Mr. Vampire
Hong Kong 1985
Directed by Ricky Lau Koon Wai .

Lam Ching-Ying stars as the Taoist sifu in the movie that made hopping vampires a staple of Hong Kong cinema and Lam Ching-Ying a household name. The fun begins when Lam and his assistants attempt to rebury a businessman who refuses to stay dead.

His students are Man Chor (Ricky Liu) and Chou (Chin Siu-Ho). When we first meet the students they are horsing around in a room full of vampires. Of course Man Chor accidentally knocks over the eternal flame, the talismans fall off of the vampires foreheads, and it's up to sifu Lam and another visiting priest to put things right. These vampires are the clients of the visiting priest. Perhaps he is herding them to a proper burial place, perhaps he is just taking them on tour. Or maybe they pay the priest to keep them around in case he discovers the cure for death. The movie doesn't say.

It's a big day for the sifu, he's meeting Mr. Yam and his daughter Ting Ting (Moon Lee), recently returned from abroad, at an English Tea House. This introduces a scene we see several times over the Mr. Vampire series, where the sifu and his students cooly try to order foreign food but end up looking like fools. This time, it's just english tea. Mr. Yam has hired the sifu to rebury his grandfather. Another priest buried him twenty years ago, with explicit instructions to rebury him in twenty years to bring the family good luck. Sifu Lam discovers that the other priest purposefully buried Mr. Yam's grandfather with bad feng-shui. "At least he suggested a reburial," Ching-Ying says, "he's only ruined one generation of your family." Gee, that's swell.

A man buried so poorly can't help but become a walking corpse ('vampire'). Despite every precaution, the grandfather rises from his coffin and promptly kills his son, Mr. Yam. Let that be a lesson to you about the importance of a proper burial. The sifu is immediately framed for the murder by the intensely annoying, overacting, buffoonish police Captain (Billy Lau). I'm not sure, but this guy has either got to be the producer or the producer's son. Surely no one thinks he is even remotely funny. Luckily, he has a relatively small role in this film. Unhappily, he features in Mr. Vampire 2 in an even larger role. Ching-Ying tries to explain that Mr. Yam will also become a vampire, but his warnings go unheeded until it's too late (naturally). In the meantime, Grandfather is still on the rampage, and manages to give a nasty bite to Man Chor while he was trying to protect Ting-Ting. It looks as though he may become a vampire as well.

On top of everything else, a young ghost (Pauline Wong) has fallen for Chou. He was kind to her at her grave, and she starts following him around. Women are prime candidates to become ghosts if they die at an early age, tragically, because they never belong to any family if they die before wedlock and therefore there would be no one to honor them or burn offerings to them in the afterlife. No one burns paper money for them, and therefore they cannot bribe the proper underworld bureaucrats, and must remain among the wandering shades in a sort of 'Limbo.' When she isn't decaying, she is quite beautiful, and behaves very much like a Fox spirit (Fox spirits take human form and lure men away to make love to them endlessly, until the man has been drained of all energy, and dies. What a way to go). Of course, Chou becomes hopelessly enchanted. It's up to Lam Ching-Ying to somehow defeat the vampires, cure Man Chor and Chou, defeat the ghost, and avoid getting shot by the arrogant, overbearing, idiotic police Captain.

This movie is considered a classic, and it has every right to be. Sequels are almost never as good as the original, and I suppose you could consider every movie with a vampire or a priest in it to appear after this one as a sequel. The formula would be repeated over and over again, sometimes with success, sometimes not. Lam Ching-Ying will revisit the Taoist Priest role regularly after this movie on through the rest of his life. I've heard he was somewhat unhappy by the typecasting, but it never showed in his work, at any rate. He took the role and truly defined it. His two assistants also became staples of this kind of film. Needless to say, the first two goofy sidekicks remain the best. Ricky Hui was a well known comedian at that time, having played in a decade of Mr. Boo films with his two brothers. He's kind of like the 'Shemp' of Hong Kong movies. His career also took a horror-comedy turn after this film, appearing in Haunted Cop Shop and Haunted Cop Shop 2 before returning to this series in the last of them, New Mr. Vampire 1992. His replacements in other horror-comedy movies were a bit more annoying and a bit less funny. Chin Siu-Ho, the boyishly good-looking sidekick, reprises his role too, about a half-dozen times.

In Mr. Vampire, we see the idea of the walking corpse, or Chinese vampire, in an early film incarnation. Here, there is no stakes or swords through the heart. Only Taoist magic can stop the creatures (oh -- and a good dose of kung fu). The vampires themselves are presented a bit more loosely than they are later. Here, the grandfather starts out hopping and stiff, but he loosens up toward the end. And Mr. Yam, when he turns into a vampire, is so freshly dead that he isn't stiff at all and doesn't have to hop anywhere. And why do they hop with their arms outstretched in front of them? For the same reason the Frankenstein monster did -- he was blinded. The vampires cannot see, they can only detect a person by their breath. In later films, when the horror element is dropped altogether, hopping with arms outstretched is simply the way that vampires move, and no rhyme or reason is associated with it. To continue the Frankenstein monster analogy, it's like when Bela Lagosi played the role: stiff as a board, arms straight out in front of him. For no apparent reason.

The idea for the Chinese vampire didn't just spontaneously appear. The Chinese vampires or 'stiff-corpse' have been around for a while. One inspiration for Mr. Vampire comes from a story in the Liaozhai, the late Ming Dynasty classic of supernatural tales by the scholar Pu Songling.

Another enjoyable thing about this movie is that Lam Ching-Ying really uses the full arsenal of Taoist magic. He performs divination, applies sticky rice, writes talismans, uses coin swords and eight-trigram mirrors, and all the rest. The only wrench in the film is the police captain, but even his really, tragically bad acting can't ruin this film.

In short, there are very few movies that inspire or popularize an entire genre. This is one of those films. Followed immediately by Mr. Vampire 2, which was so bad it might've single handedly killed an entire genre. Suprisingly, and thankfully, it didn't.

The trailer:

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 25, 2004.

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