Comfort Movies: Mr. Vampire, 1985

A Taoist priest and his two bumbling assistants must move a rich man’s father’s coffin because he was buried in the wrong direction. When they bring the coffin back to their workshop, the twenty-years-dead man turns into a jiangshi or hopping corpse/vampire because the foolish employees were supposed to mark the entire coffin with chalk lines, but didn’t get the bottom done. When the jiangshi kills his son, his nephew, who is also the officious police chief, wants to blame the priest. Actually, the priest is the only one who can save the town. As side problems, one of the assistants, the good-looking one, gets enchanted by a succubus, and the goofy guy gets turned into a vampire. Now the priest has to save both of them while trying to defeat the original vampire.

Mr. Vampire has been a huge part of me since the mid-90s. At first I would have said I was interested mostly in the comedy, especially the scene in which the goofy assistant swallows a hair from the police chief and controls his body to make him act like a freak. I can still remember the first time I saw that scene, and who I was with, and how it broke us all up to the point of just howling with laughter and rewinding it over and over. When you watch something as many times as I have seen this, though, you have to be reacting to something different. I like watching the Taoist rituals, although I have no idea if these would actually be performed. What I know for sure is that my feelings for Hong Kong cinema in general, and this movie in particular, have gone WAAAAYYY deeper than “hey, check out this batshit movie.” I’m completely immersed in the internal logic of this film and others like it, at least to the extent that I’m able to understand them being a foreigner from an extremely different culture.

But it was when I met a Chinese woman who noticed that I was wearing a Mr. Vampire t-shirt, and became incredulous that I would like such a movie, that I realized that Mr. Vampire, and a lot of the other Hong Kong horror comedies, were probably pretty subversive when they came out. She scolded me a little, jokingly, and said I wouldn’t think that was funny if I’d grown up with warnings about hell from the Taoist religion. I’m not even particularly scared of the hell my own religion may or may not threaten to send you to (I’m Methodist, so it’s more of a threat of being out of the presence of God than anything, and to be honest I’m more of a fan of the idea that “many mansions” refers to reincarnation) but I take her point. When Sammo Hung started producing movies like this, he might have been thumbing his nose at someone, whether it was religious leaders or the government. Maybe both.

Over the years I’ve developed extreme fan feelings for anything related to Sammo Hung, his stunt team in general, or the priest, Lam Ching Ying, in anything. It is said that he was the best practitioner of wing chun on film, and his professionalism and charisma light up not only the horror comedies for which he is most known, but also The Prodigal Son, which might be the best quality kung fu movie of the 1980s, or ever. Also check him out in the drama Painted Faces, where he plays an aging stuntman, and breaks my heart. It’s on Netflix right now, and The Prodigal Son is on Asian Crush.