Hong Kong horror movies are increasingly rare these days and the last time I saw one was the 2018 forgettable horror-comedy anthology called Lucid Dreams <八步半喜怒哀樂>, where screen veteran Teddy Robin Kwan serves triple duties as a star, director and co-writer.
But back in its 1980s heydays, there were a few notable Hong Kong horror movies such as Kuei Chih-Hung’s Bewitched <蠱> (1981) and The Boxer’s Omen <魔> (1983) and of course, the massively popular vampire-comedy Mr Vampire <殭屍先生> (1985). Then, there was The Imp <凶榜>, which recently marked its 40th anniversary earlier in November this year.
The movie starred Charlie Chin as an unemployed man named Keung, who has been struggling to land a job, despite countless interviews. His wife, Lan (Dorothy Yu Yee-Ha) is heavily pregnant and she’s worried about their current financial instability. Although his wife did advise him to take up a job at her father’s bra factory, Keung insists on finding work all by himself.
Soon, he manages to secure one working as a night security guard in a commercial building. Everything seems fine at first, with Keung instantly making friends with fellow colleagues (among them include Chan Shen’s Old Uncle Han, Kent Cheng’s Fatty and Wong Ching’s Mr Hong Kong). Then, strange things start to occur and Keung is the first one who experienced them. No one believes him what he tells them about the sinister things he saw in the building one night.
It doesn’t take long before one of them ends up dead under mysterious circumstances. When Keung and the rest attend their deceased colleague’s funeral, Taoist geomancer Master Chiu (Yueh Hua) happens to be there as well and discovers there’s an evil force lurking in their workplace.
Looking back at the movie today, The Imp <凶榜> still creeps me out with its overall chilling atmosphere, where director Dennis Yu (Wan-Kwong) favours ominous dread and build-up tension over typical jump scares (even though there are few of them). He deserves equal praise for making good use of space and sound effects to evoke a foreboding sense of terror. Speaking of space, he and cinematographers Bob Thompson and David Chung (Chi-Man) actually shot the movie on location (then-newly-built United Centre at 95 Queensway, Admiralty, to be exact).
Although, of course, Yu’s constant use of green fog and lighting are awfully clichéd by today’s standards and they have been done to death in countless Hong Kong horror movies ever since. Both gore effects and the makeup (particularly the pasty-faced Lan), in the meantime, look either dated or unconvincing.
The Imp <凶榜> may run a reasonable 95-minute length but the movie’s deliberate pace might be a turn-off for those hoping for a pacey horror movie. But I like how Yu is taking his time developing his story and particularly, his main character surrounding Keung’s personal struggles. We see how he tries his best to cope with constant disappointments over his failure during the job interviews. Yu also spends time focusing on his relationship with his wife, Lan and his interactions with fellow colleagues.
It even helps that Charlie Chin, once a Taiwanese heartthrob during the ’70s, displays a perfectly restrained performance as Keung, proving that he’s versatile enough to handle a dramatic role. It was undoubtedly one of his best performances to date, where he continues to show his dramatic side in notable Hong Kong movies including Coolie Killer <殺出西營盤> (1982) and the (sadly) little-seen On The Run <亡命鴛鴦> (1988). Of course, most mainstream audiences at the time remembered him well as part of the mischievous Five Lucky Stars gang in the first three Lucky Stars <福星系列> action-comedies (1983’s Winners And Sinners <奇謀妙計五福星> as well as 1985’s My Lucky Stars <福星高照> and Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars <夏日福星>).
The movie is also blessed with strong supporting turns, notably Yueh Hua as well as Dorothy Yu and Kent Cheng in one of his earlier acting roles. Back to the story, the screenplay — credited to Gam Bing-Hing, Lee Dang and Cheung Gam-Moon — subtly infuses familiar themes of fate and karma into the Hong Kong horror tropes. And here, Yu chose to present them in a gradually pessimistic fashion with only a hint of comic relief.
The Imp <凶榜> was only Dennis Yu’s third directorial effort and he’s already proven both of his skill and talent behind the cameras. He was also known as part of the crucial film movement of the Hong Kong New Wave, where he made the controversial rape-revenge horror The Beasts <山狗> a year earlier. But Yu’s directing career was short-lived and only active during the 1980s (his last directorial effort would be 1987’s Evil Cat <凶貓>) before calling it quits.