Director – Ricky Lau – 1988 – Hong Kong – Cert. 12 – 96m
A feud between Taoist and Buddhist neighbours, and a tentative romance between their boy and girl apprentices, are interrupted by the arrival of a coffin, from which a hopping corpse escapes – out on Blu-ray in the UK on Monday, May 22nd as part of Eureka! Video’s Hopping Mad: The Mr. Vampire Sequels
The fourth and final ‘official’ Mr. Vampire film (i.e. to be made by Sammo Hung / Leonard Ho’s Bo Ho Films company).
This once again shakes up the formula to deliver something different from its predecessors. Where the third film replaced the franchise’s jiangshi (hopping corpses) with flying ghosts, this fourth entry brings jiangshi back again and yet, curiously, they only come into play in about half of the film. The other half concerns two next door neighbours who don’t get on with one another. As with the previous films, the knockabout comedy sensibility holds the whole thing together.
The second major change is the conspicuous absence of star Lam Ching-ying who previously played the jiangshi-fighting, Taoist priest. According to the Blu-ray booklet’s helpful essay on these films by James Oliver, this appears to be down to the fact that Lam simply wasn’t available, a theory backed up by the fact that he subsequently worked again with most of those involved in the franchise. The Mr. Vampire films turned Lam into a star, typecast as playing variants of that role in films and later television for the remainder of his career (he died in 1997 aged 44).
It’s hard to imagine exactly which role Lam would have played in Mr. Vampire IV, because neither of the two leads is exactly the straight-laced, upright type he played in the first three films. It may well be that, due to his unavailability, the script was changed around to better fit the two actors who were cast. Or perhaps the script as conceived didn’t really fit Lam’s range as an actor. Either way, his presence is sorely missed.
After a long absence, Buddhist monk Yat-yau (Wu Ma) has recently returned home with young woman apprentice Ching-Ching (Loletta Lee) in tow. He who takes it upon himself to introduce the next-door neighbour’s young apprentice Kar-lok (Chin Kar-lok) to her while the boy’s master is away on business. (The two neighbouring houses are situated in the middle of the countryside.)
Kar-lok isn’t initially aware that Yat-yau’s new apprentice is a girl and inappropriate physical contact starts them off on the wrong foot, although they become more friendly later on. (The tone is one of extremely lightweight, completely inoffensive and enjoyably silly sex comedy bordering on potential romance.)
Meanwhile, a bespectacled Taoist priest (Anthony Chan) is transporting a line of talisman-subdued jiangshi cross-country to his house conga line fashion. He is Yat-yau’s next-door neighbour and the two of them don’t get on, in part because Yat-yau practises noisy Buddhist rituals at nighttime, preventing the Taoist from sleeping. A feud ensues… at one point encompassing an hilarious food fight at a meal table.
He also encounters franchise regular Pauline Wong playing a beautiful, seductive ghost who turns out to be a huyao (fox demon, a type of fox spirit), inviting comparison with the kitsune in the much more serious Japanese drama The Mad Fox (Tomu Uchida, 1962).
A boy prince (child actor Hoh Kin-wai) and his entourage arrives at the two houses bearing a coffin. The entourage is led by eunuch Wu-yuen (Yuen Wah) who later proves to be a coward when a jiangshi escapes from the coffin to wreak havoc forcing the Taoist and the Buddhist (and their non-feuding assistants) to put aside their feud to subdue their common foe.
The boy / girl next door subplot includes some quite sweet physical humour, setting up the mood for some of the more bonkers stunt routines once the hopping corpse gets loose (biting a few people to render them undead in the process, naturally). Miss Lee has to suffer such indignities as being propelled round and round, so she looks as if she were swimming through the air, and later gets her buttocks scratched by the hopping corpse’s lengthy fingernails.
A delightful sequence had the young people communicate from their respective houses via two wooden mouth / earpieces and a length of string (I can remember doing the same thing with tin cans and string as a child) until the curmudgeonly Taoist puts a stop to it.
The neighbourly feud delivers another humourous episode in which the Taoist uses an effigy of the Buddhist to control his movements, throwing over tables and so forth. This seems perfect for the franchise, especially after the possession routines of the previous entry.
More humour is evident in the Taoist’s hopping corpse conga line – an improvised hopscotch movement over some peculiarly positioned stones ahead of them in their path, a group limbo dance move passing beneath a thick, low-hanging tree branch, the use of a toad to guide the conga line’s direction, so the Taoist can take it easy and mount the conga line like a horse (until the toad starts going the wrong way and then becomes impossible to find among a larger knot of toads).
Once the coffin-bearing party reaches the house, the eunuch comes on like a gay man (which is what I took him to be supposed to be, until I read Oliver’s booklet comments), and these days reads as a none-too-complimentary stereotype to which the passage of time has not been kind. (Almost everything else in these films has lasted well.)
The final reel mayhem is well up to franchise par, with guards from the coffin’s entourage turned into undead adversaries, a gag about the Taoist supplying the Buddhist with a little sword before producing his own, comparatively massive sword, corpse hands bursting through the floorboards to grab people and a sequence involving a section of the floor covered in malted sugar from a jar, the stickiness of which is intended to make progress difficult for the hopping corpse.
The second two films aren’t as striking overall as the first two, but are nevertheless worth watching. Bo Ho Films made no more of these after the fourth – it was almost certainly a case of milking the market while there was an appetite for more. Presumably, after this fourth film Bo Ho decided the cycle had run its course.
Mr. Vampire IVis out on Blu-ray in the UK on Monday, May 22nd as part of Eureka! Video’s Hopping Mad: The Mr. Vampire Sequels. The release also features Mr. Vampire II, Mr. Vampire III and Vampire Vs Vampire.
Hopping Mad: The Mr. Vampire Sequels trailer: