Mr. Vampire – 1985, Ricky Lau – Hong Kong
We Westerners love our horror comedies. We’re into all the classic, spook-a-minute chuckle-fests, be they Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, An American Werewolf in London, Or Sexsquatch: Legend of Blood Stool Creek, those films are our jam, and thanks to a lifelong cultural indoctrination, we proud people have all come to know that violence is funny, and that the gruesome and the hilarious go together like chocolate and peanut butter.
What would you say, however, if I were to tell you that Asia had done us one better, and that they had taken this winning formula and added a third element? That’s right! Prepare yourself, for Hong Kong’s Mr. Vampire, because this film is an open portal to a whole new world, to the realm of the MARTIAL ARTS/HORROR/COMEDY, and friend, those three things go together like chocolate, peanut butter, and wicked sweet karate chops.
The best films of this type came out of the Hong Kong genre film boom of the 1980’s, and while Mr. Vampire isn’t the first movie to meld these three wonderful ingredients together, it’s absolutely my favorite. Americans don’t seem to know about Mr. Vampire yet, but it’s honestly not out of line to call this one of the greatest horror comedies ever made. We need to get familiar with it.
THE PLOT- When a prominent citizen seeks to dig up and then rebury his father for good luck (Apparently that’s allowed in Hong Kong? Even encouraged?!) he seeks out the help of a cunning priest and his two bumbling assistants to make sure this grave desecration is all done by the book, but lo and behold, something is amiss, and when the grave is exhumed, it’s occupant is found to be a damn vampire. This sets off a freaky Asian vampire chain reaction, and the hijinks which follow are of a most wacky variety indeed.
First thing I need to clarify- These are not the typical “white guy in a cape” style European variety vampires that most Americans are familiar with. The blood suckers in this movie are the famed Chinese “hopping vampires,” a breed of ghoul which literally hops around in order to move, due to a debilitating stiffness of the body, brought on by rigor mortis. Additionally, these creatures are thought to be blind, and thus must seek out their victims by listening for the sound of a beating heart- meaning that holding your breath and standing still can make you “invisible” to them, at least, until you have to breathe again. Of course, there are one or two vampires in this film who seem to be exceptions to those rules, but I don’t know how the whole Chinese vampire thing works, dude. All I know is that most of these guys hop around, and I love it.
Conga line- OF THE DAMMED! (Those are all vampires following that dude.)
Mr. Vampire is really, really great. As mentioned above, it’s a martial arts/horror/comedy, but the movie clearly aims for laughs above all else, and in fact, all of the horror and kung fu stuff is done in the service of humor, so even at it’s scariest, or in the heat of it’s most strenuously choreographed fight scene, Mr. Vampire never wants you to be too far away from a smile. The narrative seems to be closely modeled after what you might see in an old-fashioned stage play, it’s all simple, character driven, misunderstanding based comedic routines which largely take place in small, single room spaces, and which are broken down into individual, self-contained chunks. Mr. Vampire could work equally well in a live theater format as it does on the big screen, and this old fashioned style of narrative has a certain specialness built into it which is a woefully absent from movies today. Another factor which helps give Mr. Vampire a classic feel is it’s relatively clean subject matter. It’s not exactly G rated, there are a few suggestive jabs here and there which will raise eyebrows amongst those with more puritanical sensibilities, but Mr. Vampire is more cheeky than it is smutty. It’s a film with an inherent, lighthearted innocence, and even for a deranged and diseased mind like mine, that’s nice once in a while.
The Kung Fu sequences in this picture are all great, too, and they don’t overstay their welcome, we have just enough of them that when one comes around, it’s exciting, and never boring. Part of Mr. Vampire’s recipe for kung-fu success is that even these fight scenes are meant to be humorous, they don’t feel violent so much as wacky, so it’s really easy to have fun watching them even if you don’t have any interest in Kung Fu whatsoever.
There are very few flaws worth mentioning in Mr. Vampire, it has a few hokey special effects, but they’re hokey due to vintage, not laziness or ineptitude, so they end up feeling more charming than embarrassing. There is also a subplot in here about one of the bumbling assistants being seduced by a female ghost which probably would have been written out if this were shot in the west, because it doesn’t really drive the plot forward in any direct way. I don’t count this subplot as a mark against Mr. Vampire, however, because it further contributes to the old fashioned feel of the film, and also results in some really fun sequences I wouldn’t want to lose, regardless of the structural “imperfections.” Let’s not be script Nazis, Mr. Vampire can have its ghost subplot if it wants to.
Maybe the biggest flaw that people tend to point out about Mr. Vampire is that it ISN’T Spooky Encounters, another excellent martial arts horror comedy which preceded this film by five years. Aledgley, this movie is a bit of a retread, which I guess is true… Mr. Vampire probably wouldn’t exist if Spooky Encounters hadn’t been made first, but in my mind, this is the superior movie. I’d call Mr. Vampire ‘The Formula Perfected’ before I called it a rehashing, and to date I’ve never seen a better Martial Arts/Horror/Comedy, and brother, I have certainly tried.
Thematically, there is some stuff in here about Modernization versus tradition; the film takes place in Hong Kong during an era where the British have brought in European customs with modern forms of government and policing, yet by and large, the people of China prefer to operate as they have for generations, and this sets up an interesting conflict for our main characters. As traditional Taoists priests, they find themselves compelled to work toward the good of the people by using traditional methods, exclusively based upon spiritualism, while the newly modernized police force regards their practices, and even the threat of vampirism itself as total mumbo jumbo. As a result, these police function more as an impediment to our characters than anything else, and this is a major source of conflict early on in Mr. Vampire. Later in the film, however, after things have passed the point of no return, vampire style, the police finally accept their inability to deal with the now all-too-obvious ghoul epidemic, and the film switches gears ever so slightly. Suddenly, and for the first time, the vampire threat starts to look a little bit more like a biological plague, as if only now, with things at their worst, does the movie start to consider the notion that perhaps our Priests don’t know what they’re doing, and perhaps spiritualism really has become obsolete in serving the needs of a modernized society? At this point, when even the police have put their faith in religion to save the day, we begin to see our stalwart Taoist in a position of weakness and doubt, and he seems to feel unsure about his ability to combat this threat after all. This short sequence is Mr. Vampire at it’s most introspective, but it’s quite subtle. Still, if you had to point out any specific centerpiece for the film’s chief metaphor, it would be the scene I’m talking about here.
The movie does a good job with these ideas, and we end up with an interesting back and forth that investigates the grey area you get when a culture with deep roots in tradition tries to jump ahead a few centuries overnight, with some areas taking longer to catch up than others. It’s well done, but these sombre and contemplative moments are fairly brief. I know that it may not seem like it after I’ve highlighted them in this way, but these themes are actually explored so casually that they could almost be in here by accident. Mr Vampire, is about those ideas, yes, but it really is about comedy first and foremost. Even at it’s darkest, Mr. Vampire is far from a heavy experience, it stays lighthearted, fun, and is periodically, legitimately hilarious.
This truly is a fantastic example of the mighty martial arts/horror/comedy sub-genre, and damn, it’s super deserving of some long overdue praise from we Western audiences. It would also make an excellent double feature alongside Roman Polanksi’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, but I would suggest you do anything you need to do to see Mr. Vampire asap, because it’s a freakin’ masterpiece.