After revealing I had a blast watching the horror comedy action vampire kung-fu mash up derby that was Exorcist Master, Mr. Klotz – Screamin' regular, master of the fine The Horror!? blog, and all-around credit to the human species – mentioned that Exorcist Master followed in the footie steps of another Hong Kong flicker, a vampire-busting adventure comedy with the oddly formal title of Mr. Vampire, and suggested that I should check it out.
Now, normally, when somebody suggests that I should check a movie out, I respond, "What the hell is wrong with you? Do you know who I am? I'm the freakin' C to the freakin' R to the freakin' w to the freakin' M, okay. I don't know if you know what the means, but it means that I don't take suggestions, motherfucker! I give them! So maybe next time you'll be so good as to not presume that there is any way in God's sweet universe that you have somehow remotely earned the right to even in passing suggest what I should or shouldn't watch. And if, in the spastic throws of some deep-seat self-destructive urge, you feel the need to open your mouth, do me the favor of throwing yourself in front of a bus first."
But Klotz is a solid cat, so I just said, "Okay." Then I queued it up on the Netflix. Easy.
And he was better than right. He was super-right. Mr. Vampire is even better than Exorcist Master, if such a thing is possible. Which it is. 'Cause I saw it and it happened.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Vampire (1985) has all the odd monsters, over-the-top humor, broad satire, and wild wirework kung fu of the later Exorcist Master. The latter flick reused actor Ching-Ying Lam in a similar role, riffed on several of the same themes, and even lifted a few subplots. What is surprising is that Mr. Vampire manages to give its ramshackle mess of a story an almost epic feel and somehow, despite hyper-stylized acting and a ludicrous pace, is filled with characters that you actually care about.
Let’s start with that ramshackle story. In an unnamed Chinese town, sometime during the uneasy Westernization of the country in the pre-Revolution Twentieth Century, a dour Taoist priest – Master Gau – is hired to exhume and rebury the body of local well-to-do merchant's father. Unfortunately, the master and his two assistants – the slow-witted Man and the sharp, but mischievous Chou – discover that the merchant's father is a vampire. After Man and Chou bungle the bloodsucker containment procedures, the hopping corpse begins a reign of terror that starts with the murder of his own son.
Meanwhile, just to make matters worse, Chou has unknowingly become the target of a siren-like ghost. This beautiful spirit hopes to lure Chou to her haunted abode where he will become her sexual slave, forgetting the outside world and his own basic needs, until they bump uglies unto his wasting death.
Eager to win favor in the eyes of his lovely cousin and remove Man and Chou as potential romantic rivals, the local police chief makes undue haste to ascribe naturalistic causes to his uncle's death and pins the murder on Master Gau. The chief, a sadistic little prat, threatens to torture a confession out of Gau, but the interrogation is cut short when, simultaneously, Chou comes to spring his master and the corpse of the dead merchant revives as one of the hungry dead. This sort of "perfect storm" plotting, where several strands of the story come coincidentally slamming into one another, is one of the chief pleasures of Mr. Vampire. Contrived? Extremely. It resembles the plotting one sees in comedies, where plot strands purposefully tangle and knot rather than converge. Working together – in the bumbling, manic, Three-Stoogesy sense of "working together" – Gau, his assistant, and the chief manage to destroy the now undead merchant.
As that fight draws to its conclusion, the initial vampire lays siege to Ting-Ting, the lovely cousin of the police chief and daughter of the now definitively dead merchant, and Man, who had been dispatched to protect her. During this fight we get a wonderful scene that is a staple of Chinese vampire flicks: the breath holding scene. According to folklore and cinematic tradition, Chinese vampires hone in on their victims by smelling their breath. This leads to wonderfully tense scenes in which potential victims desperately try to hold their breath while a hungry vampire sniffs the air just millimeters from their face. I know that sounds silly, but it is actually delightfully intense. Man and Ting-Ting hold off the vampire until Gau, Chou, and the chief arrive to chase the creature off. Unfortunately, Man is wounded in the battle and slowly begins to turn vampy.
Determined to save his dope of an assistant, the priest dispatches Chou to buy a sack full of sticky rice. Sticky rice is a crucial component of a Taoist priest's armamentarium; it's the duct tape of Chinese monster hunting. It's during this chore that the sexy ghost I mentioned two paragraphs back, but you might have forgotten about already, strikes. She seduces Chou and places him under her spell.
This leaves the infinitely put-upon Master Gau to heal his vampiring assistant, exorcise his erotically haunted assistant, and destroy the original vampire whose bloodthirst kicked off all these shenanigans in the first place.
I gotta tell ya, it's like it isn't even worth being a Taoist priest sometimes . . .
As hard as it is to summarize this plot, director Ricky Lau (who would go on to helm the next three installments of the long-running Mr. Vampire franchise) never loses his audience. Even with error-laden subtitles and the occasional cultural-barrier, Lau's grip on the narrative never slacks and he efficiently guides viewers through extended fights scene and numerous subplots. Lau's co-writers, a team of three others, deserve a share of the credit. Not only does the script breeze effortlessly along through endless complications and odd turns, it makes room for pleasing shifts in tone and some genuinely real emotional moments. The actors, though clearly working within the highly stylized mode typical of comedy/actioners, manage to sell all this, which is pretty remarkable.
Though not quite as overt with the colonization theme, this film includes a clear East vs. West angle. But, unlike Exorcist Master, which made it case by bringing symbols of Western authority in the unnamed town, this film shows tensions between secularized, capitalist, Westernized Chinese and their spiritual, community-oriented, wise unreconstructed counterparts. From that description, it should be fairly obvious whom the filmmakers side with. Again and again, underhanded merchants, Westernized police forces, and other symbols of European and American influence botch Gau's attempts to being the vampire affair to a speedy and bloodless conclusion. The satire isn't subtle, but there's something honest in its depiction of cross-cultural conflict. In Mr. Vampire, Western influences are something that everybody, to one degree or another, must negotiate. While some of the characters are clearly resistant, the film shows how other characters find Western ways liberating and empowering.
Despite all the love I'm giving this flick, I'm acutely aware that it is very easy to oversell this stuff. I had a blast watching this flick (as did my horror-hatin' wife), but it represents a pinnacle, rather than a transcendence, of the genre. The cinematography, while not without flair, is more efficient than stylish. The special effects aren't all that special. Finally, the flick mixes slapstick and horror, melodrama and action with what seems like reckless abandon. It all works together, but the individual ingredients are still clearly discernable. It isn't particularly horrifying, if that's your bag, and there are several scenes that should probably end with a loud "wha-wha-whooaaaannnnn" sound effect. If all that sounds infuriating, then this flick's finer points will just get lost in the soup.
That said, I thought this was genuine pleasure to watch. Can't say better than that.