[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a bi-weekly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
After three years of writing about Kung Fu films and the various ways they not only changed the Hong Kong film industry but my life, we’re finally going to discuss one of the biggest surprise hits of the 1980s: Mr. Vampire. A horror-adjacent action film that kickstarted its own genre overnight, Mr. Vampire was something of a gamble for Golden Harvest Studios in 1985. The only real comparison you could make would be Spooky Encounters, and while that was a moderate hit, there were many imitators by the time Ricky Lau would enter the fray with his legendary classic.
It doesn’t help that during production, Mr. Vampire went well over its original budget. As quoted by Frank Djeng in a commentary track on Eureka’s excellent Blu-ray release, Mr. Vampire started off with a budget somewhere between HK$4-6 million (something like $510K-765K USD). With an elongated filming schedule lasting more than five months, the film wound up costing the studio about HK$8.5 million when all was said and done. The projected box office was roughly HK$6 million, so Golden Harvest was ready to cut its losses here.
Against all odds, the film was a surprise hit in Taiwan -during the 80s, most Hong Kong films were released in Taiwan first-. When it came to its domestic run in Hong Kong, Mr. Vampire would go on to earn $20 million HK and make an overnight star out of lead actor Lam Ching-Ying. Why did this unsung film go on to capture so many hearts? Probably because it creates an incredibly believable internal mythos by mixing real-life Feng Shui philosophies with some well-thought-out comedy.
It’s best not to think of Mr. Vampire as a plot-driven film. While there is an overarching story here that ties everything together, this movie is in the tradition of some of Jackie Chan’s experimental 80s films like Project A Part 2 and Miracles. The film can be broken up into three distinct sections that don’t follow a traditional three-act structure but offer a look at the characters at the film’s core.
Taking place in Republican-era China, Mr. Vampire begins with a relatively horror-themed intro sequence. Man-Choi (played by Ricky Hui of Hui brothers fame) is in a Chinese mausoleum caring for the corpses of the recently deceased. While putting incense down, one of the coffins rejects the incense sticks. Man-Choi places some more, but quickly realizes something is amiss. Cue the coffin bursting open, a short burst of action, then Man-Choi realizing he’s been duped by his friend Chau-sang (Chin Siu-ho).
During all of this hullabaloo, Man-Choi had knocked over a candle that was keeping some hopping spirits at bay. They begin to attack, but then Master Gau (Lam Ching-Ying) and his fellow priest (Anthony Chan) come to the rescue. Along with some wild stunts and more traditional martial arts action, we get some exposition about how these hopping corpses work and who, exactly, Master Gau is.
Right from the beginning, Mr. Vampire establishes its lore through visual cues that help reinforce its internal logic for the remainder of the film. While hopping corpses, aka jiangshi, are an old Chinese folklore and there are numerous rules related to dealing with them, there is no recorded instance of flames being what keeps jiangshi subdued. The same goes for holding one’s breath, which was a concept created by Sammo Hung, Eric Tsang, and Ricky Lau for the film.
Following this opening segment, we then get to a burial scene where Master Gau gets right into a description of some Feng Shui philosophies. Just like the intro, there are new elements added to give Mr. Vampire a distinct feeling. This is also on top of the Cantonese wordplay that was common for Golden Harvest films, mixing in contemporary vernacular with a historical setting. Viewers with knowledge of Chinese history would be in on the joke, which is likely what contributed to the following this film would amass.
Even without knowing how the movie is throwing in anachronisms, Mr. Vampire is so committed to the bit that you could be fooled into believing this was all real. That’s another aspect the film even manages to nail: all of its characters aren’t in awe or dumbfounded by the prospect of the afterlife. Maybe because Chinese culture has such a strong connection to spirituality, even average people in the film simply go with the idea of jiangshi hopping around or ghosts attempting to seduce wayward men.
We also have the setting of Mr. Vampire, which takes place during a transitional era in China’s history. With westernization soon taking over, the film derives a lot of comedy out of Gau and his students not understanding western customs. There is a particularly funny gag dealing with coffee where Man-Choi gulps down both the drink and the cream saucer. This intersection between old-school and new-school informs a lot of the action in Mr. Vampire.
Since all of these elements are brought up early in the movie, the rest of the film gradually pulls back on explanation until it heads into its climax where everything just falls into place. Before we get there, there are lots of twists and turns Mr. Vampire takes. After the errant corpse of a rich man’s father winds up killing said rich man, the police chief (played in an extremely sleazy manner by Billy Lau) arrests Master Gau on false pretenses. Gau’s protégé attempts to rescue him and we get the most famous scene in the film: the first demonstration of holding your breath to confuse the jiangshi.
This whole segment could be dissected on its own with the way it weaves in concepts and props that later become major components of the action. The police chief is seen with a branding iron threatening Master Gau but then winds up getting branded himself. Gau’s protégé mistakes Gau’s instructions and brings cooked rice to deal with the jiangshi. Gau gets his head stuck in the jail cell door, leading to one of the most ridiculous stunt shots I’ve ever seen. This all flows at a breakneck pace, too, meaning you’re never more than a few minutes away from the next laugh or bit of action.
The only real downside is that because Mr. Vampire is more of a series of different bits connected by a flimsy thread, it can feel aimless at times. Chau-sang has a subplot where he is seduced by a lovely ghost (played by Pauline Wong). It doesn’t really connect to the main plot of the rich man and his dead father, but it further establishes some lore that would become integral in the many sequels that Mr. Vampire would receive. That and Gau throws a glowing dagger at a floating head that explodes on impact, so it’s certainly a feast for the eyes.
There is also the colossal waste of actress Moon Lee, who plays the rich man’s daughter Ting-ting. Man-Choi crushes on her hard and winds up on guard duty for her, reducing her to a damsel in distress. Since Lee had a background in dance, she was a natural fit for action films and would wind up accruing a good deal of talent. Sadly, she does next to nothing in this film.
For as many nitpicks or complaints as I can come up with, Mr. Vampire still rises above them by being very clever and well-directed. You might start to tire of the slapstick antics of Man-Choi, but then the next scene has Gau drop-kicking some corpses. The finale, as well, is ludicrous as one stuntman is set on fire in a blaze that rages for a solid three minutes straight.
This definitely isn’t a perfect movie, but after all these years, Mr. Vampire remains a Halloween tradition for me. It’s maybe not the scariest film around and is more horror-adjacent rather than strictly scary, but I really don’t mind. You won’t see Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger somersaulting around a set while closing in for the kill. You absolutely will see Lam Ching-Ying do it, however.
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