Director Dennis Yu’s “The Imp” is a Hong Kong horror film from the early 1980s, which comes with the heady boast of being one of the all-time genre greats from its native country. Whilst this may sound like a rather immodest claim, it is certainly true that the film has garnered a fair amount of praise over the years and has managed to establish enough of a fan base to have been remade and re-released several times. Upon viewing “The Imp”, it is quite easy to see why this has been the case, as although it does not really live up to its reputation, it does provide an almost archetypal example of the modern Hong Kong horror film.
Combining a mixture of traditional practices and beliefs with modern conventions and special effects, “The Imp” certainly seems to have had a great influence on the country’s horror genre, not least of which in its use of mist and eerie green neon to generate atmosphere and accentuate the supernatural. Whilst this is now a device which has long outstayed its welcome, it has rarely been utilised as skilfully and effectively as it is here, giving the proceedings a creepy, ominous feel. Unfortunately, the film suffers from a slow pace and takes itself far too seriously to be considered the classic it claims to be, though it certainly remains an above average and worthwhile entry for any fans of the genre.
The plot follows a luckless man, Keung (Charles Chin, also in Sammo Hung’s classic “Eastern Condors”), who takes a job as a security guard in a shopping mall to make ends meet and provide for his pregnant wife. Keung’s happiness at finding work soon turns sour after a series of strange events kill several of his colleagues in grisly, inexplicable fashion. Aided by a mysterious priest, he investigates the seemingly supernatural deaths, only to find that the evil forces following him around may have their sights set on his wife and unborn child.
Yu, who was also responsible for the sadly overlooked genre entry “Evil Cat”, is a skilled director, and he strikes a nice balance between the traditional and modern elements in “The Imp”. The result is a convincing and imaginative setting, where sorcerers and evil spirits stalk the shadowy corridors of the shopping mall, and characters must rely on ancient magic to survive. Although fairly common in Hong Kong genre cinema, this approach is relatively under utilised in the West, and makes for interesting viewing and for a plot which has some semblance of theological depth. Yu also has a good eye for detail, and goes to some pains to include a number of smaller aspects of superstition, such as the link between pregnancy and cooking stoves.
The down side is that the film moves at a fairly slow pace, and there are a few stretches where very little happens. Although Yu does throw in some zombies and a nasty surgical scene, he seems mostly concern with suggesting rather than showing anything menacing. A few extra scares would certainly not have been gratuitous, and without them, the film may be a little light on visceral content for modern viewers.
In relation to this, the film does seem to be taking itself far too seriously, and it lacks much of the energetic, unpredictable chaos often associated with Hong Kong horror. The rather po-faced, deadpan approach continues throughout, leading the film to a fairly surprising, downbeat ending which gives the whole affair a grittier feel than many of its peers. This does make a few scenes in the film laughably overwrought in their earnestness, though to Yu’s credit he does at least make the effort of developing the central protagonist, a move which is all too rare in modern genre films.
Yu does manage to keep things interesting, not only through the intriguing plot, but also in terms of the film’s strong visuals. Instead of simply relying on shadowy gloom to create an oppressive atmosphere, he shows an inventive use of green and blue light which chillingly invokes a truly otherworldly feel. There are a number of genuinely arresting images in the film, mostly towards the end as the supernatural activity reaches its peak. As is the case in many of the best ghost stories, Yu makes excellent use of sounds effects, both in terms of suggesting the presence of spirits, and in notching up the tension and giving the viewer a number of quick scares.
Unfortunately, such atmospherics may well be wasted on some viewers who expect more action and out and out horror, and indeed, from this perspective, “The Imp” is a little disappointing. However, for those who enjoy more old fashioned ghost stories which focus on psychological fear rather than flying viscera, or for those curious to see one of the progenitors of the modern form of Hong Kong horror, “The Imp” is certainly well worth checking out.
Dennis Yu (director) / Kam-moon Cheung, Ping-hing Kam, Dun Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Kent Cheng …. Fatty
Ching Wong …. Mr. Hong Kong