As the popular Lore podcast demonstrates, almost any legend will have corresponding equivalents that have arisen independently throughout the world. One figure that appears in various guises is the vampire. Our most prevalent version derives from eastern European folklore, with a wee bit of a sexy spin added by subsequent Gothic and romantic literary tradition. In east Asia, their depiction tends to be very different. The jiangshi, or “hopping vampire” bears little resemblance to the likes of Dracula. Ricky Lau’s horror comedy Mr Vampire marries this legend to the slapstick kung fu in which Hong Kong cinema excels. While this sacrifices scares for laughs, it’s a vastly entertaining, irreverent crowd-pleaser. It’s no surprise it kicked off a cottage industry of supernatural comedies.
Master Kau (Lam Ching-Ying) is a Taoist priest who is the go-to man for dealing with the supernatural. When a wealthy businessman asks him to oversee the reburial of his father, believing this will aid his family’s fortunes, Kau notes the corpse has failed to decompose in 20 years. He takes the body back to his house for study, but an oversight by his dim-witted assistants (Ricky Hui and Chin Siu-Ho) leads to the dead man reanimating as a fully-fledged vampire.
Mr Vampire plays not unlike an east Asian Ghostbusters in terms of its irreverent tone. There are even scenes in which the knowledgeable heroes fail to convince arrogant bureaucrats of the extent of the danger, and an attractive woman that gets caught up in the chaos (Moon Lee) and who is posited as a potential love interest. It’s really the central trio of Lam, Hui and Chin that shine though. Lam more or less passes as the venerable, monobrowed master despite the actor being in his early 30s, and Hui and Chin bring varying degrees of blithe incompetence and charming innocence as the sidekicks who are devoted to their master, but can’t help being naughty boys.
While the colourful, frenetic action is more than enough to make Mr Vampire an enduring favourite, the insight into different cultural practices is also delightful. There is little orientation for western audiences, so the measures Kau and associates take to fight the vampire add to the outlandish experience. Sticky rice, inked string, and daggers made from coins may seem like odd weapons, but no more so than the traditional crucifix or garlic. Similarly, the hopping motion of the vampires defang them as figures of terror, but Lau and Lam (also acting as fight choreographer) incorporate it neatly into the action.
Less successful is a subplot in which Chin’s Chou Sheng finds himself the persistent object of affection of a succubus (Wong Siu-Fung), which puts the mission in jeopardy. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the sequence, and there’s hilarity to be had when the vengeful demon throws her own head as a weapon, like something out of Hausu. However, there’s nothing that links her appearance to the main plot strand so it can’t help but feel like padding, or a slightly haphazard attempt to inject extra peril into proceedings. And Moon Lee, an accomplished action star in her own right, is reduced to something of a damsel in distress role. She has a deceptive fragility about her which suits the role, but she’s definitely a wasted asset.
These few issues aside, Mr Vampire is rightly acknowledged as a classic. Its madcap action is bonkers for sure, but is at least coherent, unlike some of the other Hong Kong fantasies of the time such as Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. Full of rich details, arcane spiritualism and a wide variety of excellent comic performances, it’s pure, unalloyed entertainment.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 20 Jul 2020