Hocus Pocus (1984)
by: Chin Yuet Sang
While Sammo Hung's Encounters Of The Spooky Kind wasn't the first film to combine elements of horror and martial arts (Lau Kar-Leung's Spiritual Boxer can claim it was first), it still was the movie that made everyone want to make their take on the combination. Not that Chin Yuet Sang's Hocus Pocus is that similar to EOTSK but it would no doubt never been made if it wasn't for Sammo's classic.
An opera troupe led by Master Sheng (Lam Ching Ying) gets an unwelcome visit from a ghost who's main purpose and drive seems to be sabotaging the preparations and performance for the troupe. By drawing it out and making it talk it is revealed that the ghosts remains are buried under the opera stage. It's dug out and buried in a better place but something goes wrong a while after the burial...
Actor, action choreographer and director are all areas where Chin Yuet Sang has been working in over the years but despite a big list of credits, he's never become one of the industries high profiles. In Hocus Pocus he is both directing and acting and we'll start with the filmmaker Chin Yuet Sang. He chooses a nice 2.35:1-frame to show off this production and the sets and surroundings do their part in making us feel at home in the period setting. Many of the sets seem familiar and were probably standing sets at the Golden Harvest studious. The stairwell reminded me of the one in the brothel seen in Iron Fisted Monk to just give one example. You do save money that way but it doesn't make Hocus Pocus feel very unique in the already crowded genre of movies.
While there are flaws to be find the director keeps things moving along quite nicely. The main problem is a loose script that doesn't kick in the main plot element until very late in the movie. It can be argued that Chin Yuet Sang is trying to build up tension and excitement regarding the motivation of the ghost but he's not skilled enough to have a grip on an audience like that. While we wonder when something is going to happen, he fills out the movie with a handful of scenes where the troupe members are trying to scare each other through practical jokes and whatnot. These are sporadically amusing but doesn't elevate the plot and ultimately feels like padding of the running time. The only really stand out aspect of Chin Yuet Sang's direction is a couple of well executed point of view- and tracking shots, especially one towards the end.
The best aspect of Hocus Pocus is the various forms of choreography from Sammo Hung and his stunt group. It's mostly exhilarating to see the different scenes of Chinese opera being performed. Even though the singing may be hard to grasp for us westerners, the acrobatics are first rate and fun to watch. The standout scene is one where two performers are manipulated by the ghost while performing a complex fight scene on stage. Here the camerawork and the choreography triumph and it's shame this was the only awesome bit in the film. The finale is also fairly exciting (for a 1984 production) with some nice wire- and stunt work on display. There's no big end fight though but it wouldn't be very logic in terms of the little story that there is. Not Sammo's best work but certainly nice to see his touch on this production.
Stephen Tung is a respected action choreographer and he's also had time to sit in the directing chair on a few occasions (Hitman for example). As an actor, this movie is more known and he's also seen as Chow Yun-Fat's informer in Hard Boiled. I'm glad he decided to work behind the camera but he certainly doesn't hurt this film in the acting department. He isn't leading man material but displays enough charm and energy as well as adequate performing in the action moments in the film.
The late, great Lam Ching Ying has a supporting role in this pre-Mr. Vampire part and what's always a joy to see in his acting is the sense of authority he projects. He is someone to look up to and respect and even though he's not a Taoist priest in this one, there's still some good old magic he performs while fighting the ghosts. Director Chin Yuet Sang himself plays the naughty ghost under a great deal of prosthetic make-up. His performance results in a few laughs but, as with the movie itself, isn't too memorable.
Hocus Pocus is a passable time-waster but not really essential viewing in the Hong Kong horror-comedy genre.
Megastar's dvd presents the movie in it's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The good thing is that colours are fairly vivid for an old movie but print defects drag down the transfer quality quite a bit. At times the picture is clean but when print damage rears it's head, it's VERY noticeable. Lines, specks, wavy lines almost dominate certain scenes. Darker scenes don't look very good either and the colour timing is off in a few scenes also.
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 remix has a few very noticeable badly added effects but stays centered otherwise. A 5.1 Mandarin track is also included.
The English subtitles contain very little errors and are placed high enough for us widescreen owners to zoom in as much as we need. Good work, Megastar! Japanese, Korean, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese subtitles are also selectable.
Extras consists of...*sigh*...a plot synopsis, basic bios for Lam Ching Ying and Sammo Hung plus trailers for Hocus Pocus, The Dead And The Deadly and A Bite Of Love.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson