In turn of the century Hong Kong, if you’ve got problems with ghosts or ghouls you go see Taoist Master Kou (Lam Ching Ying). Kou and his bumbling assistants, sex-happy Chou (Chin Siu Ho) and klutzy Man Choi (Ricky Hui) wield a unique arsenal of wacky spells ready to hold off hopping vampires, who look like Christopher Lee trying to play Dracula, Fu Manchu and The Mummy at the same time. When local business tycoon Mr. Yam (Huang Hua) inadvertently defiles his grandfather’s grave, the vampirized ancestor rises to menace Yam and his dainty, westernized daughter Ting Ting (kung fu diva Moon Lee). Pretty soon it’s murder, but clueless Police Captain Wai (Billy Lau) arrests Master Kou, while poor Man Choi swallows vampire blood and Chou receives some unwanted amorous attention from comely ghost girl Jade (Pauline Wong)…
Why do Chinese vampires hop? Because a walking corpse sounds stupid, right? Ask a silly question… Produced and featuring action choreography by Sammo Hung, Mr. Vampire followed his earlier hit film Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980) with a trailblazing combination of supernatural horror, acrobatic action and Three Stooges style slapstick comedy. It’s a formula that eventually reached Hollywood and morphed into the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996-2003) and Blade (1998), but here proves eye-opening and fresh.
Most intriguing to western eyes are its insights into Chinese folklore. Here we learn how a mixture of chicken’s blood and sticky rice makes a handy potion to ward off evil and holding your breath makes you invisible to the undead. Kou and company wield an amazing arsenal that includes paper spells, wooden swords, and death-ray spewing magic mirrors, while a series of tense, witty set-pieces show off the amazing martial arts skills of Chin Siu Ho and Lam Ching Ying. Lam had been around for years, delivering solid, sometimes outstanding performances in movies like Prodigal Son (1981). The blockbusting success of Mr. Vampire led him to become the genre’s Peter Cushing, reprising his Taoist sifu act in several sequels and zany spin-offs like Crazy Safari (1991), One-Eyebrowed Priest (1987) and his self-directed Vampire vs. Vampire (1991).
With the first Mr. Vampire, a turn of the century setting marks a clash between the old world and the new. Here, the living are literally haunted by angry ancestors. Disreputable, westernized Captain Wai - who has the hots for cousin Ting Ting - disdains traditional beliefs and makes things worse with his clumsy detective methods. Ting herself eventually ditches her lovely pastel frocks for traditional Chinese attire and becomes a humble assistant to Master Kou. Whether or not there’s a message there is uncertain, but it remains a slight disappointment the gifted Moon Lee doesn’t get a chance to show off her formidable kung fu skills.
Director Ricky Lau remained at the helm throughout the Mr. Vampire series, save for the fifth instalment Magic Cop (1990). Having worked as a cinematographer and actor, he keeps tight hold on the disparate elements, ensuring the vampires stay scary rather than lapse into figures of fun. The makeup is suitably eerie, while future superstars Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah do most of the stunt-doubling. Like Lam Ching-Ying, Ricky Lau became rather typecast in this genre, but contributed offbeat movies like Where’s Officer Tuba? (1986) - a bizarre HK variant on Randal & Hopkirk (Deceased), the serial killer comedy-thriller Nocturnal Demon (1991) - legendary for Moon Lee’s kung fu roller-derby routine - and the oddly brutal Romance of the Vampires (1994).
The film musters some sympathy for Pauline Wong’s lonely lady ghost, who has her own catchy theme tune (“The lady ghost looks for a lover. Who would take a bride so shady?”) and a soft-focus supernatural love scene with Chou (“Lucky for me you found out she was a ghost too late!” quips the randy hero to his master), before she morphs into a fright-wigged phantom with a hideous detachable head. It builds to a fantastic, slow-motion free-for-all finale that will leave newcomers to Hong Kong horror slack-jawed with awe.