It just doesn’t pay to be a reporter in a horror movie nowadays. Mixing elements of “Ring” with “The Blair Witch Project”, the Hong Kong product “Horror Hotline: Big Head Monster” is not as silly as you might think by the, well, silly title. The reporter here is Mavis (Josie Ho), an American reporter in Hong Kong to explore Chinese local legend. She hooks up with Ben (Francis Ng), the producer of the Horror Hotline radio show, and goes in search of a notorious monster with a big head, multiple eyes, and the ability to scare people into comas.
I know people who swear by “Ring” as one of the scariest things they’ve ever seen on film. I must disagree. While it had its moments, the film was very hard to sit through, mostly because its horror elements didn’t, in my humble opinion, make up for the long stretches of tedium. “Horror Hotline” borrows so heavily from the Japanese film that it’s hard not to call it another “Ring” clone, although most people seem to consider “Hotline” to be more of a “Blair Witch” clone because of its “let’s run around with a videocamera and show everything from the videocamera’s POV” ending.
Like the Japanese movie that started the craze, the mystery in “Hotline” begins with a single event — in this case, a phone call to the radio show. From this moment on, it’s up to our enterprising reporter Mavis and disheveled producer Ben to seek out witnesses and, slowly but surely, discover the tainted past of the big head monster. As has been the case with horror movies that borrows heavily from both “Blair Witch” and “Ring”, don’t expect to see everyone alive by movie’s end.
While “Hotline” defies its silly title with a moody and atmospheric and sometimes even creepy ghost story, it is still not half as impressive as the horrific elements of “The Eye”, the movie that has set new standards for real horror movies in Hong Kong. Actually, the most interesting aspect of “Hotline” isn’t even the hunt for the ghost, but rather the personal lives of its two leads, Francis Ng (“Bullets Over Summer”) and Josie Ho (“Purple Storm”).
It’s Ben’s relationship with his girlfriend Helen (Niki Chow) and Mavis’ struggles with her belief system that makes “Hotline” most enjoyable to watch. The hunt for the legend, while being well shot and coherently structured by director Cheang Soi, is simply not capable of keeping our attention for very long. Soi uses a lot of moody situations and darken camera set-ups to help build the atmosphere, and thus inform us that this is a serious horror film. Actually, you’ll notice the same mood enhancing cinematography in all serious Hong Kong horror films nowadays.
Perennial background player Sam Lee (“Ping Pong”) appears as Sam, a witness to the existence of the big head monster. His character ends up in a hospital where Niki Chow’s Helen works. Helen, incidentally, is also a much more interesting story than the monster hunt. Niki Chow offers up just the right amount of sorrow and intelligence, not to mention her suddenly parental attitude toward the comatose Sam. Chow does impressive work here, and it doesn’t hurt that she looks a lot like Hong Kong star Cecelia Cheung. I’m looking forward to her future works.
“Horror Hotline” is not a scary film. It has some very nice moments, but on the whole its ghost story is less intriguing than the personal lives of the people hunting the story. The “Blair Witch” ending is a bit lacking in that it doesn’t even attempt to hide the obvious theft, and the film does offer a number of inconsistencies in its storyline. But it’s a well-done Hong Kong horror film, and in a film industry infamous for mass-producing junk, “Hotline” is pretty good.
Cheang Soi (director) / Sunny Chan, Wing-Sun Chan, Pou-Soi Cheang, Cheang Soi (screenplay)
CAST: Francis Ng …. Ben
Josie Ho …. Mavis
Sam Lee …. Sam
Niki Chow …. Helen