The Trail (1981) Movie Review

“The Trail” is an early film from Hong Kong director Ronny Yu, best remembered for his classic “The Bride with White Hair”, and who would later go on to underwhelm horror fans with “Freddy vs. Jason”. “The Trail” is a ghoulish treat which provides a showcase for the talents Yu once displayed before being tempted into becoming a booster for tired Hollywood franchises. Despite a handful of modern trappings, including a rather shamefully stolen soundtrack, Yu crafts an incredibly atmospheric slice of uniquely Eastern horror, which is rich with morbid mysticism and stunning visuals.

The plot begins as a young man is murdered whilst trying to protect his wife from the advances of a sleazy landlord, and is drowned in an aquarium for his troubles. Trying to cover up his crime, the killer leaves the corpse with two priests, Captain (Kent Cheng, star of the cat III classic “Run and Kill”) and his sidekick Ying (Ricky Hui, also in the cult favourite “Mr. Vampire”), who guide the recently dead to their places of rest (in the ‘hopping’ zombie/ghost style). It transpires that the two are actually part of a gang of incompetent opium smugglers, and their bumbling results in the corpse being lost in the depths of a swamp. But the dead husband soon resurfaces as a vengeful zombie that tries to murder the smugglers and all who cross its vengeful path, leaving it up to the rascally priests to try to stop its rampage.

The first thing that viewers will note about “The Trail” is the music playing over the opening credits, which just happens to be a bad keyboard rendition of Ennio Morricone’s score for John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, which came out in the same year. Fortunately, this blatant, low-rent plagiarism is soon forgotten as Yu’s excellent visual style kicks in with some ominous opening shots which nicely establish the film’s supernatural theme. The whole film is filled with creepy locations, including a shadowy, cobweb strewn forest and a crumbling temple, all of which are exploited to their full potential.

Along with the score, the way Yu shoots the film seems to suggest a strong John Carpenter influence. This is nicely teamed with the director’s own Eastern style, and without relying too much on the tried and tested methods of green neon and dry ice, Yu manages to imbue almost every frame of “The Trail” with a truly sinister feel. Although there are only a handful of genuine scares, the proceedings are generally chilling, in a pleasingly old fashioned way.

“The Trail” is remarkably coherent for a 1980s Hong Kong horror film, and though it does contain a fair amount of weirdness, the plot progresses in a vaguely logical fashion, with the narrative basically following the deeds of the zombie. There is a nice attention to detail involving Eastern rituals regarding the dead and traditional magic, and they function quite nicely as part of the plot rather than being simply thrown in as an excuse for set pieces, as is so often the case.

The film as a whole is gruesome without being gory, and there are only a few splashes of blood, mainly during the opening and closes stages. There are a fair few special effects scenes scattered throughout, including some excellent slimy makeup for the zombie, which recalls the undead lepers in Carpenter’s “The Fog”. Yu relies more upon imaginative stalking scenes rather than sudden frights to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats. In this he succeeds, as the film is entertaining and engaging, managing to hold the interest through its relatively short running time. Yu also includes a fair amount of action, including a handful of martial arts scenes, though the film as a whole is far more deliberately paced than most of the director’s later efforts.

Thankfully, “The Trail” does not contain the broad streak of odd slapstick humour which mars and dilutes the effectiveness of so many genre efforts from Hong Kong. There are a few gag scenes, though these are generally amicable, mainly due to the considerable charisma of Cheng and Hui, who turn in very likeable performances as the priests. As a result of these successful elements, the film can be taken quite seriously and as a genuine genre entry. The only unnecessary scenes come in the form of a truly bizarre tacked on ending which seems to be an attempt to spoof “The Exorcist”, and seems to belong in another film entirely.

These questionable scenes notwithstanding, “The Trail” is an excellent example of Hong Kong horror, and compares favourably to the vast majority of more modern genre efforts despite being more than 30 years old. Drenched with creepy atmospherics, and benefiting hugely from the director’s distinctive visual style, this is a film which deserves to be rediscovered, not only by those curious to see Yu’s early works, but also by horror fans in general.

Ronny Yu (director)
CAST: Anthony Chan …. Reader
Kent Cheng …. Captain
Tat-wah Cho …. Drunken Husband
Fat Chung …. Flint
Victor Hon …. Thug with Knife
Ricky Hui …. Ying
Mars …. Fatty

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