Mr. Vampire (1985)
By: Michael Helms on September 26, 2005  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Universal (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1, Cantonese DD 5.1. English Subtitles. 86 minutes
The Movie
Director: Ricky Lau
Starring: Lam Ching Ying, Ricky Hui, Chin Siu Ho, Li Choi Fung
Screenplay: Chen Chi-Wai, Barry Wong Ping-Yiu
Country: Hong Kong
AKA: Geung si sin sang
Down at the local early republic period Chinese mortuary chucklehead Man Choi is having trouble keeping the vampires in line. When pranked by Chou his co-worker, several of the traditionally dressed vampires are accidentally awakened and hop straight into attacking Man Choi in a slapstick opening sequence. They are repelled by a mirror and contained by the lad's Master, a Taoist Priest, who thwarts all immediate vampire activity by placing pieces of specially prepared paper on their foreheads. If this doesn't sound like the start-up to the average vampire flick, you're right but stick with it as much western vampire lore is ripped up and replaced by the infinitely more complex and crazed Eastern version.

The Master is played by stern but wise Lam Ching-Ying, former fight assistant to Bruce Lee and integral part of the Sammo Hung stunt team. Hung is credited as Mr. Vampire's production manager and had already acted as the director and star of the film that really launched the Chinese kung fu horror film subgenre Encounters of the Spooky Kind. As the mono-brow, anti-vampire team leader, Ching-Ying went on to star in many Mr. Vampire sequels with a character so definitive he was even personally awarded recognition with the film entitled, New Mr. Vampire 2: One Eyebrow Priest.

Mr. Vampire's plot doesn't pick up until the next day but it's episodic, jokefest stylings are immediately established in the opening sequence. As it transpires the Master is awarded the job of re-burying a millionaire's father in order to get the best feng shui. The businessman's daughter is the stunning Moon Lee and her cousin, a police captain, also figures prominently in the action. Naturally, Man Choi and Chou bungle the re-burial which results in the vampirisation of the millionaire by his deceased father and further trouble for the anti-vampire crew when Pauline Wong as a vicious ghost girl turns up to seduce Chou and fight the Master.

After some straightforward but funny situational comedy involving the drinking of coffee, the police investigation into the apparent death of the millionaire, and Moon Lee being mistaken for a prostitute, Mr. Vampire evolves into a comedy of terrors as the Master has to pull out every trick in his Taoist kitbag to stop the full-on marauding vampire which looks like a zombie with fangs and has the strength of ten men (although, ultimately, it takes less than half of that amount to destroy him). Along the way Man Choi gets bitten and begins to turn into a fully-fanged vampire with long blue fingernails but is subdued with a file and (like most Chinese vampires) sticky rice. A highlight includes Pauline Wong's flying ghost girl losing her head and half her face in a fight with the Master. It all ends in a bone-breaking and fiery finale.
Traditionally, Chinese films keep consistently high visual standards in just about every area except that of special visual effects (both make-up and optical) but Mr. Vampire is an exception which held the bar aloft until the dawn of the digital effects age. Aided and abetted by an excellent transfer of spotless source material you might sometimes have to wonder why superbly crafted scenes of atmospheric horror are sacrificed for lame sight gags like the introduction of the conniving female ghost who sneaks onto the back of Chou's pushbike only to be knocked off by a low hanging branch, but you're just not going to encounter such elaborate and relentless physical work anywhere else involving vampires. Ultimately, the opticals (this film is a product of the 80s) and make-up effects (which never discount the use of blood and gore) actually suit Mr. Vampire rather than just date it.
There's no music composer mentioned in English for Mr. Vampire and I've never seen one credited anywhere but the orchestral music used is perfectly matched to the visuals whether for creating spooky atmosphere or punctuating the action. It should be noted that Hong Kong films of the 80s were notorious for pinching scores and despite the use of some traditional Chinese instruments throughout Mr. Vampire some passages may seem very familiar. Sound effects were also another area of filmmaking that the Chinese paid less attention to and nothing really stands out in the surround mix but overall the soundtrack here is very well-balanced and exciting to listen to.
Extra Features
Commentary, UK trailer and original Chinese trailer, tribute documentary to Lam Ching-Ying, interviews with Moon Lee and Chin Siu-Ho. The breathless commentary from the very polite but highly informative Bey Logan (who once edited the still existent action film magazine IMPACT) is either the product of excellent editing or the best set of lungs ever to be let loose on a film soundtrack. Whatever, it's very well worth spending the time listening to it whether you think you know Hong Kong filmmaking or not.
The Verdict
You're strongly advised to check outf Mr. Vampire if you're remotely bored with the latest Anglo non-variation on the vampire film or perhaps wanting to key into the film who's influence weighs heavily over Evil Dead 2 but be forewarned that physical comedy rules here. No matter what way you view it, and you definitely should, Mr. Vampire remains a high water mark of 80s Hong Kong horror comedy.

From the excellent Hong Kong Legends series that has also set an amazing standard of quality itself.
Movie Score
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