Out of the Dark Review
As much as the recent Celestial Pictures restoration of the Shaw Brothers back catalog has been praised for bringing beautifully restored versions of scores of classic films to a fresh audience they deserve praise for another reason. By tackling the entire catalog rather than simply cherry picking the key titles this series of Celestial releases serves to remind us of the sheer range of Shaw Brothers films and how influential they really were over the course of Hong Kong film. Sure, we all know the Shaws are responsible for making a star of Gordon Liu and were the studio responsible for stacks of brightly colored kung fu classics but the studio did so much more than that. Case in point: Out of the Dark, a 1995 Stephen Chow starring horror comedy.
An unusual entry in Chow’s canon on a number of levels Out of the Dark casts him as Leo – a man never seen without ball cap, sunglasses and trench coat who escapes regularly from the mental hospital which is his home to catch ghosts in a nearby apartment complex accompanied by his trusty sidekick, a potted plant. The man’s mad as a hatter but he also happens to be correct, the apartment complex is indeed haunted and he soon attracts a cadre of ghost-catching students made up of the building security guards and a love struck young woman played by Karen Mok.
If you are familiar with the Hong Kong horror comedy you likely have a fair idea what to expect here. The humor is as broad as humanly possible and very much based on slapstick and pratfalls. The story is slender at best but the pace crackles along leaping from repeated sight gags to verbal sparring to some surprisingly dark and nasty turns.
Now one of the biggest stars in all of Asia Chow made Out of the Dark with director Jeff Lau – who he also worked with on the Chinese Odyssey films – before he had reached the height of his popularity, likely the source of two key differences between this film and his better known, later work. First, Out of the Dark is far more an ensemble piece than are any of Chow’s later films. Mok gets just as much screen time as Chow and the rest of the cast is filled out with a huge range of secondary characters and familiar faces, all of whom get their moments. Chow is still certainly the lead but things are spread around much more evenly here than they would be once he became a major selling point all on his own. Second, Chow’s normal screen persona is very much muted here, reminding us that he’s actually a much more versatile performer – he won awards for dramatic performances early in his career – than he is commonly given credit for these days. With his distinctive features all but obscured by the omnipresent hat and glasses, not to mention the prosthetic teeth he wears through the film’s mid section, Chow is hardly recognizable in the early going and his normal rapid fire dialogue and high octane goofy charm is replaced by something still recognizable as Chow but rather a lot stranger than usual.
The new remastered DVD comes looking good. The transfer is excellent and well polished, free of any obvious dirt or damage. Audio options include both the Mandarin and Cantonese dubs – both in mono – along with optional English subtitles. The English translation is less than stellar, but certainly passable.
Never regarded as a major title in Chow’s filmography Out of the Dark is, nonetheless, a pretty compelling one for fans of the man and his work. It shows its age enough that it would not be the recommended place for begin with Chow but established fans will find a lot here to like, from classic bits of slapstick to the general weirdness of the piece to some surprisingly effective scares. Worth a look.