Director – Ricky Lau – 1987 – Hong Kong – Cert. 15 – 88m
Stunt-filled action comedy in which a travelling con-artist in cahoots with ghosts helps a Taoist priest fight a gang of horse thieves led by an evil sorceress – out on Blu-ray in the UK on Monday, May 22nd as part of Eureka! Video’s Hopping Mad: The Mr. Vampire Sequels
The third ‘official’ Mr. Vampire film (i.e. to be made by Sammo Hung / Leonard Ho’s Bo Ho Films company).
Set in the early twentieth century of the original Mr. Vampire, this once again takes the constituent parts of the original and shakes everything up a bit to come up with something at once different yet recognisably the same.
Taoist priest Ming (Richard Ng) is not terribly good at the job, so is getting by as a con artist going from village to village banishing ghosts for anyone who’ll pay him, the con element being that he has two ghost assistants, the adult Big Pao (David Lui Fong) and the small boy Small Pao (Hoh Kin-wai from Mr. Vampire II) who act out the part of being banished. Real ghosts with a nasty habit of appearing and messing things up force him to move on.
Thus, the trio arrive in at the next village where they are initially suspected of being part of the gang of locally operating horse thieves before joining forces with Master Gau (Lam Ching-ying) and local official Captain Chiang (Billy Lau) to fight them. They learn the gang are led by a black magic-practising sorceress (Pauline Wong) before routing their fleeing horsemen. After this, it’s only a matter of time before the vengeful sorceress and other gang members turn up to wreak havoc at Gao’s workshop.
If this were a horror movie made at this same period in the West, it would trade in the cynical, the dark, the shocking, the gruesome and the unpleasant. However, the supernatural Hong Kong movies at this time aren’t really interest in most of that, playing around rather with knockabout comedy, low-life local colour, con-men, eating in restaurants, Chinese folklore and spectacular action, fight and stunt scenes, many of the latter involving wire work.
The black magic sorceress is an excuse for the villainess to leap around through the air and hurl everything from live lengths of hair (echoing the priest played by these films’ producer Sammo Hung in seminal Hong Kong supernatural swordplay epic Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain, Tsui Hark, 1983) to hordes of vampire bats at her enemies. (Hung makes a rare cameo in the franchise here in the restaurant scene.) There’s also possession of the living by the undead, but again that’s executed by one character manipulating another from behind with his feet moving their feet, a jokey device which would fit perfectly into the English tradition of the stage pantomime.
Most of the cast are regulars from previous Mr. Vampire films, playing similar types (Lam as the Taoist priest, Wong as the female baddie, Lau as the over the top, hapless assistant, Hoh as the child undead) but this time round there are no jiangshi (hopping corpses) since the undead are represented as ghosts who fly rather than hop even while they wear the same Chinese bureaucrat uniform as jiangshi. Aside from an opening with vengeful ghosts, the ghosts here are friendly while the antagonists are living people wielding supernatural powers. Richard Ng as the con-man priest who studies to bring himself up to a more virtuous Lam Ching-ying level in the course of the story gives him a rare lead role in the series, and he’s as much fun to watch as the regular leading players here.
There’s a fair amount of invention in what follows, including a gag where one of the friendly ghosts develops twenty foot arms, villagers ambushing charging horsemen at night in a forest, ghosts being sucked or forced into jars subsequently sealed tight with talismans usually used on jiangshi foreheads, the ability of humans to hide from the undead by smearing their own flesh with ashes, and a finale in which an attempt at frying one of the sorceress’ minions in boiling oil to kill him fails because the oil isn’t boiling, resulting in a fight with a human covered in disgusting white gluten.
It may not quite be on a par with the first two films, and while the flying ghosts and sorceress are thoroughly entertaining, the lack of jiangshi is a noticeable absence. Still, the comedy element is likeable enough, the stunts are once again top-notch and the cast captivating. And its refreshing to see a franchise trying to creatively reinvent itself rather than merely falling back on what worked in previous iterations.
Mr. Vampire III is 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 IV and Vampire Vs Vampire.
Hopping Mad: The Mr. Vampire Sequels trailer: