Film Reviews

Hopping Mad: The Mr Vampire Sequels – Blu-ray Review

One of the things that movie fans seem to complain about a lot is the speed at which modern movies make sequels. Once a studio has a hit on their hands it seems like almost no time at all until another film is underway, and a franchise in the works.

And I guess compared to Hollywood of decades ago when it could take several years for big name franchises to bring out another film, a two or three year turn around can seem fast. But I don’t think I’ve seen anyone produce sequels faster than Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s; once they found a good thing that was a hit with audiences you were almost guaranteed to have another film before a year had passed. And the horror comedy series Mr Vampire was no exception to this, with five films being released over five years.

With Eureka Entertainment having previously released the first film in the series as a stand-alone Blu-ray, fans of the franchise were waiting for the other films to come out, preferably with the same speed and efficiency as their initial release schedule. But rather than releasing them one at a time, Eureka Entertainment have unveiled Hopping Mad: The Mr Vampire Sequels collection, which brings all four sequels together in one set to complete the collection. It’s never been a better time to be a fan.

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The first film in this set is Mr Vampire II (1986), which is perhaps the most distinct of the bunch thanks to taking some bold story choices. Since the release of the first movie the popularity of the Jiangshi genre had exploded, and there were multiple knock-off movies all trying to cash in on the success, and brand themselves as the next Mr Vampire. This, in part, led to the choice to transport the action of the second movie from the turn of the century mainland China to modern day Hong Kong. Despite being set in a whole new era, with a new bunch of characters, the film saw the return of a number of actors from the first movie in new roles as a form of connective cohesion.

The film begins with an archaeologist and his two students stumbling across a burial site where they find three bodies perfectly preserved. This man, woman, and child, likely a family, all have Taoist talismans stuck to their heads. Thanks to the desire to sell the corpses and make money, the three men don’t bother researching into what they’ve found, and end up unleashing the three vampires. Luckily, a local doctor, played by series icon Lam Ching-ying is on hand to deal with the threat. Despite the change in location and era, Mr Vampire II does share a surprising similarity with the first film (and not just because of the cast). The first movie had a lot of subtext in regards to the clash of traditional values and culture with that of modernisation and western influence. This is even more prevalent in this movie, and is a theme that is explored in Hong Kong cinema a lot thanks to their unique circumstances.

The Chinese title for Mr Vampire II translates to ‘Vampire Family’, and the group of vampires at the centre of the film also make this a stand out movie amongst the others in the series. The vampires are very much presented as a family unit, and much of the carnage is caused by the two parent vampires trying to find their missing child. The child, who gets separated, ends up making friends with a couple of modern kids, who mistake him for an immigrant child and try to help him. The movie even gives you a cutesy montage of the vampire boy and his new human friends going on a day out, riding the bus, and playing in the park. It’s very jarring, and doesn’t fit completely with the tone of the rest of the movie, but this is a series that likes to mess with expectations and genres, so it’s not the oddest thing that a Mr Vampire movie has done.

Thankfully, much of the horror comedy and action of the first film has been included, and those that enjoyed the weird hi-jinks of the original will find a lot to enjoy here too. The scene in which one of the archaeologists assistants has to desperately switch talismans between two vampires trying to kill him is an incredibly well put together and choreographed scene that walks the line between horror and comedy perfectly.

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Mr Vampire III (1987) is perhaps the oddest of the four films collected here for one very big reason: there are no vampires in it. It’s possible that the lack of vampires in this film is due in part to the proliferation of Jiangshi movies that were being made at the time, and that the series wanted to keep itself different and interesting. Whilst Mr Vampire III gave up on vampires, it did return to the series roots and went backwards in time to a more traditional setting. The film focuses on a dishonest priest, played by the hugely popular comedian Richard Ng (who sadly passed away just last month), who use two friendly ghosts to scam people out of money.

When the dishonest priest stumbles across a small community that is under attack from evil magic practitioners, he ends up getting dragged into the fight thanks to their village priest, played by Lam Ching-ying. Thus, spirits and evil wizards get the centre stage this time round. This leads to a neat expansion of the lore introduced in the other films. Western audiences are, more often than not, ignorant of other the traditions and beliefs of other parts of the world, and as such many of the rituals and traditions present in these films have little frame of reference for audiences outside of China and Hong Kong. As such, the new lore added in this film can be both surprising and baffling, as characters strip off and cover themselves in soot to become invisible to ghosts, and deep fry spirits in order to neutralise them.

Mr Vampire III is perhaps the strangest, most comedic of the films on offer here. This is in part down to the supernatural antics, but it’s also in large part thanks to the casting of Richard Ng, whose career became synonymous with comedic roles, and whose inclusion in a movie guaranteed ridiculous moments to come. Here he works perfectly alongside Lam Ching-ying’s straight laced priest, and the two of them develop a decent rapport as the film progresses, and they become the priestly equivalent of a buddy cop duo.

The third film in the collection is 1988’s Mr Vampire IV, and is the only film in the series that doesn’t feature Lam Ching-ying. Instead, the film has two lead priest characters, one a Taoist, the other a Buddhist. These two older masters live in houses set side by side in the middle of nowhere with their two students, and are constantly warring with each other. The first half of the movie becomes a slapstick comedy as the two priests play pranks on each other, even going so far as using magic to mess with the other and tormenting them to breaking point.

It’s at around the halfway point that the film finally introduces its vampire, and it’s a hell of an introduction. The vampires featured in the other films in the series have so far been presented as pale people with fangs, maybe a bit greenish in places. This movie’s vampire, in comparison, is much more frightening. The film uses heavy make-up to make him look more monstrous and aggressive, and the moment he’s let loose from his coffin he begins slaughtering people. The scene, accompanied by rain and lightning, feels like the closest the series gets to out and out horror, and it makes for an even more shocking scene as it’s set within a film that’s been a pure comedy up to this point.

The film isn’t just about the comedy, however, as once the action begins there are a number of really well done set-pieces and gags, such as the students dressing themselves up as vampires to try and get away from the undead, huge swords that would make Cloud Strife jealous, and sticky floor designed to trap the hopping monsters. However, it really does end up feeling like a film of two halves, one that might end up testing the patience of those wanting some vampire action.

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The final film in the collection, 1989’s Vampire vs Vampire, is something of an oddity, as it’s not an official sequel. Thanks to the popularity of the series more and more supernatural comedy films were being made, and Lam Ching-ying appeared in a number of them. The booklet that comes with this set compares Vampire vs Vampire to Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again, and the way those films are mostly, kind of, included in the Bond series even though they’re not official. This film gets the same kind of treatment thanks in large part to Lam Ching-ying playing a similar role to the other films, and him directing the movie. It also hits upon several of the themes from the first movie.

As the title suggests, this film will pit vampires against each other, though likely not in the way you’d expect. The film deals with a Taoist priest, played by Lam Ching-ying, his two bumbling students, and the little boy vampire who lives with them. The priest ends up getting to know the head nun of a nearby Christian mission that’s being renovated, and ends up getting into a number of embarrassing situations with her that makes for a delightful change to the normally serious characters he plays in the series. However, when a vampire is freed from its imprisonment within the mission, the priest will have to battle against it.

The promised vampire fight doesn’t really come, and whilst the little vampire does come the priest’s aid once or twice this is still very much Lam Ching-ying fighting vampires. But, the second vampire is not a Jiangshi, but is a western vampire (and is even named Western Vampire in the credits). This makes for a delightfully jarring movie, where a very Dracula-like vampire is running around the Chinese countryside in a cape. It also means that a lot of the methods in which the Taoist priest would usually deal with vampires no longer work, as this vampire has different rules.

The clash of East and West that has been a theme in a number of these movies is very much pushed front and centre here, with a Toaist priest fighting the kind of vampire you’d expect to find in a Hammer Horror film, as well as the moments where the priest and the head nun are getting into odd, almost Carry On style scrapes and embarrassing situations. Previous movies in the series have very much treated traditional values as something that is needed to save the day when those pushing for advancement and westernisation come under attack from the supernatural, and whilst Lam Ching-ying isn’t able to save the day in the same way, with many of his traditional methods bearing no results, it does carry a message about traditional values adapting to find a place in an increasingly westernised society.

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As previously mentioned, this new set comes with a booklet written by film critic, film maker and historian James Oliver, who delves into the franchise, and how each movie fits into it. Alongside that, each film has been given a new HD restoration, and is presented with the original Cantonese audio on all of the films, as well as an alternate English dub for the second movie. Each film comes with an audio commentary, and there are a couple of extra features that explore the rituals and practices used in the films, and the impact of the Jiangshi genre.

The Mr Vampire series is one that became hugely popular, especially outside of Hong Kong. The original movie did exceptionally well, and helped to introduce the concept of Chinese Hopping Vampires to the rest of the world. However, despite that popularity few of the sequels ever actually made it outside of Hong Kong. As such, this set is the perfect opportunity for fans to finally see the other films in the franchise, and to add them to their collection.

Hopping Mad: The Mr Vampire Sequels is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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