Any opportunity to witness a film upend and re-write the conventions of vampirism is always time well spent. Think about it – where else would you laugh yourself endlessly at the sight of vampires hopping around in their bloodthirsty rampage?
That’s what Ricky Lau’s Mr Vampire brings us – a genre-bending mixture of comedy and horror in an escapade that introduced a new wave of Chinese horror films in the 80s and 90s. The plot – a tale of walking dead mysticisms when a family reburial goes horribly wrong and inadvertently awakens a dead corpse (a jiangshi) – is given the 2K restoration treatment by Eureka Entertainment.
As a first-time watch, it’s notably easy to tell that Ricky Lau – making his directorial debut – has an affinity for the horror genre. Its B-movie, low budget, Hammer horror style practical effects add to its cult appeal and guerrilla-style filmmaking. In one memorable scene, Jade, a sexualised and seductive female ghost (Sui-Fong Wong) detaches her head, electrified with power as every strand of hair charged for a spiritual attack against Ching-Ying Lam’s Master Gau. Mr Vampire is not necessarily a scary story. Now and again, the wirework is visibly obvious thanks to the sharpness of the 2K print. But occasionally it leaves visual imprints on the brain – a throwback nostalgia at how the smallest details and effects can still have an impact with modern audiences.
But what sets Mr Vampire apart is how it distinguishes itself from the already familiarised and Westernised versions on vampirism. If popular culture looks at vampires with a veil of romanticism, gore and lust, then Mr Vampire is not remotely interested in repeating the same trends. Lau (alongside screenwriters Cheuk-Hon Szeto, Barry Wong, and Ying Wong) re-asserts ancient and cultural spiritualism into the picture, throwing in the necessary, crash course mythos, imperial clothing, rituals (sticky rice and real animal sacrifice included – not for the faint-hearted if you’re an animal lover), and a comical campiness that gives you vampires with blue fingernails as part of its transformation.
Like a Wuxia-version of Ghostbusters, Mr Vampire delights in playing ‘fast and loose’ with its rules, but always knowing the right moment to ramp up the slapstick in its adventures. Settling into a comfortable rhythm of light mystery and some beautifully, choreographed action, there’s never an absent moment where it can showcase some deft-defining stunts that take the edge off from any frightful scares. And as you can imagine, Lau’s previous experience helps in crafting the experience, having worked alongside the legendary actor and director Sammo Hung as his cinematographer on his films. On Mr Vampire, Sammo returns the favour by serving as producer.
Ching-Ying Lam’s performance is the main draw, aided by his mischievous student disciples Man Choi (Ricky Hui) and Chou (Chin Sui-ho). While their ‘Laurel and Hardy’ improvised mischief escalates, Lam, the Peter Cushing of Hong Kong, is the encapsulation of no-nonsense mystique and straight-faced seriousness. Having watched him in my personal favourite The Prodigal Son, Mr Vampire is up there as one of his best performances.
Re-imagining horror does have its pitfalls. The female characters are reduced to sexually objectified characters, lacking agency and independence to stamp their presence into the movie. Ting-Ting (Moon Lee) is courted by Gau’s students, and besides some early exchanges where she gets the literal upper hand on their shenanigans, by the time the film ends, her character is transformed into the classic ‘damsel in distress’ trope. When she’s not in danger, her character is utilised as either a helper, cook or carer. Hearing Sui-Fong Wong’s Jade seeking to be molested by a stranger, just to attract the man she desires is a troublesome piece of dialogue that will leave a very sour taste in the mouth. Whether bound by true love romanticism or not, it was a moment that took me out of it.
And that’s just part of the crazy transitions that Mr Vampire takes. It’s not above criticism in the unfocussed messiness to its plot, deviating away from an unstoppable zombie-like vampire with subplots about ghosts which feels tact-on by the film’s midpoint. Occasionally, in its melee of slapstick fistfights and yellow-papered spells, it’s always finding some new level of random to chuck into the mix. It’s always difficult to juggle competing tones of slapstick and the supernatural. It’s fanciful in its roaming and Lau does just enough to balance out its intentions.
If there’s a highlight of the 2K restoration disc (besides the outstanding picture quality), then it’s Frank Djeng’s audio commentary. His obvious love of Mr Vampire shows as he packs in as many behind the scenes factoids and its deeper connection to Asian cultures and perspectives. And with limited features which includes archival interviews by actors Chin Siu-hou, Moon Lee and director Ricky Lau, it makes up for the absence of a making-of featurette.
While Ricky Lau never quite repeated his success in the following sequels it spawned, nevertheless, Mr Vampire offers a weird, crazy, wild, and caper-filled alternative to the genre that’s worth checking out.
Dir: Ricky Lau
Scr: Ricky Lau, Cheuk-Hon Szeto, Barry Wong, and Ying Wong
Cast: Ching-Ying Lam, Chin Siu-ho, Moon Lee, Ricky Hui
Prd: Sammo Hung
DOP: Peter Ngor
Music: Melody Bank
Country: Hong Kong
Runtime: 96 mins
Mr Vampire will be available in a limited edition blu-ray collection on 20th July