In these troubled times, I find myself seeking out one of two things for a sure-fire spirit lifter: guys in masks (luchador-style or criminal-style–doesn’t matter) or hopping vampires. There’s a straightforwardness to either flavor of entertainment that I find comforting–there are conventions to be observed, and goddammit, I CRAVE those awesome conventions.
“Mr. Vampire” is arguably the Gold Standard of hopping vampire films and, to my eye anyway, one of the most entertaining entries in the impressive body of Hong Kong genre flicks. It’s an incredibly satisfying way to spend ninety minutes escaping from what ails the world, crammed full of monsters, kung fu, and comedy. The film follows the One-Eyebrow Priest (a character who would be featured in several other films, mainly due to his KICKASSITUDE), a rural cleric who specializes in combating supernatural forces, and his two bumbling assistants Chou (a handsome yet foolish young man) and Man Choi (a buffoon cut in the classic “Three Stooges” mold) as they track down a powerful vampire who is terrorizing the village. Set in what I’m guessing is the 1920s, there are period costumes and sets to add an extra level of interest.
I’ll confess–I find most foreign comedies to be rather inscrutable. I tend to only understand the comedy behind the most low-brow bits, and I’ll wind up scratching my head at the nuanced dialogue-based punchlines. The genius of “Mr. Vampire” is that its comedy is almost entirely physical and therefore approachable by any audience. I’m not talking about mere slapstick here, dear readers–this is Best Of Breed slapstick that would make Buster Keaton take notes. The chemistry between the actors serves to put a cherry on top of the EXCELLENCE SUNDAE that is this film.
The choreography of the comic scenes blends the acrobatic artistry of the best kung fu fights with a pitch-perfect sense of comic timing. Don’t believe me? Well, here’s the first ten minutes of the movie featuring an ABSOLUTELY AMAZING vampire fight:
The comedy doesn’t only work on a visual level. There are several scenes in which dialogue is used to enhance the hilarity of a particular encounter. A scene in which the priest and Man Choi attempt to behave properly during an English Tea with potential clients yields embarrassing results that span the language gap. Who knew that a comedy of errors sequence revolving around the proper way to drink coffee could have me in stitches? Upon watching it twice in a row and breaking up with laughter both times, I can only believe that this is the product of directorial genius.
The incredibly generous nature of this film is underscored when, in addition to fighting off the threat of vampires, our heroes have to face off against a lady ghost who feeds on sexual energy as well. That’s right, lieblings–this movie lives in delicious Monster Mash territory, pitting man against creature AND creature for maximum awesometude.
There are some genuinely creepy horror moments as well. I’m a huge fan of in-camera effects used to convey terror, and when the lead vampire hops into frame in slow-motion–well, it’s surprisingly chilling! The vampire effects are ghoulish and become more grotesque as the film advances, sparing no expense to create a look that oozes gruesome decay. [SIDEBAR: Hooray for monster-style vampires! Can I just say how refreshing a good ol’ monster-style vampire can be to cleanse the palate from the whiny-ass bitches that populate most of today’s vampire landscape?]
One of the things that makes “Mr. Vampire” so extraordinarily entertaining to me is that it balances elements familiar to Western audiences with traditions unique to China. The supernatural traditions in “Mr. Vampire” are very different from the garlic and holy water mojo of the West. Combating a vampire is done very differently–spells are slapped on the forehead, and a coin-sword can be used to cause harm to an undead being. Holding one’s breath prevents the vampire from locating a potential victim (apparently these monsters navigate using the sense of sound and touch). If one is unfortunate enough to get stabbed in the neck by the poisonous claws of the corpse, dancing on sticky rice can ward off the onset of vampirism.
For sheer bang-for-the-buck entertainment, it’s hard to beat “Mr. Vampire.” Cozy up with a bottle or three of your favorite beer and settle in for a lovely evening with this Hong Kong delight. Psst–you can find it serialized on YouTube right here if you crave instant gratification.