Did you ever wish there was a horror film that had slapstick comedy, practical effects, amazing stunt work and Hong Kong fight choreography? Well this Halloween, look no further than to the Hong Kong classic that is Mr. Vampire from 1985. Even though it wasn’t the pioneer of the jiang shi (or “hopping corpse”) genre, Mr. Vampire’s the one that made it famous all over Asia. Its success was so massive that it spawned 3 sequels and a slew of other films that would recycle the same actors in vaguely similar roles from the original. Ain’t that crazy? Produced by Sammo Hung and starring fellow Hong Kong stuntmen such as Lam Ching Ying and Chin Siu-ho, Mr. Vampire is an action-packed horror comedy of the Hong Kong kind that’s so crazy that it can’t be missed. So let’s all be adventurous and dive right in.
Master Kau and Master Four-Eyes (Lam Ching Ying and Anthony Chan respectively) are two Taoist priests who run a business transporting recently dead jiang shi back to their hometowns for a proper burial. Using special paper talismans to reanimate and control these stiffs, both men are portrayed as pros who know that handling hopping corpses ain’t for laughs. However, this wouldn’t be a comedy without their two stoopid apprentices, Man-choi (the late Ricky Hui) and Chau-sang (Chin Siu-ho). Their dumbfuckery is best seen in the film’s opening, where Chau-sang’s prank on Man-choi blows off the all-important paper talismans that immobilize their jiang shi clients. With a bunch of hopping-mad stiffs on the loose, Kau and Four Eyes hurriedly (and hilariously) come to the rescue to not only subdue these stiffs, but to save their students from themselves.
The plot rolls ahead once we’re introduced to the wealthy Master Yam and his daughter Ting Ting (the bodacious Moon Lee Choi-fung, in her first big role before becoming an action star). Yam is looking to have his father reburied elsewhere in order to bring more luck to his family and invites both Kau and Man-choi to a Western-style brunch, hoping to enlist their help. This scene in particular is a bit goofy given that both Kau and Man-choi have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to anything West of China, and Ting Ting, being the most knowledgeable of the bunch, gets a few giggles in at our heroes’ expense. However, this payoff doesn’t come without her getting creeped out by the leery eyes of Man-choi. Yuck!
It’s only when Master Kau agrees to rebury Yam’s father do things start to get spooky. Upon exhumation, our merry band of Taoists are shocked to discover that the corpse has yet to decompose, prompting fears that this stiff may come back to terrorize the living. With all this in mind, Kau and company decide to move this would-be jiang shi into their lair for confinement. However, since we have TWO DUMBSHIT apprentices here, things do NOT go as planned. Not only does our corpse escape, its ferocity ignites a hilarious car-crash of events where Kau, Man-choi, Chau-sang and Ting Ting all team up to fight a jiang-shi which grows more powerful after each battle. Oh, and did I mention that throughout all of this, Master Four-Eyes, the only other priest in this group, is away guiding other hopping stiffs for burial?
Though the plot (minus the spooky) seems pretty standard for Hong Kong fare of the 80s, Mr. Vampire makes up for that with hilarious hi-jinks that are centered around polished stunts and special effects. My guess is that Sammo Hung’s hand as producer was essential for making the action here as bombastic as possible. With the legendary Yuen Wah as the invincibly evil “Mr. Vampire”, we get to see how our heroes fight this terror with full-impact hits, painful falls and amazing pyrotechnics once Wah’s burned alive….twice! The Hong Kong fight choreography also adds rhythmic intensity to scenes where our heroes either need to block hits, run like hell or scream like babies. One of the standout scenes for me is how Chau-sang deals with a recently turned jiang shi in a prison while Master Kau looks on from his cell after being wrongly convicted for the death of said jiang shi. Chau-sang hides, runs, fights, does flips, and screams for his life like a madman, and it’s ALL AWESOME! This fun mixture of humor and action, combined with the scary groans of the jiang shi, transforms your typical Hong Kong fight scene into a heart-pounding set-piece that delivers laughs AND scares. With scenes like this peppered throughout the film, it’s no wonder that Mr. Vampire was such a massive hit all over Asia.
However, let me be clear and say that Mr. Vampire isn’t without its flaws. Some scenes tend to drag a bit, especially those that feature the insufferable Billy Lau. Furthermore, some of the humor found in Mr. Vampire is, unfortunately, a bit dated. This is especially the case when it comes to our perverted apprentices, as well as a scene where the mental handicap of a rice-seller’s son is shown for laughs. Also, am I the only one who thinks that Moon Lee should be beating-up zombies left and right instead of being a damsel-in-distress who gets sidelined for household stuff? Though this movie pre-dates her status as a Girls-with-Guns alumnus in the Hong Kong film industry, I still wished Moon had more to do in the ass-kicking department. These issues aren’t exactly deal-breakers for me, but I think we can all see why folks might be turned off by this, especially when it comes to the dated jokes.
Despite these concerns, Mr. Vampire emerges as a rockin’ film that showcases the best of what Hong Kong cinema had to offer in the 1980s. Filled with fights, laughs, scares and mishaps, this film delivers with universal thrills in a uniquely Chinese cultural package. Now, it’s easy for the casual viewer to be intimidated by the myths that surround the jiang shi, but if you go into it with an open mind, Mr. Vampire will reward you handsomely. The fact that jiang shi mania swept Japan, South Korea and the rest of Southeast Asia decades ago is ample evidence for this. Furthermore, with recent films like 2013’s Rigor Mortis leading the genre’s revival (which, I might add, features both Chin Siu-ho and Anthony Chan), this is probably THE best time to sit down and see this awesome classic. So set the holy water aside this season, and gear up for a horror comedy that’ll leave you burnt, bruised and hopping mad for some high-kicking Hong Kong action. Thank you all for reading and have a Happy Halloween!!