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Mr. Vampire

Fox // PG-13 // September 7, 2004
List Price: $9.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted September 16, 2004 | E-mail the Author

Toaist priest, Master Gau (Lam Ching Ying- Prodigal Son, Eastern Condors) is hired by the wealthy Mr. Yam to aid and advise him in the reburying his father, thus ensuring Mr. Yam a prosperous life. However, his father was not buried properly and the bad feng shui means that Mr. Yam's unearthed pop will soon turn into a vampire. But, to a Taoist master this is no great problem, this is, after all, his business, and he knows the spells and charms that will ensure the vampire is sedated and kept imprisoned until a proper burial. Unfortunately, his two bumbling assistants, Man Choi (the eternal worrywart-faced Ricky Liu- Mr. Canton and Lady Rose, Inspector Wears Skirts) and Chou (Chin Siu Ho- Tai-Chi Master), muck things up and soon there is a rogue, mad vampire on the loose. The vampire immediately attacks Mr. Yam, leaving him dead, infected, and, in an act of buffoonery, the puzzled local police inspector blames Master Gao for the murder and imprisons him.

Things go from bad, to worse, to much , much worse. Master Gao is locked up with Mr. Yam's soon to be a vampire corpse in the same room. Chou attempts a rescue and barely saves his master. But, there is still another angry vampire on the loose after the remaining family member, Mr. Yam's daughter, the lovely Ting Ting (Moon Lee- Zu Warriors, Angel). The problems pile up as Man Chou becomes infected and could become a vamp and a sexy forest ghost (Pauline Wong- Peacock King, Rich and Famous) bewitches Chou,...poor Master Gao has his hands very full.

Mr. Vampire (1995) is a classic work of HK action/comedy/fantasy. A landmark film and a very important footnote in HK cinema, spawning an entire sub genre of vampire and ghost hunting Taoist masters, Mr. Vampire has many particular details that are very Chinese. I can easily understand why some of its comedy, fx, Taoist and ghost/ghoul folklore would be off-putting to the unfamiliar filmgoer. While I may love it, I know I could pop in Police Story and most viewers could appreciate the broad, simple comedy and, at the very least, be amazed by the stunts. Mr. Vampire on the other hand, is fairly light on action and heavy with goofy HK comedy and Taoist mythology, so I could see it leaving some Western viewers cold. A cop chasing crooks is easy for Westerners to understand. A weird priest with a unibrow chasing hopping, oatmeal faced zombies can be harder top grasp.

While the Chinese vampire, or gyonshi, had been in HK films before, it was really with Sammo Hung's breakthrough Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980) that audience saw a brilliant blend of horror, comedy, action, and troublesome hopping vampires. This helped spawn a brief vampire/horror/comedy craze, but the formula didn't prove successful until Sammo produced Mr. Vampire four years later. The film was a smash. Like an HK Peter Cushing, Lam Ching Ying became an instant icon and would spend the rest of his career typecast as a Taosit supernatural battling priest in various Mr. Vampire sequels, other films like Crazy Safari, One-Eyebrow Priest, Ultimate Vampire, Magic Cop, and a tv series. Likewise, with somewhat lesser acclaim, director Ricky Lau would find his resume being almost exclusively supernatural horror/action/comedy pictures like Nocturnal Demon, Vampire Strikes Back, Encounters of the Spooky Kind 2 and, naturally, the Mr. Vampire sequels.

The uniqueness of HK fantasy and the standout performances make Mr. Vampire a real crowd pleaser. There is an undeniable appeal to Chin Sui Ho's acrobatic fighting and Lam Ching Ying's stoic, calm and cool hero in the middle of a frenzy. And it is that frenzy that makes it fun. Despite all the charms and tricks, they always seem just ahead of keeping the vampires at bay. Pauline Wong's ghostly vixen is the opposite of the benign, cutie Joey Wong ghost that would be seen two years later in Chinese Ghost Story. As she goes from knockout beauty to hamburger faced, anemone haired monster, the battle between her and Master Gao is a real film highlight. The years to come would see so many imitators, and its a pretty fair assessment that the success of Mr. Vampire helped launch the late 80's-early 90's off the wall fantasy craze in HK films and gave birth to a hundred imitators.

The fumbles? Well, for most action fans, it probably lays on the comedy a bit too thick. While some of the sequences are good and worth a chuckle, they do diffuse the tension too much. One of the things that made Spooky Encounters such a hit was its effective use of lighting, dark environments, colored filters, enhancing the horror mood. The horror aspect of Mr. Vampire is not quite as effective. The makeup (and this is an age-old complaint with the film) is very low budget, with the line between the Main Vamp mask and the actor's (Yuen Wah) eye very apparent and distracting. While the action does satisfy, I could have used a little more, a better balance between the various elements instead of a focus on shenanigans.

The DVD: Fox/FortuneStar. Admittedly all of the above was largely just a cut and paste of my Mr. Vampire UK Hong Kong Legends review. That edition has some really nice extras and some good picture quality. But, for you DVD fans without the any-region capability and PAL conversion, Fox offers this barebones but cheaply priced alternative with sound and image quality that is just as good as the UK disc. And kudos to putting Lam Ching Ying's name prominently on the cover.

Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The print is pretty clean and doesn't have very significant wear and tear. Sure, it has some grain but that isn't uncommon for a mid-80's HK film. Colors are nice and the sharpness is very defined. It is certainly an improvement over the terrible HK disc. As far as comparing it to the UK disc, I popped it in too, adn the differnces are slight (Fox's may be grainier but has better color, and so forth). Bottom line is, it is a nice print.

Sound: English and Cantonese DTS or 5.1 Dolby Surround tracks or original Cantonese mono track, with optional English subtitles. The original track has some distortions, like a buzz during the opening credits and a spot or two of dropoff. The remixing of the action fx is much more subtle than Fox's previous releases. Stuff like "the spell zapping" sound are pretty much the same, and the main difference I heard was maybe a little more bass on the remixes. The vocals are all pushed up front with the score and fx filling out the sides.

Again we enter the great sub Vs. dub debate. Luckily Fox has seemingly abandoned their dubtitles that plagued previous FortuneStar releases, however, in Mr. Vampire's case, a Westernization still remains. In my review, I state the characters Chinese names (or at least the ones used in the UK DVD subs) however Fox's subtitles have chosen to go with the Americanized names like "Dan" and "Harry" for Man Choi and Chu. Again, they seem unable to fully commit to the US HK film fan who may not speak the language but respects and prefers the foreign flavor. Other than that, the translation is pretty good, offering slight variations like: Sub, "There's something fishy" to the dub, "Somethings weird about it."

Extras: New and original Trailers for Mr. Vampire, plus trailers for other Fox/FortuneStar releases.

Conclusion: A fun, classic HK film. While short on extras, Fox offers the film with a nice clean (by old HK standards) print at an insanely affordable price, making this a great casual purchase for the HK film fan.

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