Sometimes, to REALLY explore what a sub-genre can do, you have to go elsewhere from the norm; not that there’s much normal about the vast majority of horror comedies that I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. From the loony tunes ghost housing of Evil Dead 2 to the satirical snark of Cabin In The Woods to the deadpan cheek of An American Werewolf In London; putting a smirk on the face of fear is nothing new, but if you ever fancy trying something less… well, American, then allow me to guide you to a quick trip to the Orient.
Hong Kong fantasy cinema is hardly what you’d call buttoned down to begin with (you try watching the phantasmagorical Zu: Warriors Of The Magic Mountain without reaching for an Ibuprofen) but when you add a huge dose of slapstick humor, you get deranged masterpieces such as Sammo Hung’s peerless Encounters Of The Spooky Kind or Ricky Lau’s glorious Mr. Vampire.
Master Kau and his two cloddish students Man-Choi and Chau-sang make ends meet by earning a living as a Taoist priest who acts as kind of a trouble shooting magic man in matters concerning vengeful ghosts and over zealous corpses and he’s currently been hired by a wealthy business owner to advise him in the matter of relocating his father’s coffin in order to ensure good fortune. Any miscalculation in the move means that the spirit of the deceased man could become restless and weak terrible havoc with his ancestors and on closer inspection Kau notices that the corpse is showing the first signs of vampirism and orders the coffin to be sent to his place for security. Now before we go any further, it’s probably time to bring up the fact that the western version of vampirism you may be familiar with (crosses, garlic, a bunch of shit to do with silver) has little to do with the kind of blood sucking, fang-sprouters you get here, here Vampires sport fetching blue finger nails, boast unbreakable skin and, most noticably, hops around the place like a murderous, pallid bunny rabbit. Master Kau’s worries prove founded when the corpse reanimates and murders his wealthy client leaving Kau the only suspect thanks to an insanely incompetent police force, on top of that, rather sizable wrinkle, Man-Choi is critically wounded by the vampire while trying to protect the businessman’s daughter and is slowing starts to transform himself while Chau-sang finds himself the target of a lonely ghost who seduces him with possibly fatal consequences.
As Master Kau frantically tries to restore order in the overwhelming face of hopping undead monsters and the frequent fuck ups perpetrated by his own students (it’s a stone cold tie as to which ones causes the increasingly exasperated Master more headaches) the stage is set for a rambunctious climax that fuses martial arts, high farce and a boundless energy in a way that rarely seen outside Hong Kong cinema.
I’ve mentioned it earlier but I find it tough to separate Mr. Vampire from 1980’s seminal Encounters Of The Spooky Kind but there is much here that connects the two, not least the input of producer Sammo Hung. While I’m admittedly slightly more fond of Encounters (which Hung directed and starred in), Mr. Vampire is a more polished affair, featuring a stronger, more straight forward story and more coherent characters compared to the former’s episodic, scrappier style.
It also contains probably the best outing for Lam Ching-ying as Master Kau, a man who spent so much time round-house kicking various mythological supernatural bastards he became known as Hong Kong’s answer to Peter Cushing. His square jaw, unwavering monobrow and impressive athletic prowess mixed with an impatient stoicism is a perfect counterpoint to the broad levels of goofy action that blankets the film in a snug wrapping of hyperactive lunacy. The comedy isn’t ever going to be mistaken for anything in the neighbourhood of high-brow but who cares when the physical stuff is incredibly inventive and moves with all the ferocious momentum of when a cat freaks out for no reason and darts about the house at three in the morning.
Utilising every single bit of Vampire lore and incorporating it seamlessly into it’s fight scenes (the detail that Vampires can’t find you if you hold your breath is enthusiastically deployed as is the many weird ways of vanquishing them) it’s easy to let the little details rush past you in the adorable, primary coloured chaos; notice that the titular Mr. Vampire rarely breaks from his physical stance with his hopping legs together and arms straight out in front of him and fights entirely in character.
While Hong Kong comedies sometimes scrimps on the subtlety in favour of gurning faces and flawlessly executed acrobatics, Mr. Vampire actually manages to add some pathos in the form of Jade, the tragic ghost character that yearns for companionship in the arms of clueless young men she seduces. You’d think that such a plot thread would be hideously out of place, especially randomly parachuted into a movie where a man ducking an attack inadvertently sits down hard on a bed of nails and then subsequently leaps about a good fifteen feet into the air but this only goes to show how versatile this candy coloured cartoon actually is.
Those of you unfamiliar with this genre may be put off at the occasional visible wire or the primitive special effects, or you might even be utterly flummoxed by the anarchic tone or abrupt, random tone shifts that often have nothing to do with the plot – but those willing to embrace this high-kicking rollercoaster romp shouldn’t be disappointed.
In fact, they should drop to their knees and give… fangs.