Tag Asian

Mr Vampire II (1986)

Mr Vampire 2 (1986)

A professor and his two bumbling assistants find the bodies of a man, a woman and a child preserved in a cave. However, the bodies are really vampires and return to life when the prayers pinned to their foreheads are removed whereupon they proceed to cause chaos in the laboratory. The child vampire hops out into the streets. It is found and befriended by two children who take it home and hide it in the closet away from their parents. Meanwhile, one of the assistants has been bitten and goes to seek the help of the herbalist Lin Ching Yin. As Lin goes to help vanquish the vampires with his remedies, the reporter Jen, who desires Lin’s niece, determines to get photos of what is in the laboratory but instead unwittingly releases the vampires.

 

Mr Vampire is still relatively unknown to a lot of Western audiences. The Hong Kong horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid was such a success back in the 80s, it became a cultural phenomenon in Asia, much in the same way as something like Ghostbusters did here in the West. There is something lost in translation between the East and West, and I’m not just talking about the languages spoken and/or subtitles. Western audiences have never clearly taken to the Jiangshi, the hopping vampires of Chinese folklore, which look more like what we know as zombies than suave Counts with cloaks and fangs. But for those living in Asia who have grown up with these stories, Mr Vampire was a perfect blend of gentle horror, kung fu action and physical comedy. Following hot on the heels only a year later, Mr Vampire II attempted to strike whilst the hype was still high.

Despite the presence of the same director and same writer as the original, Mr Vampire II is a fairly shambolic attempt to replicate the same formula. It’s a sequel in all but name, as the story moves forward into the present day and doesn’t have anything to do with the original save for the inclusion of some hopping vampires. But it ramps up the silly comedy, tones down the kung fu and doesn’t really do anything scary in its eighty or so minutes of running time. There is no real plot to the film other than the synopsis mentioned above and the narrative just drifts from one ‘crazy’ set piece to another with no real progression or conclusion. The film opens with the professor and his assistants scouring tombs for things to sell and doing all sorts of ‘hilarious’ things, then proceeds to follow them back to their laboratory where they continue to do the ‘hilarious’ things. It’s not long before their antics cause the vampires to awaken and thus ensues more carnage and ‘hilarious’ goings-on, only with the hopping vampires now. I could understand this being in the middle of the film but there’s a big glaring issue with Mr Vampire II – where the hell is the lead character? It’s around forty-minutes into the film when we finally get to see the man of the title, ‘Mr Vampire’ himself Lam Ching-Ying and it’s ridiculous that it takes this long to see him. He’s virtually a supporting character in his own franchise, though Ching-Ying does what he can with the weaker material.

Mr Vampire II’s comedy is pitched at a lot lower level than its predecessor. Yes, there was plenty of slapstick and silly shenanigans in the original but the juvenile humour here is a desperate attempt to make the audience laugh. Take for instance the opening sequence in which a snake slithers up the trousers of one of the bumbling assistants – it’s something that little kids might get a chuckle out of it but they’re hardly the target demographic here. To add insult to injury with the juvenility, one of the three vampires is a child and so there are plenty of cute kid moments involving the vampire child and a human child forming a bond, like a perverse version of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. You can tell how quickly this one was rushed out due to the unexpected success of the original as there’s so much thrown at the screen with the hope that something sticks. Almost everything that made the original such a mega-hit has been jettisoned in favour of childish antics.

The original was never truly scary but the film did have a nice cinematography to it, giving us that otherworldly feel to the reanimations and hopping ghosts. The ancient setting allowed for some effective atmosphere to be created, which the contemporary setting here doesn’t come anywhere near matching. The corpses look too human as well – no one seems to question why the bodies of the man and woman seem to be so fresh and lifelike when they pull them out of the tomb. Compare these to the decaying corpses seen in the original and films like Encounter of the Spooky Kind and even simple things which could have made a difference to the ambiance have been neglected.

 

It’s tragic to see such a quality horror-comedy as Mr Vampire get such an appalling sequel. The staggering drop in quality between the two films is ridiculous and Mr Vampire II becomes a real slog to get through. Keep that magic yellow paper slapped onto the vampires and let them be.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Mr Vampire (1985)

Mr Vampire (1985)

Master Ko, a Taoist priest, is asked by a struggling businessman to oversee the reburial of his dead father in the hopes of rekindling his family’s good fortune. Ko’s two bumbling assistants stumble onto a bad omen before leaving the remote graveyard. Deciding to take the corpse back to the mortuary, Ko suspects the dead elder suffered a wrongful death. The priest and his students soon find themselves up against supernatural forces and a very powerful vampire.

 

If you’ve never heard of Mr Vampire then you’re missing a real treat, though actually getting access to it over in the UK is problematic. Like many Asian films which have been big successes in the Far East (Godzilla films, I’m looking at you), there doesn’t seem to be much interest in releasing them over here and whilst Mr Vampire did receive a DVD release a few years ago, the sequels and rest of the sub-genre that it spawned are nowhere on the radar. It’s such a pity as Mr Vampire is one of the best horror-comedies that the 80s put out and because it’s not Anglo-centric, it opens up a whole new world of mythology, superstitions, beliefs and magic that we, in the West, are totally unfamiliar with.

Sammo Hong’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind in 1980 had set the precedent for this horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid genre, but it is with Mr Vampire where this niche genre really struck gold. It’s a ridiculously madcap film that balances the slapstick comedy with plenty of frenetic kung-fu action and makes sure that the horror elements are not left on the back burner. The physical humour has not dated in the slightest, made more absurd by the crazy situations in which the characters find themselves facing. Nothing is lost in the translation between East and West – if anything, the film is all the better for having an element of the exotic and the unknown as it makes things more interesting than your generic Western horror-comedy. Mr Vampire is still relatively unknown to a lot of Western audiences. The Hong Kong horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid was such a success back in the 80s, it became a cultural phenomenon in Asia, much in the same way as something like Ghostbusters did here in the West.

Ko and his assistants have to deal with some Jianghsi. And if you don’t know what they are, then the film does a decent job of covering the bases. These Jiangshi, hopping vampires from Chinese folklore, are not like our Western vampires in the slightest (no dressing in smart suits with cloaks, changing into bats, being scared of garlic, etc). Some audiences may find the sight of the ghosts decked out in 1600s Qing dynasty era clothing, arms outstretched and hopping along in lines to be rather comical but there’s nothing funny about how deadly these things actually are. Whilst Mr Vampire plays up on the comedic aspects of the vampires, they can kill you in many different ways and are a lot tougher to beat than Count Dracula and co. It is this unveiling of Chinese folklore to those not familiar with it that will be one of the biggest appeals to Anglo horror fans – it adds unpredictability to the narrative. You’re not quite sure how the threat will be dealt with but are introduced to all sorts of magical papers, chicken blood recipes and sticky rice methods which are the Asian equivalents of your wooden stakes and garlic to a vampire.

It takes a good thirty minutes or so for Mr Vampire to really kick into action gear but it doesn’t stop from that point onwards. You could argue that the film is little more than a series of kung fu-comedy set pieces and I couldn’t really disagree. The narrative is a little wonky at times, with the main premise being too thinly-written to really stretch out over the whole feature length time. There is a slight deviation throughout Mr Vampire, no doubt to boost up the running time, featuring one of Ko’s assistants falling in love with a ghost and Ko having to break the curse. Whilst this doesn’t add anything to the narrative in the slightest, it isn’t an unwelcome side-track as there is plenty of comedy to be had watching Ko attempt to save his assistant. From then on, the madcap film just goes in a crazy ride through a number of sequences which perfectly blend some fantastic choreography alongside a number of real laugh-out-loud moments. Nobody seems to take a breath either

Lam Ching-Yang made an appearance in the aforementioned Encounters of the Spooky Kind but here he gets a leading role and makes it his own. Lam is fantastic in the role, trying to deadpan most of what is going on but getting bogged down in the madcap stupidity of his assistants in the process. He can handle the stunt work perfectly and has the role of the Tao priest down to a tee – it’s a role he felt typecast by, but the film gave him his big break and he starred in no fewer than eight sequels and knock-offs of Mr Vampire. Both Ricky Hiu and Chin Siu-ho are hilarious as his bumbling assistants and the three make for an effective trio. The stunning Siu-Fung Wong is also a nice addition to the cast as the ghost who bewitches one of Ko’s assistants.

 

If you’re worried about indulging in something as far away from the streams of watered-down Western horror-comedies as you can possibly get, then Mr Vampire is your answer – if you can obtain a copy. A relentless, hilariously entertaining mix of kung-fu, horror and comedy, made with real enthusiasm and zest, it’s definitely one of the best films to ever come out of Hong Kong. The fact that it is so little known in the West is both a travesty or a well-kept secret, depending on your outlook.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980)

Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980)

Hapless servant Cheung finds out that his wife has been having an affair with his rich master Tam. Wanting to get Cheung out of the way, Tam enlists the services of an unscrupulous priest to do the deed with black magic so that fingers can’t be pointed back to him. But Cheung turns out to be no pushover and he must battle the supernatural and the uncanny with the help of the priest’s more righteous brother.

 

Cult classics don’t come as any more clear-cut than Encounter of the Spooky Kind, an off-beat kung fu-comedy-horror flick which is sort of like Enter the Dragon meets The Evil Dead. Responsible for kick-starting a whole slew of Hong Kong cinema in the 80s, Encounter of the Spooky Kind is a crazy ride right from the opening scene until the classic showdown at the end. Mixing comedy, horror and martial arts in equal measure, director and actor Sammo Hung crafts a wonderfully ludicrous tale of hopping vampires, black magic and possession.

There’s something for everyone here and each of the different genres are treat well. The horror elements are mainly played out in the opening half. Being from a different culture than we are used to in the West, it may take a while to get used to the fact that the Chinese definitions of vampires are totally different to what we’re used to. Here, they look more like our stereotypical zombies and hop around in a weird trance-like state with arms outstretched. The crusty, decomposing make-up looks good though and there are maggots flying about too to reinforce the fact that these are undead beings. The historical period setting and lavish, colourful sets enhances the atmosphere and mood of the piece, giving it a few Hammer-ish vibes. In many ways, I was reminded of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a Hammer-Shaw Brothers production which laid much of the groundwork for this type of film to become successful. Despite the obvious low budget, Encounter of the Spooky Kind features some great make-up and the sets are excellent and the overall effect of the horror is, well, spooky.

With the horror flying around thick and fast to begin with, the action soon takes over in the second half and the kung-fu comes more to the fore. This leads up to a thrilling finale in which the forces of good and evil battle each other which is heavily dosed in Chinese folklore. Hung choreographs a number of impressive fight scenes, including between himself (and a possessed hand) and some policemen or two priests fighting it out with black magic. Playing out alongside both the horror and action is a nice comedic streak. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously and there are some laugh out loud moments, particularly Cheung’s encounter with a reanimated corpse which copies his every move, right from taking a leak against the wall to slapping itself in the face.

Sammo Hung plays the role of bumbling oaf Cheung to perfection. You know that Cheung has a heart of gold but a brain the size of a pea and his reactions to the situations he’s thrust into are priceless. Hung demonstrates a Bruce Campbell-esque knack of convincingly portraying that part of his body has become possessed and is acting on its own during an amazing scene inside a restaurant which involves all manner of slapstick and high-octane martial arts. In fact, much of Hung’s comedy comes from physical slapstick and the larger-than-life actor utilises his size to his advantage in a number of hilarious scenes.

Lam Ching Ying also has a small role here as the police inspector. Along with Sammo, Lam was a major factor in this this surge of Hong Kong horror-martial arts and fronted the equally excellent Mr Vampire series until his untimely death. Whilst he’s not in his trademark Taoist priest role, he still manages to shine with a few moments of kung fu and comedy.

If there are quibbles with Encounters of the Spooky Kind, and believe me there are few, it is with the episodic nature of the film. Due to the fact that so many genres are all being blended together, the film does tend to become patchy and the framework linking them all together doesn’t really hold up, leading to long periods where the narrative dulls and the pace lags. You won’t have to wait too long before the pace picks up but the continual stop-start nature gets a little tiresome.

 

It’s hard to find a film which is as all-round fun and entertaining as Encounter of the Spooky Kind. If you have any sort of interest in any of the three major genres this film mixes together, then you should check this out. This, and many of its Hong Kong kung-fu horror comedies, aren’t exactly the easiest films to track down on the West but if you get the opportunity, take it!

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Shaolin Vs Evil Dead (2004)

Shaolin Vs Evil Dead (2004)

Everybody is Zombie Fighting!

Two competing Shaolin monks are forced to team together to save Earth from a devastating army of darkness when one of them accidentally awakens the immortal King of the Vampires.

 

Trying to recapture the successful horror-comedy formula that spawned the likes of Encounters of the Spooky Kind and Mr Vampire in the 80s, Shaolin Vs Evil Dead fails pretty miserably. It’s got all the right ingredients: a wise monk, his bumbling apprentices, hopping vampires, rotting corpses, plenty of crazy martial arts and not a care in the world. So where does it all go horribly wrong?

Well Shaolin Vs Evil Dead just doesn’t mix the elements in a very exciting way. Yes we’ve got hopping vampires at the start but there’s no real purpose to them in the plot. We get zombies early on but again there’s little reason for them to be there. Things happen in the film that look pointless and a bit more context and story would have greatly helped to give meaning to everything. For instance why is the white monk travelling from town to town with a line of hopping vampires behind him? (I asked the same question in Mr Vampire – it seems to be a common occurrence in these films) It seems to be included solely for the convenient purpose of the vampires breaking their spells at some point which causes the monk to fight them and put them back under control. It’s hardly the ‘army of darkness’ that the plot promised and the action is very low key. You’d be expecting a whole lot more than it delivers.

Shaolin Vs Evil Dead contains the single-most infuriating ending ever. It’s not even a proper ending. The film just ends abruptly out of nowhere and without a proper resolution to what has been going on. Or so you think because what is worse is that the action continues. You would assume that the end credits would feature outtakes as many films do. But as the credits roll, footage of the big pay-off fight between good and evil is shown in a small box on the left hand side of the screen. We can see hundreds of hopping vampires, explosions and crazy martial arts but there’s no dialogue because the credits music has hit. It clearly looked like the best part of the film and it clearly wasn’t outtake footage – this is all new and unseen footage. Apparently, this was a ‘preview’ of a planned sequel which was eventually made the following year. Whilst one can understand the strategy of such a decision to include previews of the sequel (look at the post-credits sequence in Captain America: The First Avenger and its preview for The Avengers), the decision to just end the film as it did is a disgrace. Nearly everything that is promised in the plot for Shaolin Vs Evil Dead clearly takes place in this little box.

Gordon Liu, who appeared in Kill Bill, does a very good job of stepping up to the role of the white monk, a role personified by the late Ching-Ying Lam in the Mr Vampire movies. This sub-genre sort of died when he did and it’s good to see Liu step up to the plate with a solid performance, reflecting some of Lam’s mannerisms, attitude and ability to get the comedy timing down to a tee.

 

Shaolin Vs Evil Dead isn’t a bad attempt to revive the old Hong Kong horror/comedy genre so popular in the 80s but just fails to capture any charm and magic of those classic films. And that damn ending is a total kick below the belt. I would only recommend this if you had a copy of the sequel on hand to watch straight away to alleviate the pain of the sudden stopping (which I haven’t seen at time of writing, it’s near impossible to track down).

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Samurai Zombie (2008)

Samurai Zombie (2008)

Dead … but still slicing!

A vacation goes horribly wrong for a family when they are car-jacked by a pair of ruthless bank robbers on the run. An accident strands the group in remote woods near to the abandoned site of Eight Spears Village. Here they encounter a group of undead warriors with an age-old grudge to settle and a knack for severing heads.

 

It’s got a premise which is low on complexity and high on potential but Samurai Zombie ultimately fails because of both counts. It’s too simple to really string itself out for ninety-one minutes and it fails to make use of its zombie stars to their full potential with a genuine lack of imagination in what they can do. I really wanted to like this simply because it’s called Samurai Zombie and the titular character is actually a decent creation. I mean we’ve had zombie pirates, zombie Nazis (can’t beat them!), zombie clowns, zombie cowboys…….the list could go on. Why not a samurai warrior?

Samurai Zombie gets down to business straight away as there’s a zombie attack within the first sixty seconds (nothing like starting a film with a bang) and then the main characters quickly come across the zombies about another twenty minutes. So far so good? But after this initial burst of energy, the pace of the film eases up dramatically. In fact it comes to a screeching halt. Samurai Zombie seems too eager to show off its zombies early on, thus peaking too early and leaving a big gaping section in the middle with little to no zombie action at all as the surviving characters explore the old village and look for somewhere to hide.

Trying to balance a health dose of humour with a side dosage of zombie trappings doesn’t work well at all. One of the characters here seems to be immortal as he survives various attempts to kill him but the fact he doesn’t die isn’t explained very well. A pair of cops have an amusing scene in which they try to one-up each other with increasingly bigger guns but as we all know, they won’t work on zombies unless you shoot them in the head. It’s just not crazy or zany enough given the history of some of the creative people involved (Ryûhei Kitamura directed the very bizarre Versus) and the constant shifts in tone from cartoon violence to trying to be morally serious just don’t work.

You’ll constantly get a wish for the film to pick up pace and keep to either being serious or silly just long enough for them to string some continuity together. So some scenes will have you laughing when you should be emotionally connecting with the characters in the face of death. And vice versa. A problem with comedy in films like this is evident if you don’t find the brand of humour amusing – it’ll just mean jokes and situations will pass you by which no doubt had one of the writers rolling around laughing.

At least they get the zombies right. The samurai warriors look great when they get unmasked. Faces filled with dripping puss, rotting maggots and bulging white eyes, these creatures stumble along like any classic Lucio Fulci zombie. It’s a far cry from the modern depiction of zombies are mere men with face paint and torn clothes. These walking corpses are the real deals. The added effect of the samurai costumes with full body armour and helmet only add to the potential of these creatures. They’re not used as much as they could be though and we don’t get to see a great deal of the zombies that are resurrected later on (I wanted to see more of the warrior with the bow and arrow).

I didn’t expect the body count to be overly high given the small cast but the film throws in the pair of cops as well as the crazy old coot who constantly tells the others that they’re going to die. Guess what happens to her! These zombies don’t eat human flesh which is about the only thing disappointing. They prefer to honour their victims by slicing off their heads with a bit of school sword slashing. The beheadings feature a ton of blood which is really over-the-top as decapitated heads are propelled hundreds of feet through the air with fountains of blood. I’m not quite sure whether it’s meant to be realistic or whether those geysers of red would greet the sight of anyone having their head sliced off so quickly but they look really out of place. The CGI blood overkill doesn’t help either.

 

Samurai Zombie will deliver a few thrills and spills for the more undemanding of horror fans who will instantly like this film just because it’s Japanese and therefore greater than anything from America. That’s not the case in reality as there’s a lot more mileage that Tak Sakaguchi could have got out of the idea.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Wild Zero (1999)

Wild Zero (1999)

Trash and chaossss!!!!

Aliens are invading the planet and turning people into zombies! After saving his heroes, the band Guitar Wolf, from their manager, wannabe rocker Ace is made a blood brother of the band. When he gets caught up in the zombie carnage, he calls on Guitar Wolf for help.

 

How on Earth do I review Wild Zero? One of the craziest, most bizarre and downright loud films you’re ever likely to see, Wild Zero is a zombie film like never before. “This is Rock ‘n’ Roll jet movie” proclaims the front cover and I’d be hard pressed to disagree if I knew what that meant.

You could consider Wild Zero one long music video for the band Guitar Wolf as pretty much all of their screen time is taken up by them playing their tunes and shredding their guitars. They’re a very loud group, seemingly wanting to resurrect old school rock and roll music with a slightly newer, more polished twang to it. They are an effortlessly cool group, with the lead Guitar Wolf probably not looking out of place in a Tarantino flick. They like to comb their hair a lot and they wear leather jackets. The rest of the characters are just as crazy. You’ve got Ace, a guy who looks to have time travelled from the 50s. The band’s manager is a slimy piece of work, with a bowl hair cut and a pair of tiny short-shorts that may make a few viewers squirm in their seats at the thought something may pop out. You’ve got Tobio, a female with a secret. There’s a bitchy female weapons dealer. And a few shady Yakuza guys thrown in for good measure. Not a whole deal makes sense in the film so the characters get free-reign to go crazy at times and that they do.

Wild Zero rarely stops for breath either. If you’re not listening to Guitar Wolf strumming away, then you’re watching zombies getting their heads blown off, magical guitar plectrums being used as shurikens, UFOs flying around and a magic guitar which turns into a sword. Don’t ask me, just sit and watch it all because by the time the magical instruments start up, you’re ready to believe anything. There’s a decent amount of gore too with it being a zombie film so expect flying limbs and flesh-eating. There’s an uncanny knack of heads exploding every time someone shoots a zombie too – or human for that matter. And by exploding, I mean really blowing up. There are countless other explosions, chases and fights throughout the film too.

I’ll be honest with you, I usually have plenty to say about films and can do reviews in a reasonably cohesive manner but I’m having great difficulty with this. There’s so much wrong with the film but ironically enough, that’s what makes it so right. You don’t question anything that happens because you wouldn’t believe yourself if you were expecting something to happen and it does. Believe in the power of rock ‘n’ roll!

 

It’s hard to really categorize Wild Zero because it’s not an out-and-out horror film although there are plenty of the undead about and enough blood and guts to warrant the higher rating. Director Tetsuro Takeuchi has taken in a load of cult subjects like rock ‘n’ roll, zombies and aliens and thrown them all together in the hope they will stick – and most of it does. Wild Zero has become a cult film – a new genre unto it’s self. It’s not a really great film but it’s one that I can wholly state that everyone needs to see at some point just to appreciate life a little more!

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆