Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mr. Vampire (1985) review


Lam Ching Ying (Master Ko), Chin Siu Ho (Harry/San Kun), Moon Lee (Yam Ting), Pauline Wong (Jade), Ricky Hui (Dan/Man Choi), Yuen Wah (Vampire), Huang Ha (Mr. Yam Fat), Anthony Chan (Taoist Priest)

Directed by Ricky Lau

The Short Version: Golden Harvest had an unexpected smash hit with this comedic horror actioner that started a phenomenon of like minded movies of varying quality and seriousness. Like the kung fu film before it, comedy came to the HK horror genre and proved even more profitable so long as there were laughs to go along with the scares. The film is a lot of fun and while it takes about thirty minutes for things to get going, it's a fast ride from that point onward. Horror fans looking for something off the beaten path will find a lot to sink their teeth into here.

Master Ko, a Taoist priest, is asked by a struggling businessman, Yam Fat, to oversee the re-burial of his dead father in the hopes of rekindling his family's good fortune. By burying the patriarch on a better plot, renewed success and prosperity are promised. Ko's two bumbling acolytes stumble onto a bad omen before leaving the remote graveyard--an omen that foreshadows death. Deciding to take the corpse back to the mortuary, Ko suspects the dead elder suffered a wrongful death. The priest and his students soon find themselves up against supernatural forces and a very powerful vampire.

Among Asian cinephiles, this is the quintessential Hong Kong comedy-horror-kung fu extravaganza. While Sammo Hung's SPOOKY ENCOUNTERS (1980) had set a precedent for Chinese kung fu horror mixed with comedy, Ricky Hui's movie struck a chord with audiences both in Hong Kong and abroad creating a hopping mad genre of hopping vampire/ghost pictures that multiplied at an alarming rate. Sammo Hung was also involved here as well in addition to being an Executive Producer. Prior to this wildly popular film, there had been many other HK horrors including those that touched on subjects explored in this mid 80s success.

The initial burial site of the elder Yam family member

From the 50s through the early 80s, there had been numerous horror movies in Asia from both big studios and independent companies. The Shaw Brothers were the first outfit to gain widespread exposure for Asian horror with the international production, LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES in 1974. The vampires seen in that film were a mutation of the typical European bloodsucker with a hint of Asian flavor. The minions of the vampires bore more similarity to the Chinese hopping variety of undead ghoul.

While the Shaw style of horror movie was far more serious, Liu Chia Liang introduced corpse herding and Mao Shan black magic practices in the thoroughly unremarkable comedy kung fu caper, SPIRITUAL BOXER 2 (1979; retitled THE SHADOW BOXING on the HK DVD). Despite the pictures mostly bland execution (in light of Liu's usually reliable and dynamic approach to filmmaking), there's no doubting this relatively lifeless (but occassionally funny) kung fu spooky comedy film dealing with the superstitions surrounding corpse herding (a shaman who specializes in returning the dead back to their home villages so they may be properly buried) was an inspiration to Sammo and Ricky Liu's later successes.

After the release of Sammo Hung's SPOOKY ENCOUNTERS (1980), more similar comedy horror movies began taking form such as Shaw's own THE FAKE GHOST CATCHERS (1982) starring Alexander Fu Sheng and MR. VAMPIRE's Chin Siu Ho and the indy cult favorite KUNG FU ZOMBIE (1982) starring Billy Chong among others. Like the Shaw Brothers heavily influential BLACK MAGIC (1975) ten years prior, Golden Harvest's MR. VAMPIRE (1985) begat a plague of hopping vampire clones of varying quality including several sequels and spin offs. Many of these starred Lam Ching Ying in his genre defining role as a Taoist priest proficient in expelling exponents of the supernatural.

To those unfamiliar, the sight of a Chinese decked out in Qing era garb, arms outstretched (with claws at the ready) and hopping frenetically towards its intended prey may seem laughable even in non comical surroundings. These Asian ghouls and ghosts are a lot more feral than their Anglo counterparts. There's no romanticism here, long flowing cloaks, or changing into bats (a more traditional Dracula did turn up in KUNG FU FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, DRAGON LIVES AGAIN and the much later VAMPIRE VS. VAMPIRE also directed by, and featuring Lam Ching Ying) for these undead creatures. These Jiang Shi/gyonshi (pronounced like 'Jhaang Shur' in mandarin) ghosts have no compunction about ripping you apart. They tend to seek out living family members and don't have to bite a victim in the neck to infect them; a scratch, or puncture from their sharp nails will do the trick. Also, some have fangs and others don't. This, too, varies.

Hold your breath and the ghouls can't find you! Just one of the many bizarre, yet refreshing aspects of HK horror

As for the hopping, there's several explanations given for this with the effects of rigor mortis being the most plausible. MR. VAMPIRE trots out an array of Chinese undead folklore and the methods used to stop them, plot devices that give way to a series of elaborate action scenes mostly during the last half. Asian vampires aren't supposed to be able to see, but find their victims by their breathing. It should be noted that some of the mythical powers of these jumping flesh mongers changes from one film to the next. Generally, an unusually strong vampire has abilities the lesser monsters lack. This is showcased here when the lead creature (played by genre vet Yuen Wah) gains the ability to actually SEE those he intends to kill, no longer reliant on finding victims by their breath. The monsters enhanced strength adds to the suspense raised during the extended fight sequence during the conclusion.

The tools by which to combat the Asian undead are as far removed from Anglo conventions as you can get. Chicken's blood, sticky rice, incantations written on yellow pieces of paper, wooden swords and Yin Yang 8 Tri Gram Mirrors are some methods of defense. All are employed here in a string of elaborate and intricate action scenes laced with horror and comical shenanigans. Lam Ching Ying is one of the major factors in the success of this movie--a film in which seemingly no one involved in its production had any faith outside of the director. Nearly going double over its budget, Golden Harvest brass reportedly feared the film was going to be a bomb. Instead, it solidified the popularity of the 'Hopping Ghost/Vampire' sub genre and the celebrated Taoist priest character, a component integral to the formula.

In what would seem to be padding, a beautiful female ghost played by popular sexbomb, Pauline Wong is thrown into the mix as a lonely spirit who lusts after San Kun (Chin Siu Ho). Upon learning what his disciple has been up to, Ko engages this otherworldy creature in a special effects battle prior to the big finish with the rampaging vampire. This battle also showcases some WITCH WITH THE FLYING HEAD (1977) theatrics as the ghost's head separates from her body to battle with Ko. It's not necessarily a distraction, but this subplot does make you forget about the vampiric villain momentarily. Chin Siu Ho essentially played the same character in the Shaw pictures FAST FINGERS (1983) and CRAZY SHAOLIN DISCIPLES (1984).

Lam Ching Ying has went down in the HK film history books for this defining role. Having one of the most prolific careers in HK cinema, Lam, like so many others, appeared in dozens of Shaw Brothers pictures during his early career. Upon joining Golden Harvest, his roles got bigger such as the Peking Opera martial arts master in Sammo Hung's THE PRODIGAL SON (1981). But it was with Ricky Liu's trendsetting kung fu comedy classic that really put Lam on the map and a fan favorite among audiences around the world. Lam would also undertake the Lo Lieh role in the remake of the hit Shaw Brothers revenge film, THE KISS OF DEATH (1973) with 1988's HER VENGEANCE starring Pauline Wong (also in MR. VAMPIRE).

Chin Siu Ho (right)

Former Shaw Brothers actor, Chin Siu Ho (Chen Hsiao Hao), a discovery of the highly respected and revered Chang Cheh, puts his acrobatics to good use in a handful of action sequences without the use of a stunt double. Chin was first seen as one of Lu Feng's spearmen in Cheh's THE REBEL INTRUDERS (1980), but was formally introduced in the director's TWO CHAMPIONS OF SHAOLIN (1980). Never considered famous on a level of some of HK's higher profile celebrities, Chin was nonetheless a well known and busy actor who had a long career in movies. Some of these include MASKED AVENGERS (1981), GHOST'S GALORE (1983), THE SEVENTH CURSE (1986), BLONDE FURY (1989) and FIST OF LEGEND (1994) starring Jet Li.

Moon Lee, here presented as a damsel in distress, would wow international action fans two years later with a powerful martial arts performance as one of the leads in the Chinese 'Girls With Guns' trendsetter, ANGEL (1987) aka IRON ANGELS. Like Lam's 'One Eybrow Priest' character, Moon Lee would headline a flurry of fighting female action films, many of which featured Japanese fan favorite, Yukari Oshima. Apparently, these types of movies were far more financially viable in Asian territories outside HK and other countries around the world. Whatever the case, they provided brain dead thrills, lots of dangerous stunts, guns, kung fu and attractive leads.

Portions of MR. VAMPIRE were shot in Taiwan and one of the locations looks a great deal like the hillside and cave locale seen in Kuei Chi Hung's women in prison sleaze spectacular, BAMBOO HOUSE OF DOLLS (1973). While a creepy good time, there are some minor mistakes such as a few shots where wires are visible and the walls in the prison attack sequence are seen to be flimsy. Also, the makeup around the vampire's face is sloppy on a few occasions. The film was nominated for a number of Awards and ended up winning for Best Film Score. Kung fu fans will also recognize former Chang Cheh disciple, Wu Ma as a devious rice shop owner as well as fan favorite, Yuen Wah as the lead monster.

With its wacky subject matter, MR. VAMPIRE may not be the most original movie of its kind, but it introduced fans of Asian cinema to a new style of HK action film and made hopping vampires fashionable. Utilizing themes and ideas already seen in past pictures, Ricky Liu's movie took something used and put a fresh spin on it to make it new again. Not only was it a box office success, but it helped "discover" Lam Ching Ying, a man who had already been in movies for 15 years. An enormous amount of fun, it's slow to get started, but once it gets going, there's nothing to stop MR. VAMPIRE...unless you happen to have some yellow paper incantations inscribed with chicken's blood and sticky rice handy.

This review is representative of the Fortune Star/IVL remastered DVD

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