Hong Kong horror has produced few figures more memorable than that of the hopping vampire. While its origins are rooted in folklore, it attained novelty status in the West thanks to films such as the 1985 Taiwanese import Hello Dracula, which introduced audiences to a fiend whose now signature outstretched arms and stiff, jerky bounce elicited more laughs than screams. After decades of being cast in a less-than-spooky light, the endemic bloodsucker enjoys a much more frightful rebirth in the dreamy supernatural tale Rigor Mortis.

The directorial debut from pop singer Juno Mak owes much to producer Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On) – from its dark, murky color palette to its languid, unrelenting sense of dread, the work bears the famed Japanese filmmaker’s distinctive mark. It even features his beloved vengeful spirits, embodied here by twin nu gui whose sinewy red tentacles distinguish them from the Ringu-established dark hair-white dress cliché. Their appearance would seem indulgent if they didn’t add to the film’s self-aware role as a tribute to the multi-national horror cinema of Asia.


The story begins with a fictionalized washed-up version of actor Chin Siu-ho (Mr. Vampire), who hangs himself from a ceiling fan after moving into a dilapidated tenement high-rise. When his suicide attempt is thwarted, he becomes familiar with the chain-smoking resident cook, Yau (Anthony Chan, also of Mr. Vampire), who reveals his status as the last surviving vampire hunter. His long-neglected skills finally come in handy when one of the tenants, a gentle seamstress called Aunt Mui (Hee Ching Paw), unwittingly unleashes an evil force in an effort to resurrect her dead husband. With the entire building thrown into chaos, it’s up Yau and his new protégé to stop the undead menace.

Fair warning to viewers raised on Blade films, you’ll find no epic vampire-versus-human battles here. Rather than amp up the action, the film gives way to a series of slow motion wire fu sequences that pop only when a vibrant steak of blood disrupts the ashen background. While balletic in nature, the fluid movements just don’t gel with gritty, unforgiving surroundings that demand a bigger, more fantastic punch. For all their ambition, the stylish fight scenes, along with numerous esoteric references (who are those mysterious, faceless specters in the hallway?) will likely puzzle, rather than entertain Westerners.

The sleepy pace picks up briefly during the third act when, finally, the vampire enters. Freed from its comical predecessors, the creature reemerges as a strange, otherworldly being that jumps and floats through darkness, its toenails producing a bone-chilling scrape on the concrete floor. With its mangled face and imposing presence, Mak’s heinous creation also offers a chance to partake in sins American films would never commit, primarily the brutal sacrificial killing of a child. Only in these moments does the film reach some truly chilling heights.

Despite its faults, among which include an unsatisfying ending, Mak’s first-time effort makes for a visually interesting attempt at re-imagining genre tropes. By combining Chinese and Japanese aesthetics, Rigor Mortis also becomes a sometimes fun, sometimes original shout-out to the East’s rich and varied horror film culture.

Rigor Mortis is now screening at the New York Asian Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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