One of the main reasons to do a Ronny Yu career retrospective is to see how the hell this great Hong Kong director ended up in another part of the world making (SPOILER FOR THIS REVIEW SERIES) BRIDE OF CHUCKY and FREDDY VS. JASON, so it’s relevant that as early as 1983 (at which point there were only three Jason movies, zero Freddys, and zero Chuckys) he was already doing horror movies. Funny ones, too. THE TRAIL is Ronny Yu’s fourth film, never available in the U.S. as far as I can tell, so at first I thought I wouldn’t be able to see it. But I discovered I could order a Region 3 DVD that Fortune Star released in 2010, and there’s also a blu-ray out there. That’s good news, because I really enjoyed this one.
Horror comedies will end up being a big chunk of Yu’s career, but he’ll mostly set them in the present. This one takes place in 1922, in what seems to be a transitional period between old traditions and the modern world. (I guess that describes most period pieces, in a way.) It’s the story of Ying (Ricky Hui, MR. VAMPIRE) and Captain (Kent Cheng, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA, IP MAN 2 and 3), two conmen impersonating Taoist priests transporting corpses.
Well, they call them “corpses,” but they’re upright, and they hop along in single-file, following the ringing of a bell. This is a movie that rarely feels it has to explain itself, which mostly makes it a strong and intriguing story, but possibly makes it hard for me to pick up on a few of the cultural/historic things. I believe the idea is that they’re vampires subdued by means of spells written down and taped over their faces, and the priests must be bringing them to wherever you dispose of such material.
But they’re not really vampires either – beneath the death shrouds are Captain and Ying’s partners, disguised as dead people to smuggle opium through official checkpoints. I wasn’t able to pick up on everybody’s names, but among them are martial arts directors Chung Fat (TWO FISTS AGAINST THE LAW) and Mars (PROJECT A).
Their troubles come from a scary rich guy, Master Miao (Miao Tian, DRAGON INN, HALF A LOAF OF KUNG FU), after he murders a married couple on his fancy houseboat. He’s introduced as a hand (with long pinky nail) clutching prayer beads, which he will carry throughout the movie, despite not embodying any religious values that I can detect. He hires the singer (Tsui Siu-Ling, THE BUTTERFLY MURDERS) and makes her instrumentalist husband wait on the deck because he “wants an a capella performance today.” When the husband hears a scream he storms in and the master drowns him in his fish tank.
(I didn’t know fish tanks were a sign of opulence even before MTV’s Cribs.)
To cover up the murder, the master and his staff wrap up the husband’s body like a mummy and pressure the so-called priests into transporting it along with the others.
So they figure out a way to do it, and kind of luck out: it happens to be the bonafide dead body that a suspicious border guard tests by pouring deadly Tibetan ants on it. Could’ve been trouble there if he chose any of the other ones.
Once they’re on the road the “bodies” unmask and we see what a cool team of badasses they are. One is a goofball who’s endlessly amused by his own arm tattoo of boobies. Another carries a metal boomerang that you fucking know he’s masterful with. In one of the funniest and coolest scenes, he hears movement in the trees and throws the boomerang. Suddenly they’re confronted by some angry tattooed natives. Captain knows their language and talks with one of them for a minute, the guy angrily gesturing about the boomerang.
“What’s going on?” asks a guy called Bookworm.
“He wants his ear back.”
This leads to a big laugh (calmly negotiating to cut off both of Ying’s ears in trade) and some action (instead of hacking the ear he throws his knife and everyone attacks) and we get to see that even though these guys bicker and make fun of each other, when shit like this goes down they all know what to do and how to work together. A great badass team. And I like that we never really know for sure if Ying knew that was the plan or if he really thought he was about to lose his ears.
Other dangers they run into include a tiger (there is some awkward footage of a real one), a spider (chopped by boomerang), rats, and a sulphur pit that two of them sink into. When they climb out the body falls in and they decide to leave it.
Later the pit begins to bubble, the dead guy climbs out and he kills the only witness – an owl. As the smugglers begin to hear about animal deaths in the area they figure out that the body they ditched has come back as a vampire. Not a hopping one, though. He lumbers around like a mummy or zombie, growling like a sasquatch, mauling people and animals like a wampa. We mostly see him as a shadow or closeups of his clumsy feet or blobby, disgusting hands.
There are two things that are really gross that would be taboo in American movies. First, I believe they use a bunch of real dead pigs and chickens for the dead pigs and chickens. Second, because supposedly “There are only three ways to deal with a vampire: talisman, net, and a boy’s urine,” they convince a bunch of school boys to pee into jugs for them. And then they carry around and keep talking about this boy pee, and accidentally spill it on each other and themselves. Yuck.
In my brief research I didn’t find any evidence of this pee thing being a common belief. One common trope that they do use is scaring him with the sound of a rooster’s crow, though he doesn’t seem vulnerable to sunlight. They also use the western idea of wearing garlic cloves around their necks.
I think we all agree that Hong Kong cinema (and Asian cinema in general) allows more extreme shifts in tone than are generally considered sensible in American film. So it’s not too uncommon to have a movie like this that has some pretty goofy characters and jokes while still going for serious horror in its story and atmosphere. But in my experience this specific mixture of tones is not typical for Hong Kong comedy. Sure, there are broadly comedic moments and a pretty involved sequence about one of them falling into a woman’s bath tub with his legs sticking out and having to hold his breath while her drunk husband (Tso Tat-Wah, CORPSE MANIA) caresses them. But most of the humor is much more dry. These guys tend to be very deadpan, unimpressed by the craziness.
That blends really well with the un-rushed pacing and willingness to linger on those little Ronny Yu images, such as temples covered in banners and papers eerily fluttering in the breeze. There’s a nice use of ambient sound to create an atmosphere, and an outstanding score that feels like a driving heartbeat of tension, setting the pace for a slow march toward evil. Honestly it reminds me of Morricone, by way of Carpenter.
Okay, that’s because it’s THE THING. The main theme is just taken from THE THING. But I swear it works really well! Even though I watch and listen to that all the time I was somehow able to accept it as part of this other movie.
I appreciate the irony that these likable outlaws are out here bravely doing their best to stop this monster, while we also sort of root for the monster because we know he’s just trying to get back to town to get revenge on that motherfucker who killed him (who’s having nightmares and visions, so he must know he’s fucked). There’s kind of a disconnect between the poor guy we saw get killed at the beginning and this growling incredible melting man here, so I like the moment when we see the monster is still clutching his wife’s necklace, and there’s a flash to remind us that this is a tragic love story.
Captain and Ying end up disguised as scarecrows for an actual Taoist master’s attempted confrontation with the vampire. They find that “His wrath is too strong,” so he can’t be stopped by little boy pee, mahogany swords, or even a magic sword powered by chicken sacrifice and lightning. He knocks everything off a Buddhist shrine while his murderer cowers, desperately fondling those beads. Hiding behind religion isn’t gonna save you from this one, bud.
Eventually Captain and Ying figure out what happened and find a clever way to use it to extort gold out of Master Miao, which ends up getting them busted and tied to the dock to be dynamited to bits along with the non-vampirized body of the dead wife. (Let’s not think about why the Master sent the husband’s body away but held onto hers for a while.) It’s one of those satisfying finales that’s both not where I saw it going at all and exactly what I was hoping would happen. Because as they’re tied up they witness the arrival of our monster, who catches up to Master Miao’s houseboat, bursts out of the very fish tank he was killed in, and does his thing. It’s a great monster movie climax because it’s a big reveal of a nasty, cool monster, it’s explosively violent, and then it leans heavily into the melodrama of the dead lovers being reunited. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be a little absurd that this is happening between a beautiful woman and a slimy monster, and I don’t want to know. It’s perfect.
There’s also a cool epilogue that reminds us that Hong Kong cinema, and specifically American-educated Yu, were often influenced by or in conversation with American cinema. Over here that year we had SLEEPAWAY CAMP and PSYCHO II, while over there he had a nightmare scene based in the familiar American slasher trope of the POV shot creeping up on someone in the shower. Most often this post-PSYCHO tradition is just a crass excuse to show a naked lady, but in Yu’s version it’s a man, not even a particularly sexy one, and Yu seems more interested in making the lighting look amazing:
The cinematographer is first-timer Chan Hau-Ming, who will later reunite with Yu for LEGACY OF RAGE.
In these scenes, set an unspecified time later, Captain and Ying have adopted western hairstyles and are dressed as Catholic priests, going around performing exorcisms. I’ve seen this referred to as a parody of THE EXORCIST, but it seems more like homage, to me – I mean, it’s definitely a creepy image!
The only joke there is that they switched up religions to try a different supernatural scam, and still wound up running into the real deal. In the world of THE TRAIL, religious rites don’t seem to be very effective, but karma sure is real.
Tomorrow: Yu reunites with Chow Yun-Fat for THE OCCUPANT (1984)
March 22nd, 2023 at 11:23 pm
The description of the opening scenes here made me think I’ve seen THE TRAIL. But I haven’t bought it and written about it or watched it on Prime, so I guess I’m thinking about something similar. Anyone know what I talking about? Probably a Shaw Brothers joint where three guys are transporting hopping corpses?