The Imp (1981)

In the heat of the moment, sometimes people say cruel things they don’t really mean. However, it’s almost inexcusable if the target of one’s vitriol is a pregnant person and their unborn child. In the featured film, during a dispute over the use of a propane tank, a maintenance worker tells a visibly pregnant lady, “I hope you give birth to a baby with no asshole.” In the grand spectrum of infantile insults this fate would be a pretty harsh one, but it’s not quite as awful as what happens in Dennis Yu’s 1981 Hong Kong creeper, THE IMP.

Keung (Charlie Chin) and Lan (Dorothy Yu Yee-Ha) are a young, married couple living in a cramped Hong Kong apartment and expecting their first child together. Keung is actively on the job hunt, but he has a tendency to stumble his way through interviews as he attempts to hide his lack of professional skills. The one job he refuses to do – work at a bra factory (ugh, again!) – is on offer from the same person currently paying their monthly rent: Lan’s father.

Just when it seems like Keung has hit his lowest ebb – he shows up to a job interview to find the hiring manager has been fatally wounded with a melon chopper by a disgruntled ex-employee – he finds steady employment as an overnight security guard at a major office building. Old Uncle Han (Chan Shen) quickly shows him the ropes and his colleagues, Little Ting (Hui Bing-Sam), Mr. Hong Kong (Wong Ching), and Fatty (Kent Cheng) keep their nightly shift lively and friendly, whether they’re out together for post-work food or out together for pre-work food. In time, Fatty becomes Keung’s off-work confidante and even makes himself available to drive Lan to important medical appointments when Keung is unavailable.

Even as he begins to settle into the new arrangement with a sense of relief, a series of strange occurrences begin to affect Keung and nearly everyone in his orbit. During his work hours, phantom calls come in over his radio. He gets trapped in an elevator that shakes violently and floods with water. Room lights flicker and doors shut on their own at random. At home, his television flashes with static at odd intervals. Fatty’s dog barks relentlessly in Lan’s presence. It might be the standard office building haunting, but if the local geomancer Chiu-Dan Yeung (Yueh Hua) is to be believed, just about everything in Keung’s life is predestined by forces beyond his control.

Given the chronological and geographical context, I was (perhaps foolishly) expecting a film similar in tone and style as such in-your-face, black-magic-and-metaphysics Hong Kong horror like 1981’s BEWITCHED or 1983’s BOXER OMEN, neither of which is likely to be described as subtle. Instead, Dennis Yu’s film is a deliberately paced and competently directed slow-burn that is more eerie and unsettling than it is visceral or chaotic – like much of the horror I enjoy the most, I felt like I’d come out on the other side of a bad dream (or a terrible trip) by the time the film ended.

While some of that effect is due to Yu’s patient direction – he builds his story primarily through character development instead of moving from one zany set-piece to the next – it’s also informed by the way subjects are framed in scenes by cinematographer Bob Thompson (think long shots with negative space) along with the art direction (including, I daresay, “Fulci” fog), sound design, and choices in color. There are a couple of tense scenes led by Yueh Hua’s character involving red and purple, but the recurring color that sticks with the viewer is a super-saturated green that creates a sense of the foreboding and otherworldly. This bold green appears during the film in other ways as a point of emphasis: Fatty drives a green car, Lan wears a green dress under her cardigan, there’s furniture painted green, a telephone booth painted green, etc.

All of this is to say that while I’m barely a beginner in any of these topics, I suspect that a bit of light reading on color theory along with some understanding of Chinese numerology and the concepts of geomancy and yin and yang, would certainly enrich the viewing experience. Even if you steer clear of the extra-credit learning, the subtext that one takes away is the unique anxiety associated with impending parenthood, more specifically the paternal dread felt by the main character as his child’s due date approaches and his material world spirals into chaos.

Dennis Yu directed eight films in his career, including 1987’s EVIL CAT and the other members of the cast and crew have been almost too prolific to highlight all their various credits. However, in the annals of unheralded crew members who went on to do big things in cinema, Fruit Chan working on THE IMP as a script supervisor before becoming one of the most interesting directorial voices of the Hong Kong New Wave (e.g., MADE IN HONG KONG, THE LONGEST SUMMER ) is definitely a prime example.

Recommended viewing if you’re feeling spooky.

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