Judge Joel Pearce was hoping he could get Mr. Vampire to join up with Mr. Ed, Mr. Magoo, and Mr. Bill on Mr. Show, but he never heard back from them.
"When someone dies in anger, a breath is caught in his throat."—Master Ko
Contrary to what is suggested by the cover and title, Mr. Vampire isn't really a horror movie. It's billed as a blend between horror, action and comedy, but it's really just an old school Hong Kong action flick with a vampire as a villain. That's not a complaint, though, because it's one of the best Hong Kong action comedies that I have ever seen.
The premise of the film could have been taken from a western vampire story. A vampire hunter/exorcist named Master Ko (Lam Ching Ying) and his two bumbling assistants run into a serious problem when an ancient vampire is unearthed and starts to turn his surviving family members into the hopping dead. One of his assistants, Dan (Ricky Hui), is bitten by one of the vampires, while his other assistant Harry (Chin Siu Ho) is captured and possessed by a ghost.
As soon as you cut through the basic premise, though, you find a very different kind of undead threat. The vampires of Chinese mythology are quite different than those in our films, both in the way they behave and the way they are fought. At first, it looks a little silly to have them hop around the way they do, almost as though they are a cross between our Western vampires and zombies (which is how it has sometimes been translated in the film). The methods of fighting them doesn't really make much sense to me, but it isn't any less logical than garlic and holy water.
The real focus here isn't the mythology, but rather the action. There is almost no explanation of the role of Master Ko and his apprentices, and there is little explanation about the vampires either. That doesn't seem to matter much, though, as the various props and undead fighting tools are used to great effect by Master Ko and his team in a series of fast-paced and inventive fights. I have seen dozens of martial arts films before, but never one in which the heroes constantly have to protect themselves from being bitten. The blend of the near-perfect stunt work and decent special effects combine into action scenes that have a lot of rewatchability. The various plots all come together towards the end, in two breathtaking fight scenes that rival the best martial arts films ever produced. The performances are excellent as well, with great stunt work and comedic timing from all the principle actors.
Not everything about the film is perfect. There's some recurring humor in Hong Kong action movies, generally revolving around identity misunderstandings and cultural awkwardness, that has never done anything for me. I would have liked to see some of the time given over to that brand of humor in Mr. Vampire spent instead on building the film's suspense, its horror elements, and its mythology. Some genuinely frightening scenes could have strengthened the action sequences. Still, it's hard to criticize a film for delivering exactly what was promised. Fans of Jackie Chan's films will be in high kicking heaven here, as it has a very similar tone to Police Story, Legend of Drunken Master and some of his other classics.
The transfer is far better than expected. The print is not in particularly good shape, but I was amazed by what Fox was able to accomplish in the remastering process. The detail is excellent, there isn't excessive grain or dirt, and the colors are generally excellent. The black level isn't perfect, and the whole image lacks the crisp quality of recent big-budget films, but I bet this is as good as Mr. Vampire has looked since it was in theaters. Just as pleasant a surprise is the audio. The original Cantonese track has been left here, which is great for purists and quite unexceptional for the rest of us. It is ugly sounding, flat and accompanied by a slight hiss. The 5.1 tracks, on the other hand, are great. Often surround tracks coming from mono or stereo tracks sound like they just have had some reverb added, but the track here sounds both natural and subtle. As with the video, that doesn't mean that the film sounds as good as a recent action blockbuster; but the dialogue is always crisp and there are well-placed surround effects in the action scenes. Cantonese is definitely the language of choice, as the dub is weak and obnoxious.
Unfortunately, Fox hasn't done as well with the extras. In fact, there aren't any. A little context on the Chinese vampire mythology would have been a definite asset to the disc, and some discussion of the film as a classic in the genre would have made some sense. They have put the disc at a low enough price point that it doesn't matter too much, though.
If you are a Hong Kong action fan and you have never had the opportunity to check out Mr. Vampire, now is the time to do it. It doesn't change the way we will look at the Hong Kong action industry, but it's a great example of its body of work, and Fox has done justice to the film with a fine transfer and a cheap retail price. Horror fans may want to pass it up, though, since the frightening elements are few and far between.
All involved are found not guilty. Master Ko and his assistants are free to go and continue the good fight. Fox is encouraged to continue delivering these classics at such a great price.
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