For a stretch in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Hong Kong film industry couldn’t get enough of hopping vampires. 1985’s genre-defining horror comedy Mr. Vampire began a cycle of sequels, spin-offs, and Z-grade knockoffs that pitted the stiff undead of Chinese folklore against Taoist priests, European-style vampires (Vampire Vs Vampire), the star of The Gods Must Be Crazy (Crazy Safari), and RoboCop (cut-and-paste schlockmeister Godfrey Ho’s Robo Vampire). As a genre trope, the hopping vampire—called geung-si in Cantonese and jiangshi in Mandarin—is seemingly un-parody-able, because its film depictions have always been closely tied to comedy.
Rigor Mortis, the directorial debut of Cantonese pop singer Juno Mak, attempts to revive the dormant genre by transposing it into the style and structure of J-horror. Produced by Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On), it’s a discolored, comparatively humorless, slow-build horror movie whose connection to the hopping-vampire craze would seem tenuous if it weren’t continually asserting it.
The film stars Mr. Vampire’s Chin Siu-ho as a fictionalized version of himself, a washed-up actor who moves into a dilapidated apartment block with the intention of committing suicide but ends up joining forces with vampire-hunter-turned-cook Yau (Anthony Chan, wearing the same Coke-bottle glasses as he wore in Mr. Vampire and Mr. Vampire IV) against the hopping-vampire equivalent of “fast” zombies. Though its premise suggests a kind of geung-si JCVD (there’s even a custody battle involved), the movie never really works as a commentary on either the genre or its star’s screen persona. (Not that it doesn’t try; even the score from Mr. Vampire gets quoted.)
Instead, Rigor Mortis functions best as an above-average fright flick, distinguished by its sense of supernatural folklore—scads more imaginative than its Western counterparts—and Mak’s eye for bizarre close-ups, whether it’s Yau’s flip-flops sticking to a floor covered in blood, or Chin’s aviator shades reflecting the interior of an elevator, the opening door framed so that it resembles the haw of a reptilian eye. Though the drained, grayish color palette never rises above the level of glossy gimmickry, the strong supporting cast—including Paw Hee-ching as the head vampire’s widow and Johnnie To regular Lo Hoi-pang as the building’s security guard—injects a sense of local color into the proceedings.
The hopping vampires themselves are both the film’s strong point and its major weakness. Restyled to suit broader tastes, they don’t so much hop as lunge. In the film’s earlier portions, they seem like little more than a collection of shock tactics pulled from survival games and 2000s Japanese horror. But once it comes time to defeat them, the movie bows to the logic of folkloric, rather than pop-cultural, horror. The effects-heavy climax imaginatively combines the arcane and the mundane; matter transforms from wood to mud to fire as Chin and the Big Bad duke it out in a concrete hallway, the space around them snapping in and out of recognizable reality.