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At the Hop: Mr. Vampire on Blu-ray

  Horror and comedy, as has often been noted, may be strange bedfellows in theory, but get the mixture right and your audience were in for a good time. The Hong Kong film industry churned out crowd-pleasing comedies just as any other film industry did, but their version of horror and humour combined truly took off and flew with 1985's Mr. Vampire, a wild smorgasbord of traditional Chinese folklore as recalled by director Ricky Lau and producer (and martial arts comedy superstar) Sammo Hung, as told to them by elderly relatives when they were young, and the Western notions of supernatural bloodsuckers.

Whenever there was a big international hit from abroad, Hong Kong, like Bollywood and others, sought to emulate it, and they were by no means as immune to the charms of Count Dracula as anyone in the West had been, making him one of the most filmed chiller characters of all time. Indeed, back in the nineteen-seventies Britain's Hammer and Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers had teamed up for a quickly aborted series of co-productions, releasing the Stuart Whitman in the Asian territory flick Shatter and more significantly an actual horror picture called The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, featuring Peter Cushing.

He essayed his accustomed Van Helsing role, and the vampires he was battling were both Chinese and Transylvanian as Dracula made his presence felt out East, but the mix failed to click with enough viewers and that was the last we saw of Hammer's most famous franchise. However, the writers of Mr. Vampire were evidently taking notes, for there were elements here of the Bram Stoker tropes as realised by Hammer, including Lam Ching-ying as Master Gau, a Van Helsing character as energetic yet wise as Cushing had been in his debut for Dracula back in 1958. Though if anything, Lam was even more up for action, and lots of it.

Should you laugh at the heroic reverend in Peter Jackson's 1994 Brain Dead ("I kick arse for the Lord!"), then bear in mind that he had cinematic precedents in Mr. Vampire and its many sequels which continued throughout the latter half of the eighties and into the nineties. The idea of a holy man of action - a Taoist arse kicker - was not new to this movie, but it did feel fresh when Lau applied it to his plot, and much of that was down to the boundless vim and verve with which they had concocted this, which in its way was the Hong Kong answer to horror hits from Hollywood in 1984, Joe Dante's Gremlins and especially Ivan Reitman's Ghostbusters.

Obviously, Lau was not working with that kind of budget nor those kinds of resources, but Mr. Vampire was proof that a finely honed screenplay can make the most of what you had (though it's worth pointing out he went way over budget nevertheless). That script had been tweaked and polished over the best part of a year before shooting began, and it showed: the jokes were broad but never groan-inducing, the fights were innovative and flashed by thrillingly, and the character interplay built relationships in a manner that was believable no matter how absolutely preposterous the storyline was getting.

They had their Van Helsing, but what a good horror comedy needs is its Abbott and Costello, as per Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, one of the biggest hits in the hybrid genre of all time and still a benchmark of how to achieve this often tricky style. It was there in An American Werewolf in London (1981) and in Shaun of the Dead (2003), the comedic hero and his foil to play off, and in turn be terrified by the sheer Hell they were having to deal with against their respective wishes. Here the hero was Chin Siu-Ho and his sidekick, if you will, was Ricky Hui, one of the three Hui Brothers, Hong Kong superstars of comedy of their day.

Joining them was Moon Lee, as the leading lady who begins a Westernised sophisticate (as many Hong Kong movies placed their leading ladies in the eighties) and ends fully informed on the finer points of Chinese folklore by the finale, but also there was Siu-Fung Wong (aka Pauline Wong) who, like the relentless, hopping vampires here, was a character unique to East Asian chillers, the amorous ghost who tricks Chin's naïve assistant into going to bed with her. You could see the basis of 1987's A Chinese Ghost Story and its sequels in her incarnation, another in this, uh, vein that proved very popular in the West, and made Hong Kong movie addicts out of a generation of VHS-renting kids in the eighties. Mr. Vampire was certainly influential as it struck a nerve - the funny bone - across the globe, thanks to its breakneck pacing and well-conceived plot and action. They made this look easy when it really wasn't, and it's always rewarding to go back to it, or try it for the first time, to see how satisfying it is.

[Eureka release Mr. Vampire on a bright-looking Blu-ray with these features:

Limited Edition O-CARD Slipcase with new artwork by Darren Wheeling [2000 units]
PLUS: A Collector's Booklet featuring new writing on the film [2000 units]
1080p presentation from a brand new 2K restoration
Original Cantonese audio (original mono presentations)
English dub track produced for the film s original European home video release
English dub track produced for the film s original American home video release
Newly translated English subtitles
Brand new and exclusive feature length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival)
Alternate end credits
Archival interview with Chin Siu-hou [40 mins]
Archival interview with Moon Lee [15 mins]
Archival interview with Ricky Lau [12 mins]
Original Hong Kong Trailer.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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