October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article exploring our picks for the ten best slices of Hong Kong horror is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
We probably don’t need to explain to horror fans that filmmakers in the U.S. don’t have a monopoly on the genre. This year’s two best horror films, for example, come from Spain (When Evil Lurks) and Australia (Talk to Me). Past years, past decades even, have also seen the cream of the nightmarish crop cross seas and borders to reach our eyes. That’s all to say that other countries know how to bring the spooky, weird, and gory goods.
There are boom periods and busts, though, and while the film industry in the U.S. is big and broad enough that there’s no stopping it, smaller industries in smaller countries don’t have that luxury. Giallo films were big business in Italy in the 70s and 80s, but when they lost favor with the public, they pretty much stopped making them. To the point of this post, something similar can be said about Hong Kong’s production of its own particular brand of horror movies — although the Chinese handover in 1997 probably had more to do with it than fading public interest.
Hong Kong has produced horror films for as long as they’ve been making movies, but their sweet spot was objectively a stretch between the 80s and 90s. So-called Cat III films — movies “given” the Category III rating signifying adult content in the form of extreme violence/gore, sexual imagery, or even incredibly dark themes — found their niche with wild visuals, absolutely bonkers set-pieces, crazy/cruel pairings of T&A and terror, gross things going in and out of people’s mouths, slime-covered monstrosities, heavy doses of the weird and fantastical, and lots and lots of blood.
Anything is possible in a Hong Kong horror movie — you often, quite literally, have no idea what’s going to happen next — and that WTF insanity makes “Hong Kong horror” a force to be reckoned with. With more than two decades of prime HK horror goodness to enjoy, there’s no shortage of new discoveries. I’m still finding new favorites on a regular basis, and the odds are quite good that you will, too, after checking out the ten movies we’re highlighting below. So keep reading for the ten best Hong Kong horror movies. Basically, our favorites as of the time we compiled this list, as ranked by Chris “克里斯” Coffel, Brad “布拉德” Gullickson, Meg “梅格” Shields, Jacob “雅各” Trussell, and me,
10. Seeding of a Ghost (1983)
The first Shaw Brothers production to make the list, Yang Chuan‘s Seeding of a Ghost is a wild tale of murder and vengeance splattered with magic, goop, and “sexy” shenanigans. A taxi driver crosses paths with a magic man through no fault of his own, and his life soon turns to shit. When his wife has an affair, is attacked, and ultimately killed, the man loses it and makes a very poor decision. Like, historically poor. A wonderfully weird horror film through and through, there’s a method to the madness as it’s ultimately a warning about the dangers and high costs of seeking revenge. Inappropriate interactions with corpses, vile eating scenes, possession, uncomfortable birthing experiences, spinal extractions, spectral boinking, an epic wizard battle, a gory mahjong party, some crazy creature with tentacles… this is the good stuff, people. (Rob Hunter)
9. Wicked City (1992)
Based on Hideyuki Kikuchi’s novel of the same name (which also served as source material for the especially rad 1987 anime), Peter Mak’s 1992 sci-fi/horror film, in a word, slaps. Unbeknownst to the rest of the civilized world, the Earth is in constant conflict with a species of interdimensional beings called Rapters,” shape-shifting beings whose powers range from “turning into a demonic, multi-limbed spider thing” to “ray-gun nails.” Our heroes are Taki (Hideyuki Kikuchi) and Ken Kai (Jacky Cheung), two secret agents who harbor sympathies for Rapters that complicate their work. Things get even stickier when Rapter in-fighting exposes a plot to take advantage of the 1997 Hong Kong transfer to subjugate humankind further. Featuring some truly jaw-dropping practical effects, Wicked City is a genre amalgam that takes no prisoners, embraces chaos, and spares no expense with optical effects. (Meg Shields)
8. The Cat (1992)
You had to know a Lam Nai-choi film was going to make the cut, but surprise — he made the list twice! (And if we felt Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky was a horror movie, he would be on here three times.) This was Lam’s final film, and the man went out on top before presumably taking a bow and levitating up into the sky. What starts as a slightly odd tale involving nosy neighbors, museum pieces, and Hong Kong triads soon reveals itself as a story about saving Earth itself. A writer discovers a strange trio comprised of an old man, a teenage girl, and a spunky cat, who are actually aliens trying to defeat a dangerous monster. Eyeballs pop, limbs are severed, a giant alien protrusion wreaks deadly havoc, and more. Oh, and we also get an epic chase/fight between the cat and a tough dog that sees them tear through a junkyard like Tom and Jerry brought to life with puppets, “stunts,” and sharp editing. This is one nutty ride. (Rob Hunter)
7. The Eternal Evil of Asia (1995)
Stick with me here, but this mid-90s romp is like The Hangover 2 but legitimately funny, creatively vile, and filled to the brim with supernaturally sleazy shenanigans. A group of friends head to Thailand for fun in the sun, but a good time turns into assault and ends with murder. As it does. Turns out the boys are now cursed and must find a way to fight back. This one delivers all the expected Cat III antics while also finding a messy sense of humor. It shouldn’t surprise you that director Cash Chin Man-kei‘s filmography is mostly softcore cinema, but he pairs that lusty side with some genuine horror wackiness here. Demons have sex in mid-air while dropping bombs on the wizard below. One guy is made to eat himself, a woman fellates an invisible man, and another guy has his head turned into a literal dick head. Anyway, Bradley Cooper would never. (Rob Hunter)
6. The Imp (1981)
While many (most?) of the films on this list go apeshit bonkers at one point or another, delivering a ton of WTF fun, Dennis Yu‘s 1981 classic is a rarity in that it takes things deadly serious. Sure, the first half is a bit playful in its setup that sees a security guard taking a job in an unfortunate building and dealing with creepy lighting and strange deaths, but when things take a turn, they absolutely take a turn. His pregnant wife gets involved, and suddenly, the fun turns into beats, both cruel and frightening. The film finds some truly effective scares in its third act while enjoying giallo-esque lighting, intense set pieces, and a wonderfully devastating final freeze frame. Do yourself a favor and double-feature this with Yu’s more bonkers but equally great horror effort, Evil Cat. (Rob Hunter)
5. A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)
A Chinese Ghost Story is unlike any “ghost story” Western audiences may be familiar with. Think of it like a historical fantasy, just infused with the sensibilities of a splatter movie. Tax collector and certifiable dummy Ning Choi-san (Leslie Cheung) unintentionally stumbles into a romance with young maiden Nip Siu-sin (Joey Wong), who — surprise, surprise — is actually a ghost. Even worse? She’s arranged to be married to Lord Black of the underworld. With the help of a Daoist priest/samurai/rapper, our lovesick dum-dum works to save his ghost-girlfriend so she can be reincarnated into a new body and not banished to hell for all eternity. Produced by legendary filmmaker Tsui Hark, this movie is a wild mashup of genres — from romance to body horror, kung-fu actioner to zany comedy. But the pièce de résistance is the film’s effects. Not only do we have stop-motion zombies and skeleton puppets, but we get gigantic human tongues that transform into John Carpenter-esque abominations. There’s even a giant demon with a torso filled with hungry human heads that can fly. If you want to see a kung-fu-horror-rom-com that feels deeply indebted to the splat-tastic look and feel of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead series, look no further than A Chinese Ghost Story. (Jacob Trussell)
4. We’re Going to Eat You (1980)
From a classy genre effort above produced by Tsui Hark to a B-movie blast directed by the man himself. Hark may be best known for action movies, but when he sets his mind to it, the guy is more than comfortable blending horror, comedy, and dark fantasy with the fights. Here, he sends a good guy to an island to investigate the goings on, only to discover the locals have a taste for human flesh. Gory cannibalistic imagery shares the screen with some legitimately funny humor, a healthy amount of high-quality fights, and more. Once things kick in, the plot takes a backseat to physical comedy gags and a life-or-death struggle by a handful of non-cannibals to escape those who seem very adamant about eating them. Hark adds to the unsettling vibe by lifting parts of the Suspiria score, and ain’t no one complaining. (Rob Hunter)
3. The Seventh Curse (1986)
Dr. Yuen (Chin Siu-ho) is a charming womanizer who always finds himself in sticky situations. On an expedition to Thailand to search for a cure to AIDS, Yuen’s chivalry takes over, and he saves a young woman (Chui Sau-lai) from being sacrificed to the Worm Tribe. The tribe responds by placing a blood spell on Yuen that causes vessels in his leg to pop. The seventh pop will reach his heart and kill him. No good deed, amirite? Yuen is able to get a temporary antidote to put the curse in check for a year, but without a permanent cure he faces certain doom.
Director Lam Ngai Kai’s horror adventure is a gross-out shocker with pulsating wounds that explode into a goopy, worm-infested mess. There’s a disgusting baby thing that might be part lizard? It has a big head and a giant tail, and it enjoys chomping down on human flesh. The baby creature is second fiddle to the Old Ancestor, a decrepit skeleton with glowing blue eyes. Chow Yun-fat makes an appearance as our hero doctor’s best friend and mentor and the lovable Maggie Cheung plays a pushy journalist who will do anything for a story, like bash a cop in the back of the head with a brick so she can go undercover as a nurse during an active hostage situation. If that ain’t cinema, I don’t know what is. (Chris Coffel)
2. The Bride With White Hair (1993)
You know how it goes. You set off to battle a cult, meet an orphan raised by wolves, fall madly in love with her, and discover she’s now palling around with that cult. Ronnie Yu adapts a classic wuxia novel, injects it with a heavy dose of Romeo and Juliet, and adds a heap of his own flavor. The Bride with White Hair delivers on each of its ingredients and is elevated by how they mix in with each other. It’s a mad soup of a movie; it’s easy to guzzle down and leaves ya a little drunk afterward. Yu had directed several movies before this one, but you can see why it and its sequel would garner Western attention and send him hurtling into horror franchises with Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs. Jason. The Bride with White Hair breaks your heart as often as it mends it. It’s soaking with romance, anger, and action. It’s bombastic and sweet simultaneously, and once digested, it doesn’t leave your system. (Brad Gullickson)
1. Dream Home (2010)
I’ve sung the praises of Pang Ho-cheung‘s absolutely brutal slasher/horror film many times before, and now I’m doing it again. An incredibly good Josie Ho stars as a young woman who’s finally able to afford a nice condo for her and her parents, but when she’s screwed over and left in the cold, she completely and utterly snaps. Pang and Ho wisely keep things serious as hell from her character’s perspective, and while some blackly comic moments sneak by on occasion, the film’s tone is clear. Part of that is due to the themes of class divide and a system built to fuck us over, but the heaviness also comes through in the brutally violent and determined kills that she unleashes. It’s a mean film in its outcomes, but Ho ensures it’s also a heartbreaking one as we watch a good woman pushed over the edge by a society that just doesn’t care. Watch this one as soon as you can, but have a comedy ready to go immediately afterward. (Rob Hunter)
You don’t have to go to Hong Kong for wild, scary, and goo-filled horrors. You can just read more 31 Days of Horror Lists until your eyeballs bleed.