Kaiju Shakedown: Hopping Vampires Edition
This week sees the U.S. release of Rigor Mortis, a 2013 Hong Kong horror movie that raked in big bucks at the box office, then became one of the top-grossing Hong Kong movies in Taiwan. It’s won a slew of awards and played plenty of prestigious film festivals, but what actually put it on the map is the fact that it contains hopping vampires.
Granted, these hopping vampires are filtered through producer Takashi Shimizu’s gloom-o-vision gaze, and there aren’t many of them, and they don’t hop for very long. But fans of Hong Kong movies were so excited that hopping vampires were going to be onscreen again in any fashion that they fell all over themselves like three-legged puppies when this movie was announced. Why all the excitement?
Allow me to explain.
Chinese vampires are not sexy creatures of the night who dress like Karl Lagerfeld, speak European, and act like they know which wine to order. Chinese vampires are moldering corpses, so stiff with rigor mortis that they can’t bend their arms or legs, forced to hop after their prey, long fingernails extended in front of them. They’re basically blood-hungry pogo sticks that have to have the crap kicked out of them by a Taoist priest before they can be crammed back into their stinky graves.
Sammo Hung put the first hopping vampire onscreen in Encounters of the Spooky Kind (80) but he cemented the formula a few years later with Mr. Vampire (85). The unstoppable Mr. V spawned a host of copycat films (at least 31 between 1985 and 1992) that offered little more than minor, increasingly weird variations on the theme, before it all came to an end with The Musical Vampire (92), the last hopping-vampire movie on record until at least 2001.
What was Mr. V’s bulletproof recipe for a hopping vampire film?
The One-Eyebrowed Priest A stern Taoist priest, usually played by stuntman Lam Ching-ying, whose eyebrow is desperately in need of plucking. Rather than spending his time in peaceful contemplation of nature like most Taoists, he instead keeps himself busy playing an endless game of whack-a-mole with hopalong corpses that refuse to stay in the ground.
Two Stupid Assistants Lam Ching-ying’s One-Eyebrowed Priest would actually have a pretty great life if he was able to find good help, but the only people who ever respond to his Craigslist ads are, as one rival snarks in The Ultimate Vampire, “Maybe stupid or foolish, or even idiot!” That about sums it up. There’s always a dumb, cowardly one who’s ugly, and a cocky, handsome one who knows kung fu. Dummy was played by Hong Kong’s ur-dummy, Ricky Hui, in Mr. Vampire, but he kept his repeat performances to a minimum. Cocky kung fu kid was played by Chin Siu-ho who would go on to play the same part in at least five more hopping-vampire films before starring in Rigor Mortis as himself.
Billy Lau Proof that there is no God to hear our prayers, Billy Lau’s mere existence is enough to constitute a war crime. He’s cast as the self-aggrandizing Captain in Mr. Vampire, an unfortunate choice on producer Sammo Hung’s part because it meant that Lau, who will strangle babies for a paycheck, shows up in Mr. Vampire, Mr. Vampire II, Mr. Vampire III, Haunted Cop Shop I, Haunted Cop Shop II, Vampire vs. Vampire, Here Comes a Vampire, Vampire Settle on Police Camp, Vampire Kids, Mr. Vampire 1992, and Rigor Mortis. Just how horrifying is Billy Lau? You can get a good sense of his obnoxious, overbearing, shrieky screen presence by just looking at the names of the characters he’s played: Chicken, Fatty, Sneaky Ming, Lazy Bone, and Landlord.
Pretty Lady Ghost Perhaps to balance out the fact that we have to live in a world that includes Billy Lau, the gods decided that all hopping-vampire movies must also include a pretty lady ghost. She is never a vampire, and she doesn’t hop, instead she usually shows up in a separate subplot to seduce the cocky young student, giving everyone a time-out for some nonsense kung fu sex comedy. The ranks of pretty lady ghosts include Carrie Ng (Ultimate Vampire), Moon Lee (Mr. Vampire I & II), Pauline Wong (Mr. Vampire II, III, and IV, and Return of the Evil Fox), and Tiffany Lau (Vampire vs. Vampire, Here Comes a Vampire).
Juvenile Sex Jokes What’s the best aphrodisiac? Oysters? Caviar? In China, it’s being chased by a hopping vampire. While Lam Ching-ying’s One-Eyebrowed Priest flees in terror at the first sign of human sexuality, his two assistants walk around with perma-boners, lusting after every single woman they see, be she living, dead, or in the act of ripping off her head and throwing it at them. Juno Mak, director of the so-serious-it-might-pop-a-blood-vessel Rigor Mortis, said in an interview: “I wanted to be more concentrated on the drama, rather than lame, cheesy jokes,” which means he totally misunderstands the entire hopping-vampire genre because 40 percent of any hopping vampire movie is made up of nothing but lame, cheesy jokes. Hopping-vampire movies are full of pee, poop, boobie, butt, and kissing gags. They’re the kind of movies where Carrie Ng’s pretty lady ghost possesses Chin Siu-ho and causes him to instantly grow breasts as big as weather balloons that allow him to float up into the air and over a wall.
Note: While the same gruesome crew is responsible for most of Hong Kong’s hopping-vampire movies (actors Lam Ching-ying, Chin Siu-ho, Pauline Wong, and Moon Lee; producer Sammo Hung and director Ricky Lau), in Taiwan an equally dedicated crew of cinematic craftsmen have been turning out the four Hello Dracula movies about a hopping-vampire child who pees and farts on everyone. Hong Kong stole the character for Mr. Vampire II and Vampire vs. Vampire, meaning that yes, we now live in a world where miniature hopping-vampire kids play baseball with human hearts and breakdance. Deal with it.
I only watched a fraction of the hopping-vampire movies out there, but I’m here to report back on what I found.
THE CLASS OF MR. VAMPIRE
Mr. Vampire (1985) – Most Likely to Succeed
The first and still the best, Mr. Vampire offers the most thrills and the least pee jokes, which turns out to be the golden ratio. It also contains Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan’s Chinese opera school buddy, Yuen Wah, as the titular vampire. Yuen wouldn’t play a vampire again in his career, which is too bad because his performance is so ferociously physical that the sight of his hopping, unstoppable vampire king makes the laughter die in your throat. Setpiece stacks upon setpiece as assistants are possessed, villagers turn into vampires, graves turn stinky, pretty lady ghosts switch sides, and Lam Ching-ying’s One-Eyebrowed Priest tries to keep this teetering Jenga tower of plot complications from toppling over into chaos.
Mr. Vampire II (1986) – Most Potential
Because it trades in Chin Siu-ho for Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung’s “little brother” Yuen Biao, because it updates the Republican-era action to modern day Hong Kong, and because it features rocket launchers versus hopping vampires, you’d think that Mr. Vampire II might just be the greatest motion picture ever made. Unfortunately, no. Scientists sit around sipping juice boxes and engaging in an unforgivably long debate over whether hopping vampires are human remains or antiques. Billy Lau plays the lead role, in a performance guaranteed to make your children cry. Lam Ching-ying and Yuen Biao don’t even show up until the 40-minute mark (although to be fair, at that point they do engage in a very long, very strange action sequence involving two hopping vampires, one paper talisman that can freeze one of them at a time, and a jar of “Retardant” that makes everyone move in slow motion). A lot of the running time is given over to a rip-off of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial with a child vampire standing in for E.T. and befriending some juicy human children in an endless subplot. But the last 20 minutes sweep away any concerns over its place in Hong Kong movie heaven as the two hopping vampires go on a bouncy rampage through downtown Hong Kong, the SWAT team are called into action, and Lam Ching-ying dispenses meta-dialogue like: “My master Sammo had Spooky Encounters, now he’s met the Dead and the Deadly. Last year I caught a Mr Vampire. My name is Lin Ching-ying.”
Mr. Vampire III (1987) – Wackiest
Featuring exactly zero hopping vampires, Mr. Vampire III does however feature comedian Richard Ng turning into a giant chicken and getting his butt rubbed by a ghost, so there’s that. It’s basically Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners given the Hong Kong movie treatment, with Richard Ng (who appears in Rigor Mortis) as a fake Taoist priest who cons the gullible with the assistance of a father-son ghost team who travel inside his umbrella. He comes across a village terrorized by a witch (Pauline Wong, as usual) and her unstoppable minions who want to rip off everyone’s heads and beat them to death with their own skulls. Since the village’s population includes Billy Lau, you can understand the urge. Nevertheless, Lam Ching-ying is on hand to serve up some sweet action scenes and to dispense with all the black dog’s blood, virgin-boy urine, and yellow paper talismans that proper ghost disposal calls for. Sammo Hung makes his only on-screen appearance in the series as a waiter who sings happy birthday right before Lam Ching-ying gets punched in the face with a wooden fist on a spring (don’t ask), and Richard Ng winds up frying a ghost, and then gets chased around by the beer-battered phantom while it makes Donald Duck noises. It also contains the only political commentary of the entire series when Richard Ng tells his spooky companions: “Opposites don’t coalesce.” “What about one country, two systems?” the ghost zings back, referring to Hong Kong’s proposed governmental system of self-rule under Mainland China. In the world of Mr. Vampire, that’s about as political as it gets.
Mr. Vampire IV (1988) – Most Likely to Kick Ass
Yuen Wah returns! And his return is heralded with a blast of rip-roaring action. Lam Ching-ying is conspicuously absent, his role taken by Anthony Chan (who made a cameo as a Taoist priest at the beginning and end of the first Mr. Vampire movie, and who stars as the main Taoist priest in Rigor Mortis) as a grumpy, crotchety Taoist vampirebuster who lives next door to Wu Ma playing a Buddhist ghostbuster. Chin Siu-ho’s little brother, Chin Ka-lok, takes on the Chin Siu-ho role this time around and the first half of the movie is series of supernatural grudge fights between the feuding neighbors which are fun until they turn ugly and sadistic and a little bit rapey. The hijinks get so uncomfortable that it’s practically a relief when the hopping vampire shows up, although he’s followed by Yuen Wah playing a campy gay palace official who embodies pretty much every gross stereotype about campy gay Chinese palace officials from the Qing Dynasty.
All of which doesn’t matter. The last half of the movie is one massive action setpiece in which an unstoppable hopping vampire goes berserk, unleashing an avalanche of escalating chaos in a series of intricate action sequences that topple one into the next like falling dominos. Chin Ka-lok is on acrobatic overdrive, Anthony Chan acquits himself well as a good guy who’s fun to hate, and the action is fueled by one wacky idea after another. Not since the first Mr. Vampire film has the hopping vampire been this scary.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Outside the Mr. Vampire series you’ve got everything from Aloha Little Vampire Story (1988) to Vampire Settle on Police Camp (1990) to Haunted Cop Shop I (1987, written by Wong Kar Wai). Here are some of the best, or at least weirdest, out there.
Vampire vs. Vampire (1989)
One of only two movies Lam Ching-ying ever directed, this is an energetic Mr. Vampire knock-off with one big difference: one of the titular vampires is a straight-outta-Taiwan Hello Dracula child vampire while the other is a Western-style “I vant to suck your blud!” vampire. Lam and his assistants keep the child vampire at home like a hopping housecat, and all seems well until a nearby Christian church becomes a bone of contention for the local militia who decide that since there aren’t enough nuns to rape they’ll burn it down instead. Amidst all the shenanigans, the head nun (famous Hong Kong soul singer, Maria Cordero) unearths a secret room containing a cranky Euro-vampire. Old school optical effects clutter the frame, hundreds of real life vampire bats are unleashed (and punched in their tiny skulls), Lam Ching-ying insists that his underwear be replaced, and, after a spooky late-night ghost lantern search (the Taoist version of a drone) Lam Ching-ying engages the Western vamp in foot to face combat. Unfortunately, being Western, the vampire is immune to all of Lam’s Taoist charms so it’s up to the child vampire to turn himself into a suicide bomber, hopping into combat in an explosive vest to save the day.
Magic Cop (1990)
Directed by ace action choreographer Tung Wai, this update of the Mr. Vampire formula transplants Lam Ching-ying’s One-Eyebrowed Priest to modern-day Hong Kong. Here he’s a rural cop brought to the big city to shut down a drug dealer who’s using zombies as drug mules. It’s a non-stop barrage of pee jokes, action sequences, and spooky encounters—and watching Lam unleash Taoist rituals in contemporary Hong Kong never gets old. The big bad turns out to be an evil witch getting up to no good, and the fact that she’s a frost witch gives Tung an excuse to execute an impressive series of fire stunts. Japanese action heavy, Michiko Nishikawa, plays the witch and kickboxer Billy Chow features as her henchman. Needless to say, Lam Ching-ying has to kick a lot of people in the face to settle this supernatural problem.
Doctor Vampire (1990)
Hopping is always a transitional stage for hopping vampires, since usually by the climactic end fight they’ve limbered up enough to run around and do some hitting and kicking too. So it makes sense that hopping vampires were actually just a transitional stage for the genre. By the time 1990 rolls around, Western-style vampires are on hand to sleep in coffins, suck blood, and engage in anatomically improbable sex. While Doctor Vampire</em> may not be the best of the bunch, it’s definitely the most racist. Dr. Chiang, a Chinese doctor, heads to England for a conference and becomes possessed by an inexplicable desire to wear a cape and lick patients during surgery when he returns. “Did a vampire bite you?” a friend asks, “Such things happen in Europe, you know.” It turns out that while in Europe (portrayed as a dangerous Third World country) a vampire lady did bite him in the nuts. This causes complications with Dr. Chiang’s girlfriend, and things only get worse when said lady vampire shows up to warn her victim that her vampire master is coming for him because Chinese blood “tastes like ginseng!” Lady vampire and Dr. Chiang take time out to have a romantic candlelight dinner consisting of bloody cotton balls left over after an operation and wet scabs spread on toast.
In the end, the Western vampire shows up, shoots laser beams out of his eyes, and gets defeated by the power of good old-fashioned Chinese opera. Although the action is relentlessly undercranked, turning the actors into wind-up toys on fast forward, and the main bad guy is often replaced by a Chinese stuntman wearing a blond mop on his head, this is the kind of fast, sloppy, hit-and-run entertainment that makes for a solid B picture from Hong Kong. It may be cheap and messy but no one’s going to go home feeling like this movie didn’t try its hardest to give them a good time.
Crazy Safari (1991)
A legendary movie, and for good reason, Crazy Safari will go down in the annals of cinema as one of the strangest movies ever made. Lam Ching-ying goes to South Africa to help a client retrieve the corpse of his venerable ancestor. As they fly back to Hong Kong, the corpse turns into a hopping vampire and falls out of the plane, only to be discovered by N!xau, the bushman from the 1980 hit The Gods Must Be Crazy. After encountering evil monkeys, having his leg swallowed up to the thigh by a snake, and fighting a rhinoceros, Lam Ching-ying and N!xau team up against evil poachers/diamond smugglers, at which point Lam Ching-ying rides an ostrich into battle. With a surprise Bruce Lee cameo, and a final fight in which the spirit of a monkey possesses a Chinese man, inspiring him to attempt awesome kung fu feats, I’m not sure if I can sell this movie any harder. You’re either fully on board at this point, or watching the crazy train vanish over the horizon while sadly waving goodbye. One final sweetener: comedy team Stephen Chow and Ng Man-tat provide voiceover narration for the entire movie that is only tangentially related to what’s happening onscreen.
The Ultimate Vampire (1991)
This may only be a so-so hopping vampire movie, but it’s an excellent debut vehicle for Andrew Lau, who was transitioning from one of Hong Kong’s best cinematographers to one of its best directors (Infernal Affairs, The Storm Riders). Rarely have the ramshackle outdoor sets that feature in this kind of movie looked so spookily blue-lit and eerie with paper lanterns swinging in the cold midnight wind. Lam Ching-ying’s idiot students unleash a problem (as usual) when they open up hell and let out all the ghosts. The vinyl-clad Hell Police (who accept bribes, by the way) show up and Lam has to go to the head of the Taoist association for help in rounding up the runaway souls. His Master employs Super Tactics, which apparently involves blowing ghosts up, much to Lam’s dismay, and then someone has an out-of-body experience and a pack of stray dogs steals their body leaving them in a world-threatening lurch (if they can’t find the body, his soul will become some kind of astral super-serial-killer). The first hopping vampires show up around the 40-minute mark when Lam’s assistants have to go suck the coffin mushrooms on Coffin Hill in the middle of Coffin Woods, which is home to an army of hopping vampires who can only be stopped when their heads are blown up. Carrie Ng is on hand as the pretty lady ghost and Lam Ching-ying is crankier than normal.
There’s nothing wrong with The Ultimate Vampire, and it’s definitely the most atmospheric of all the hopping vampire movies, but by 1991 audiences had seen it all before and then some, and so the genre faded, making Rigor Mortis the first hopping-vampire movie to come along in ages that doesn’t play its venerable hoppers as a sight gag. But while Rigor Mortis is a good movie and everything, I miss the days when the genre wasn’t quite so serious and we were allowed bespoke freakery like this:
Rigor Mortis and Mr. Vampire will screen at this year's NYAFF.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
… Hong Kong hit scandal overdrive last week when two of the hottest stories of the day wound up being the same story!!!
Story #1: Angelica Lee has been in a bunch of art films before, but it was her 2002 horror movie The Eye that really put her over the top. Not only did she win Best Actress for her performance at the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards, but she started dating her director, Oxide Pang. The two were inseparable until 2010 when they tied the knot and ever since then, as the press says:
“Angelica has been working hard at being a good wife and mother to Oxide and his 12-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. She was even willing to use her status as a Golden Horse Awards ‘Best Actress’ to support her husband’s films, playing the lead in Oxide’s movie, Out of Inferno, last year. Netizens commented that they have ‘never seen her playing such a useless character before.’”
Why is the press so mean to poor Oxide? Because last week he was spotted making out at the movies with 26-year-old “pseudo-model” Liddy Li. The two were seen canoodling in public and making kissy face and everything. Angelica Lee retreated to her homeland of Malaysia, and Oxide came calling, begging for her forgiveness. The two even released a joint statement about the mess, although that was before Lee was spotted in a private hospital looking exhausted and now everyone wants Oxide’s blood.
Story #2: Last weekend, an unemployed air conditioner technician, Li Tak-yan, got in a dispute with another resident of his Kowloon Bay apartment building. The two men were seen arguing on security cameras, and then Li shot and killed the other man before retreating to his apartment. Police called in the SDU team who surrounded the building and sealed off the 10th floor where Li had his apartment. After standing on his balcony with a gun to his head, Li retreated inside his apartment and shot himself. He was declared dead at the hospital.
Why is Hong Kong electrified? Because it turns out that Li Tak-yan is Liddy Li’s father. A slew of memes have been launched and, of course, the Daily Mail has all the shocking details, such as the fact that… Li Tak-yan never washed his shirt!!!
… In happier/sadder news, the three-fingered salute popularized in the Hunger Games books and movies as a symbol of respect and of resistance to the Capitol has been taken up by people in Thailand protesting the coup. As Col. Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, a spokesman for the junta, said to the press: “We know it comes from the movie, and let’s say it represents resistance against the authorities.”
People have been warned that if they are seen giving the salute in a group setting they will be arrested.