For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
Vampires are a well-trodden subject in western cinema. Count Dracula is as much a pop culture staple as Sherlock Holmes, Superman or Mickey Mouse — so much so that his footprint has extended beyond the horror realm. Comedies (Dracula Dead and Loving it) and action movies (Dracula Untold) are both terrible examples of the old Count making the jump. Of course, vampires aren’t limited to Dracula. Remember the Underworld films? Vampire in Brooklyn? Interview with the Vampire? It might surprise you then, that one of the best vampire movies going around is one you’ve likely never heard of — 1985’s classic Hong Kong horror-comedy Mr Vampire. A risky bet at the time of release, it defined a genre of Hong Kong horror and a even spawned an entire franchise.
Set in a nebulous time during Republican-era China, Mr Vampire follows Master Kau (Lam Ching-ying) and his two idiot disciples, Man-choi and Chau-sang, who maintain control over vampires and spirits. Kau does most of the work, but his students try their best, which is usually worse than not trying at all. It’s business as usual until the two idiots start a cascading chain of events that threaten not only themselves but eventually their entire town.
Master Kau is generally able to set things right, but his students and the rest of the unlearned townsfolk are just as adept at screwing things up again. It’s a fun push-pull escalation of supernatural hijinks. Western fans will recognize the comedic style as similar to that of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung’s slapstick-mixed-with-stunts. Incredible physical feats and just general ass-kicking make this a unique twist on the vampire genre.
The key to all of this is the iconic Lam Ching-ying — taken too young at only age 44 in 1997. Lam’s Master Kau is a pretty serious dude who knows his stuff, gets frustrated by his students and yet has the good of everyone at heart — not unlike the way Ian McKellen portrayed Gandalf some 15 years later. It’s an underrated turn, often eclipsed by the rest of Lam’s more prestigious roles, but it’s his performance that grounds the film when it gets goofy. And it was a huge success for him. Not only did he play essentially the same character in the sequels, he found himself cast in other similar horror-comedy films (akin to Bela Lugosi in America’s vampire films). Thankfully, he did not wind up typecast and balanced out the genres in which he worked. (Lam’s supporting cast is also great; it’s a fine line between wishing the bumbling fools to reap what they’ve sown but also hoping they pull it out in the end.)
Mr Vampire took almost a half-year to shoot in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and it was expected to be a loss for distributor Golden Harvest. Like so many other horror franchises, though, it ended up a hit. The franchise spawned dozens of parodies, a Japanese video game in 1998 and even a Hong Kong stage play in 2010. It’s a shining example of the horror-comedy that Hong Kong pioneered, and best of all, it’s suitable for the whole family. Indeed, its message to younger viewers is just as resonant as it is for older ones: In a scary situation, there’s often nothing to be scared of if you just apply a little bit of brain power and bravery. Mr Vampire is a cultural touchstone for a huge part of the world and a great movie.