film 2 of 5

Mr. Vampire

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

You gotta be careful, don’t you? It’s tempting to, or it’s almost impossible not to, judge things on terms that don’t properly apply. For instance, you’re an aficionado of horror literature, or horror films. You’re familiar with the milestones, and more particularly you’ve been steeped in genealogies and conventions that are native to Europe and North America. It may be that you’ve also been adventurous, exposing yourself to magisterial genre alternatives like Kwaidan, or Kuroneko. Ugestsu Monogatari, even. You’ll have understood that, as with your more familiar European sources, there are folkloric roots here. This is an important genre! It’s often quite stylized, fantastic, artificial. But it has such profound figurative/metaphorical connections to the deepest, most profound subjects.

Horror has served you, and help you. And you’re an open-minded, intellectually curious person. You like to branch out. What about China (or HK, more specifically), you ask? What should I see, and what can I learn?

You try Mr. Vampire.

What the hell?

Well hang on here. I’d actually read, previously, an abridgment of Pu Songling’s Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio, which is the 18th century source of this project. It was strange, eerie, atmospheric, resonant, very multiple. Not at all the Grimms, but a clear indication of the range and richness not only of man’s contemplation of occult forces, but of man’s incredible collective intuition, wit and wisdom.

This adaptation isn’t much interested in any of that? A betrayal? Probably not. More like, the folklore is so thoroughly absorbed, and so widely addressed and distributed, that anything goes.¬†Mr. Vampire¬†is a horror-comedy, really. It’s quite silly. The best Western parallel might actually be The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, though that dumb masterpiece operates in a different horror register.

And what’s wrong with that?! Reading Pu Songling was entirely due to my colleague Darl Larsen, who knows tons-of-a-lot more than I do about this stuff. He also lent me a copy of this dvd, for which my children have blessed him through intervening years. This probably isn’t the mythology, the genre iconography you’re used to. It might be difficult to know where to place it, or how.

The solution is to take a class, or read up. More immediately, don’t worry about it. Find some kids, press play. This dumb thing is a real hoot.