fun Halloween experiences I’ve had this year. The effects are jaw-dropping and are on par and might even surpass Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead.
The header image is Ning in a very close encounter with the tree demoness in her true form but there is also her terrifying alternative form that is a nigh endless massive tongue that prowls through the forest and tries to take out Ning inside the temple in one hair-rising fight. That’s almost nothing to Ning and Yin’s trek into the underworld to save Nip from her dark wedding with the mountain spirit which is a battle which becomes all out Wuxia pandemonium that left me all but gasping for air. On the lighter side, there’s a very Peter Sellers moment where Ning is exploring the temple while a bunch of creepily animated stop motion zombies try to get his ass. Of course, they never catch him and he is none the wiser comically during that skit.
A Chinese Ghost Story manages to juggle its many disparate tones so well that I entirely ate up an honest to God RAP NUMBER with Yin singing and dancing to himself about how cool a demon hunter he was. This film is that good. It’s also a beautifully shot piece of film where the old woods, where most of the picture takes place, feel both haunting and strangely intimate at once.
You’ll rarely scream, but you will cheer and laugh at this example of Hong Kong doing what it did best: Not just delivering its own unique flavor of one genre but several and leaving you fulfilled. There are two sequels but there is a wide range of opinion about them. Some see them as worthy successors, more so the second than third, others think they don’t amount to nearly as much as they should. All I truly know, is that the first one is a must see.
Sweet Home (Japan) (1989)
Resident Evil, one of the most successful game franchises of all time, let alone in horror, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. The 1996 original was one of the first true success stories of the original PlayStation and was the game to officially coin the term “survival horror.”
Dubbed by series creator Shinji Mikami, that subgenre of horror in gaming involves taking control of a vulnerable player character, who generally have low resistance to injury and a limited amount of supplies and inventory space. Careful management of items, both to stay alive and to explore and figure out the environment around you, is key.
The first game placed you in a mansion in the middle of the forest, full of ravenous dogs, hungry zombies and other more novel terrors like razor-clawed lizard men, giant spiders, a giant snake and shark. It was a wild game that managed to break new ground for games as an interactive, exploratory experience, not to mention cultivating an eerie, nervous atmosphere where danger you may or may not be prepared for always lies in wait. It did not break new ground in voice acting and contains some of the most enjoyably awful examples in the entire medium.
As mentioned, it spawned a monstrous franchise with ups, downs and in-betweens. Recently the eighth but in truth thirteenth main entry in the game series (this includes several remakes and the prequel Resident Evil 0 mind you) ,Resident Evil VIIIage, was released to positive attention. I have played and very much enjoyed the latest entry in the franchise for the Halloween season and will try however I can to write up a review of that latest jaunt in the series.
But, you’re here for me to talk about a horror movie for the Halloween season, right? Well, let me discuss the background of Sweet Home, both as a movie and as an early example of a tie in video game. Despite some definite winners in the acclaim and box office departments, Japanese cinema was struggling in the 1980s. This was in large part due to television and direct to video being a big thing in the popular culture of the era.
One way to promote a theatrically released Japanese film was to tie it in with a burgeoning new medium that while essentially created in America in the 70s, was all but perfected in the Land of the Rising Sun: video games. Yankees like me experienced the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the system that gave the world Mario, Zelda, Metroid and countless other enduring staples. It was the system that had Sweet Home, but only for Japanese audiences. The rest of the world could later experience the game adaptation through fan-made localizations.
Over in Japan, the NES was called the “Famicom”. Instead of calling it by it’s original name over in the U.S. of A., due to concerns over the video game crash of 1983 that occurred prior, Nintendo marketed it as an “entertainment system” rather than a game system to ease those who felt leery about a device with bad history attached.
So, with all of that out of the way, Toho( the studio that gave us all the glory of Godzilla) wanted to make a ghost story film. They got Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) to direct. He would eventually make Japanese horror landmarks Cure and Pulse that I will one day watch down the road. It was produced by Juzo Itami, best known for culinary Japanese comedy classic Tampopo, featuring an early appearence by Ken Watanabe that I am dining to see one day.
Due to the weakness of the theatrical Japanese box office in 1989, the filmmakers wanted an extra hook to the release of Sweet Home. So, in conjunction with Capcom (the future developers of Resident Evil, alongside a crapton of other huge franchises) and a young Shinji Mikami, a tie-in video game was developed for the Famicom. The movie was released in January of 1989, the game came out at the end of the same year. Nice symmetry there.
Sweet Home the game could possibly be described as the actual first survival horror title, seven years before Resident Evil and three years before Alone in the Dark, another title often seen as a precursor to the genre. You took control of three of the five principal characters in the movie. It was up to you to use your resources you collect throughout the game as well as tactical use of the characters and their skills to survive the mansion and make it out alive.
Unlike Resident Evil, which has always used science fiction medical horror as the root of its, well, evil, Sweet Home is completely supernatural. It is very much a ghost story. Though Japanese ghost stories are well known due to exposure to films like Ringu ( and the American remake The Ring) and Ju-on (The Grudge in America), not to mention the acclaimed survival horror series Fatal Frame (where you must stand and photograph the ghostly terrors in your midst), Sweet Home feels like a fusion of Western and Eastern ghost tales.
Though set entirely in Japan, the mansion that a TV film crew goes to located inside a thick forest looks very Western influenced in and out, and the type of ghost that is encountered feels like a hybrid of what a person in Europe or North American would call a ghost and what a person in Asia would call one. This also foreshadows how Resident Evil, wanting to appeal to both Japanese and Western audiences, always has a charming toe dipped in two different parts of the world.
The film crew consists of a middle-aged TV producer, an aging female news host, the producer’s short-haired, spunky daughter and the cameraman and his girlfriend. Perhaps as a nod to this setup of a film crew in WAY over their heads, a playable subplot of 2017’s Resident Evil 7: biohazard has you play as a cameraman for a television show called Sewer Gators. Through VHS tapes found throughout the game, you can play flashbacks to other characters’ predicaments.
Poor Clancy Javis starts off filming his three-man team exploring a seemingly abandoned house on a just as seemingly abandoned plantation deep in the Louisiana bayou. It very quickly goes south, deep south you could say. He is then forced into various escape room situations by the terrifying Baker family and for more on that, play RE7 or watch it be played online. This won’t be the last time that the narrative of Sweet Home possibly inspired a Resident Evil game’s story, and not just through coinciding developments of game and movie.
Like with a film that I watched on Youtube for a non-Halloween 80s retrospective blog entry, Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind, I saw Sweet Home in its entirety for free on Youtube, though the quality was VHS and made the viewing experience difficult at times. It did add something to the atmosphere, but still I wouldn’t mind viewing a version with better visual fidelity.
Sweet Home is quite traditional plot wise when it comes to ghost story tradition and a lot of it will ring true to anyone who read over my thoughts on The Changeling. A group of people go over to a place that is supposedly haunted, discover gradually it is definitely haunted, and have their own reasons for not leaving a place that is likely perilous. In this case, it’s to record a TV special on the mansion.
There’s a subplot relating to the aging producer wondering if he should remarry so his daughter can have a mom again, despite the daughter fast approaching adulthood. The female TV host is the obvious candidate and the daughter happily ships her with her dad. This plays into Japanese cultural expectations on family and relationships though there wouldn’t be too drastic a change if this was an American or Canadian cast I suppose.
Much like how the Changeling’s ghostly conflict centers over a horrible incident in the past, Sweet Home’s haunting is borne out of an accident which in description is just ghastly, no lie. 30 years ago, the madam of the house lost her infant daughter in a freak accident involving the furnace. Following that horrific tragedy, the husband left and never returned and the mother took her life. Of course, she didn’t leave.
Now, the spirit of the mother roams over the house, unable to let go of losing her daughter and anyone who walks the halls of this tragic occurrence will be her prey. (Warning: potential spoilers for this year’s Resident Evil 8, you have been warned.)
The main antagonist of Resident Evil: VIIIage (i.e. Village) is Mother Miranda, who through the series sci-fi mumbo-jumbo and related experiments has managed to be alive since the 19th century, having not aged since the early 20th. During the Spanish flu, she lost her baby daughter Eva to the pandemic and has never been able to let go of that loss. She managed in short order to come across something called “the mold”, this and the prior RE’s substance which allows for the monster mashing to occur in the first place. With her long life, she has spent the next century using a Romanian village and their oddly American sounding residents as a giant science project with the mold.
All to find a way to get her daughter Eva back to life. A mother who will go to any horrible length, will hurt countless innocent lives and will allow herself to become a terrible monster. Not unlike the ghost mother of Sweet Home, at least in motivation. How the film resolves is kinda hard to describe, though it obviously involves the easing of the spirit’s pain. Along the way to the predictable but beautifully shot conclusion, there is some terrific practical effects involving a chair made of molten lava, a really spooky shadow that chases after our cast along the walls and one extended disintegration of a fella that ends with a skeleton collapsing onto the floor.
The familiarity is bolstered by the visual imagination that I could make out through the VHS quality of the screen and it having quite a few more telltale connections with the game series it would bring to life one day than the ones I mentioned. Namely, there being several McGuffin items that come across like the “key items” the player must acquire to open up the space they traverse to both survive and figure out what is going on.
It’s a more fascinating cinematic experience if you know it’s background and have been exposed to its bountiful legacy like I have. It’s kinda cute that a franchise that has sold as of 2021 117 million copies has origins in an otherwise quaint yet occasionally spectacular Japanese horror picture. It deserves more exposure than its gotten and not just because of Resident Evil. Like many things I like about watching cinema from the 1980s/90s, it’s a time capsule to a bygone era and its even better here seeing one from a non-American perspective.
Go ahead and look for Sweet Home full movie on Youtube and if you can find a better looking version somewhere, check it out. If you’re more inclined to the game legacy of Sweet Home, try to find the fan-made English localization of the Famicom game. Discover for yourself that Resident Evil’s shadow is longer than a quarter decade.
The Fly (1986)
For whatever reason, three movies, all remakes of 50s horror classics, were released roughly 30 years after the originals they were based on. Even crazier, all three of them have come to be considered horror classics of their era and arguably all superior than their forebears.
In 1982, indie cult master filmmaker John Carpenter( one of my favorites) gave us his version of The Thing from another World, now just The Thing, skewing closer to the landmark horror short story, Who Goes There?, then the original film. Initially dismissed over its insane gore and gross nature, it has now become one of the most acclaimed works in Carpenter’s career, one of the best loved horror movies and one of the greatest remakes ever made.
The third example, The Blob, will be talked about right after this one. Here we have David Cronenberg’s The Fly. The Canadian body horror extraordinaire had achieved attention with his controversial Rabid from 1977 and less controversial offerings like 1981’s Scanners and 1983’s Videodrome. The 1986 remake of The Fly is his most commercially successful feature. So great is Cronenberg’s association with this version of the Fly that anything humanoid that takes on a grotesque, messed up appearence is called Cronenbergian.
Rick and Morty paid tribute to the Cronenberg style of body horror in the vein of Fly 86′ with the outstanding episode “Rick Potion No. 9″, where a terrible accident on the titular duo’s part transforms nearly all of the world’s inhabitants into monsters that would be right at home alongside the final form of Seth Brundle into a horrifying half-human/half-fly creature. That episode of Rick and Morty is more shocking for Rick’s “solution” to the problem he made than the monstrosities he unintentionally created. This stunned, memetic picture of Morty from that episode works pretty well when one views the final stage of the “Brundlefly” that Jeff Goldblum tragically transforms into. A mix of shock and sadness.
Before watching the remakes for both the Fly and Blob, I saw for the first time the original movies they are based on. The 1957 Fly stars David Hedison as the poor Canadian scientist who unintentionally undergoes an extreme makeover. You might know Hedison as one of the many actors who has portrayed James Bond’s CIA best buddy Felix Leiter, first in 1973’s Live and Let Die and in 1989’s License to Kill.
It is better known for featuring Vincent Price in a rare non-villainous role as the doomed doctor’s brother. Due to Vincent Price being the biggest profile in Fly 57′, it is commonly mistaken that Price plays the scientist who becomes the Fly. Despite how unconvincing the effect of the transformed man is by modern standards, the original Fly remains a deserved classic of 50s’ sci-fi horror, in a time when really bad sci-fi horror films, brought into the forefront due to anxiety over the atomic age, were a dime a dozen and looked almost as cheap as such.
There is one case of surprising violence that I just don’t know how it was possible to get away with back in the Production Code era of the time. The original film is told mostly through flashback so we see at the start the bright-red bloody result of how Hedison’s Fly dies. There’s obviously some discretion away from actually showing the Fly’s death, but it’s pretty daring for a 50s’ movie to go that far. It makes Cronenberg taking the concept up to 11 feel more appropriate seeing as how the original was already pushing, borderline passing the limit.
The new 80s’ Fly carries many subtle similarities to the first. The entrance to the lab, in this case also being the scientist’s apartment home, is a sliding wall door. There is a love interest who is absolutely torn up by her love’s predicament. The scientist, Goldblum’s Seth Brundle, eventually locks himself away for weeks to avoid anyone viewing him devolving into the ghastly creature, like with Hedison’s.
Cronenberg is absolutely committed to keeping as much away from the imagination as possible, though there’s one moment where he shies away from showing us one of the grossest things Brundle as the Fly can do. You do get to hear it so you’re not entirely spared. This piece of advice is self evident, but eat lightly or not at all while watching. I managed to keep my stomach settled pretty well in truth, perhaps because I already knew some of the worst to expect.
The Fly, gross as it is, is able to wrap you up in its incredible visual effects, without a drop of any CGI. What sticks out, other than the horrifically realized final form of the Fly is the less visceral effects.
In the earlier, more subtle stages of Seth’s transformation, he starts climbing effortlessly on the walls with effects that would be spot on for any modern Spider-Man movie. The framing of the shots makes me wonder how they actually did it as you see in the same frame a bunch of stuff that is not nailed down, like bottles, trash and other props on ground level. There’s also Seth Brundle demonstrating his new-found agility and strength, by spinning around on a pull up bar. Basically, you’re watching Peter Parker’s origins with a messed up twist.
The physical horror is what is brought up most with Cronenberg’s Fly, how could it not? But the psychological and emotional horror is also what makes it more than an expertly done barf bag feature. You see a shy, good natured man, who might be on the spectrum like myself, try to impress a woman journalist with his teleportation device. Essentially, like with the original, the catalyst to the Fly’s creation is a machine that has a utilitarian purpose: instantaneous transit to anywhere on the planet.
Both movies make the strong argument that we should probably at least be extremely careful or shouldn’t attempt at all in creating a transporter from Star Trek. Barring the anxieties of whether or not transporters kill and then replicate you with all your memories retained, the possibility of an incident similar to the Fly also makes it a disturbing risk. There are accidents from time to time in Star Trek’s otherwise banal example of the technology, but those never get in the way of transporters being an indispensable part of everyday life in the 23rd and 24th centuries.
Over the course of showing off and testing the technology to Ronnie (Geena Davis), they form a romantic relationship which is hard for me to swallow if only due to the time restraints of the film. They do make a cute coupling (before the horror, mind), but I suppose a romantic subplot was needed to explore more of the allegorical horror of this movie.
Cronenberg has stated his version of the Fly is related to the heartbreak and tribulations of living or knowing someone who is either declining due to old age or slowly withering away from a terminal illness, chances of recovery nil. Due to its 1986 release, many saw it as metaphor for the AIDS crisis, and that is especially easy to ascertain due to the appearance of Brundle in the early to mid stages. Cronenberg doesn’t dismiss this applicability whatsoever, but he meant for the message to be widely attributed to any depressing and disturbing downgrade of a human body and mind. While the visuals are definitely not for everyone, the theme is horribly universal.
What is almost as disturbing as the physical transformation of Brundle, where more and more of his human attributes simply fall off in place of something not human is his personality change. He first becomes hypersexual, having a nymphomaniacal need for sex. He is also faster, in both mind and agility, unable to hold attention on much save for baser needs and is both impressive and disquieting in what his proportionate fly strength gives him. Again, like Peter Parker but without any inhibition.
Eventually, his attempts to figure out a cure for this predicament begins to fold to the needs of his “fly side” and his humanity shrinks and shrinks and shrinks until in the end, his very final moments of existence where any human side left is only theoretical, such as the heartbreaking last action he makes.
The Fly will disturb you on multiple levels, assuming you have not yet already seen it, which is a more likely possibility statistically than any of Cronenberg’s other works. If you have the courage, in mind and in stomach, it’s also worthy of watching more than once, just to piece together the series of events as you see the mistakes Seth and Ronnie made, where things could have taken a less harrowing turn and to see how one phase leading to the Brundlefly reflects off the last part.
The same I will say of the Blob, but watch the original and this version back to back. The context and where Cronenberg gruesomely built on the 1957 edition will fascinate you.
The Blob (1988)
The 1958 Blob is a quintessential example of 1950’s B-movie sci-fi horror. Aside from Them! and Earth vs the Flying Saucers, if you want one movie to watch to get an idea of how American cinema handled themes of dangers from beyond and within our world, the original which features Steve Mcqueen in his first starring role is the one.
The Blob hits the sweet spot between being a just awful movie worthy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and an actual honest to God classic of sci-fi horror. It’s acting isn’t the best, but not bad. It’s effects are rarely state of the art but are imaginative and done with spirit. It contains and may well be one of the earliest examples of countless conventions for the type of film it is.
A tiny meteor crashes in the woods, containing an otherworldly..something that does not come in peace. Some hapless guy and his dog nearby just has to touch it, being inadvertently responsible for the peril to come. There is a teenage all-American couple, out at night, having an intimate date, when they respond to some strange occurrence nearby, though they really shouldn’t.
The titular Blob claims its first victim, the poor schmuck who put his hand where it shouldn’t and it sets off a chain of events which leads to a small American town stuck in some very sticky trouble. The teens try to warn the adults but they don’t believe them at first though eventually it’s impossible to ignore. The vindicated teens then help the rest of the adults defeat the Blob by finding some weakness by happy accident (not unlike your average Star Trek episode), and the film ends on an enjoyably ambiguous note of whether the Blob is defeated for good.
The manner of the Blob’s defeat, in that it is neutralized, not killed through the cold, and flown off to the Arctic where it can best stay immobilized takes on a terrifying new prevalence watching it in the 21st century. Basically, with the growing horrors of climate change, if the Blob actually existed and was defeated in the 1950s, then chances are very good we would be in deep s**t right about now.
The 1988 Blob is actually close to the original, most so at the start. It involves again, a meteor falling to Earth with what else inside it. An old man and his dog nearby spot the crash and decide to poke at it with a stick. The blob comes out, the old man is doomed the moment it makes contact on his skin and a group of teenagers, one of which is a young pre-Entourage Kevin Dillon, get him to a hospital.
Once we reach the hospital, the Blob 88′ takes on a format that’s different enough but still echoes the original. Certain set pieces, like the Blob’s iconic assault on a movie theater, with moviegoers running out screaming, is retained. The weakness of the blob is the same though the outcome changes into something more explosive. This is a remake that feels genuinely like an update rather than a retread. It is certainly a scarier film where the survival of some characters are actually not guaranteed.
While some characters’ survival in the end is entirely expected, some fates are genuinely surprising and add to the utterly terrifying way the Blob does in its victims. Due to the aforementioned “production code” in place in the 50s, how the original Blob kills people is left almost entirely to the imagination. People that the Blob consume simply disappear.
Here, you see how they die and go****n if it ain’t some of the worst ways to check out I’ve seen in a motion picture. Like with the Fly and Thing remakes, these updates succeed so well because there is something new to add to the experience that was either not permitted or possible back in the day. In the 1980s, audiences got to see old stories breathed with new life in the most obvious way: take what was already had to its stomach-churning furthest extent.
The Blob, in spite of the disturbing ends to many characters, is still a fun movie. It has a faster pace which at times reminded me of the same breathless motion of James Cameron’s Aliens up to a point. You get to have the female lead (played by Shawnee Smith) take on a much more active role in surviving and fighting the blob than the more passive one from the original, alongside Dillon’s male lead.
The effects, if you couldn’t already tell, are outstandingly impressive and for the most part are just as good now as they were in 1988, not that I would know seeing as how I didn’t exist in 1988. There are some genuine surprises in store and it has a really spooky score by Michael Hoenig, which underlies the more serious tone to the comparatively more playful first.
It’s co-written by Frank Darabont who wouldn’t be done with showcasing visceral horror, with getting Walking Dead’s TV adaptation off the ground and his 2007 film of Stephen King’s The Mist. It was directed by Chuck Russell, who the prior year directed the best regarded Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, the third, Dream Warriors.
Like with the other 80s updates of 50s sci-fi horror, you might want to be wary of the gross out factor that possibly lies in wait for you. Here, it’s more shocking and even awe-inspiring than digestively unsettling, but not everyone is me. I wholeheartedly endorse it. I think you will find it… an absorbing watch.
Next time will either be my overdue thoughts on the latest Resident Evil game or my next part of my 80s film retrospective.