Feb 19 2015

Mr. Vampire: 30 Years of Fear

Mr. Vampire was released on November 7, 1985 and the world has never been the same. I had originally planned on reviewing the film in honor of its 30th anniversary, but scuttled my plans after discovering both the American DVD and VHS releases are grossly overpriced and it would be cruel of me to recommend a film one can’t readily obtain. As it is apparently no longer available on Netflix, your best bet to see the film is to check local stores or libraries.

Given how Mr. Vampire is a successful special effects driven 80’s comedy, it is often compared to Ghostbusters. Some have even gone as far as to say the film was made solely to capitalize on the success of the American film since it was released a year later. In both cases, I can’t say it’s an exact match. The success of Mr. Vampire resulted in numerous sequels (although all except one were sequels in name only) and countless cinematic imitators over the years (that list is only the tip of the iceberg), while Ghostbusters currently has a single sequel film and two related animated series. But it gets complicated when it comes to imitators. While the VHS releases of the live action series The Ghost Busters were obviously done to cash in on the success of Ghostbusters, the Filmation series predates the film! And while Filmation did do an animated sequel to the series in the 80’s, they only did it after their attempt to do a series based on the movie fell through. Ghost Fever and the VHS-based video game The Rescue of Pops Ghostly are the only imitators I could find that came out when Ghostbusters was still relatively new. Other wannabes exist, but came out years after both Ghostbusters films left theaters while Mr. Vampire had imitators appear only a year after its release. Hilariously, the wannabe I linked to was released on VHS in America under the new name Kung Fu Vampire Buster, making it a rare double rip-off.

Considering how producer Sammo Hung had made comedy movies involving jiangshi long before he did Mr. Vampire, it seems unlikely the film was created solely to cash in on the success of Ghostbusters. That said, the fact the attempted remake targeted at American audiences was going to be called “Demon Hunters” does seem to suggest a desire to ride the ghost busting bandwagon did come up at some point. What I do know is how it not only reinvigorated the use of jiangshi in film, it also influenced the folklore surrounding jiangshi. Not unlike how much of the lore commonly associate with werewolves and vampires come from The Wolfman and Dracula, a lot of the weaknesses and rituals associated with jiangshi are the result of the Mr. Vampire franchise! Although I know the use of sticky rice to repel Chinese hopping vampires is traditional, I cannot say for sure how many items on this list of methods are traditional. It has been claimed the use of a sword made of coins to fight jiangshi comes from the films (although coin swords themselves are not a cinematic invention), but authoritative information on the subject in English is almost impossible to come by. Mr. Vampire also had another interesting effect on the career of Lam Ching-ying. His role as the Taoist priest catapulted the former stuntman into fame and portrayed similar characters in numerous films and television series up until his death in 1997. It did not matter that the characters had different names and didn’t always appear in films officially linked to Mr. Vampire; as long as the priest was played by Lam Ching-ying and fought jiangshi, audiences considered him to be the same character. As noted by film critic Freeman Williams, a close equivalent in English language cinema to this stock “One Eyebrow Priest” character would be Peter Cushing’s portrayal of Van Helsing. Lam Ching-ying’s work in jiangshi films was not limited to acting, as he also directed Vampire vs. Vampire and produced Magic Cop.

But Mr. Vampire was not only popular in its country of origin. It was released in many countries, including the UK and Japan. The series was popular enough in Japan to result in a video game and several board games! The Internet Movie Database claims the film did not receive an American theatrical release until 2014, but it seems unlikely such a popular film did not appear in Chinatown theaters back when it was first released. It can definitely be confirmed the first film received a subtitled VHS by Rainbow Video in the 1980’s. Another subtitled VHS of the film was released by Tai Seng Entertainment in 1998 and the film would not appear in a dubbed American version until 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s DVD release. When Tai Seng released a new VHS of the film previously called Kung Fu Vampire Buster, they retitled it as New Mr. Vampire. I think you can guess why.

Although jiangshi had been introduced to American audiences in martial arts movies like Kung Fu from Beyond the Grave, the greater awareness of them in pop culture is due to Mr. Vampire in one way or another. While the subtitled edition of the film might not have appealed to the bulk of American audiences in the 80’s, the dubbed releases of imitators like Robo Vampire and Devil’s Dynamite did. The Japanese video game based on the film was released in America as Phantom Fighter in 1990. It seems likely the use of jiangshi in games like Darkstalkers and Super Mario Land was due to the film. The Japanese company GAGA Communications seems to have had its eye on the United States in the 80’s, given its contributions to The Toxic Avenger Part II and ill-fated attempts at bringing several anime series to America. Perhaps that’s what prompted them to produce the American jiangshi film The Jitters in 1989. Given the success of such films in Japan and the seemingly unexploited American market, the potential profit must have been too good to pass up. As is the case in Phantom Fighter, the jiangshi are referred to as “kyonshī” (the Japanese term for those beings). This, combined with the use of the term in The Boneyard, resulted in much confusion in the cult movie community during the 90’s and early 2000’s. Many would correctly identify the jiangshi’s Chinese origins and unknowingly assume “kyonshī” was a Chinese term. Thankfully the correct term is now in use, although opinion seems to be divided over whether to use “jiangshi” or “jiang shi.” This awareness has led to jiangshi appearing in Western literature, role playing games, video games, animation and even artwork. When you factor in its ongoing legacy in pop culture all over the world, you have one amazing legacy from a single film.

Sun Nien Fai Lok!
Xin Nian Kuai Le!
Gung Hay Fat Choy!
Kung Hei Fat Choi!
Happy Chinese New Year!

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