Review for Hopping Mad: The Mr Vampire Sequels
The definition of blind optimism... Finding an eighties Hong Kong vampire comedy passably entertaining, and hoping for as good, if not better from its sequels. After all, back in the eighties, good sequels were the exception rather than the rule. Still, I requested the Hopping Mad collection check discs for review, having been entertained by the original Sammo Hung comedy, Mr Vampire. It was about Hopping Vampires, the Chinese take on bloodsuckers which posits that the only way that they can ambulate is by hopping, because of rigor mortis, and they can only be defeated by Taoist rituals. They are not exactly known for sparkling, or for witty repartee. But it is that difference from Western vampires, no well worn clichés, that makes me want to see more. It could very well be that after watching 4 more Mr Vampire movies, I’ll be just as jaded with Hopping Vampires as I am with Sparkling Vampires. If you want an intro to the genre, here’s my review of the original Sammo Hung comedy, Mr Vampire.
There are four sequels in this collection. Disc 1 has Mr Vampire II, and Mr Vampire III, while Disc 2 has Mr Vampire Saga IV and Vampire vs. Vampire. There are extra features as well, which will be listed after the individual film reviews.
Introduction: Mr Vampire II
In the present day, an unscrupulous archaeologist and his two assistants are looking for lucrative treasures to sell when they find three perfectly preserved corpses in a cave, the bodies of a family, mother, father and son suffering no decomposition at all, despite being there for close to a century. They don’t realise that the paper talismans on their foreheads are what are keeping these vampires subdued. It isn’t long before the vampires are on the loose, with the little boy finding his way to the family home of a single father and his two children. Unexpectedly, the young brother and sister quickly make a new friend. Elsewhere, when one of the archaeologist’s assistants shows up at a pharmacist's with a festering bite on his arm, he alerts the Taoist that there is a vampire abroad. It’s his duty to hunt down and deal with the bloodsuckers, but he can only rely on the dubious help of the journalist who is wooing his daughter, much to his annoyance.
The Transfer: Mr Vampire II
Mr Vampire II gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on this disc, with the choice between PCM 2.0 Cantonese and English mono with optional translated subtitles and a signs only track. The image is clear, free of print damage and signs of age, with consistent colours. It is a little soft at times, but detail levels are still good throughout, while contrast in night time scenes is never wanting. There is no sign of compression or the like, which given that there are two films plus extras on each disc is excellent. I went with and was happy with the Cantonese audio. The dialogue was clear, and the subtitles accurately timed and free of typos. The action and music comes across well, but there are a few moments of mild hiss in the audio.
Conclusion: Mr Vampire II
Mr Vampire II is a mess, but at least it’s an entertaining mess. It’s got energy and pace to it, and it does have a good comedic quality that works. But it also feels like two movies crudely mashed together, and for a short movie, it’s remarkably aimless for a good portion before it actually finds a point.
It takes more time than it needs with set-up, with the archaeologists that are seeking buried treasure, and finding three vampires instead. They don’t know what they have, just three remarkably preserved bodies that they hope to sell for a quick profit. The boss is competent, but obviously sneaky in the way he manipulates his two henchmen. They on the other hand are the comedy layabouts that are constantly sniping at each other. They get into trouble when they remove the paper talismans from the foreheads of the vampires, releasing them from the spell that holds them.
And then it’s a kids movie, with the little boy vampire finding the young brother and sister, and making friends with them. He may be a vampire, but they play together well enough to have a kids' movie friends montage. Then, some 35 minutes into the film, we finally find the plot, when the star, Yuen Biao is introduced, playing a journalist who is trying to capture the hand of the daughter of a Taoist pharmacist. There’s no little friction between the pharmacist and the journalist, but that all has to be put aside when it becomes clear that there are vampires about.
It becomes imperative that they find and deal with the vampires, terminally if necessary, which doesn’t really jibe all that well with the kids’ movie that is taking place in another part of the edit. Still, there’s plenty of comedy action to entertain, including the retarding chemical that puts everyone into slow motion when spilled. The vampire family is an interesting development, and the kid friendly part of the film actually works pretty well. But it jars with the more adult oriented comedy, and I couldn’t really quite click with Mr Vampire II. On its original UK release, the film was cut by the BBFC, but a couple of scenes of snake and bird abuse suggest that those scenes have been restored for the Blu-ray debut.
Introduction: Mr Vampire III
Mao Ming is a Taoist priest with a lucrative line in exorcisms. It helps when he has a couple of ghosts on the payroll to spook things up in the homes of prospective clients. But when he doesn’t count on the house actually being haunted with malevolent spirits, he has to relocate in a hurry. The village where he and the two spirits end up already has a Taoist priest, but even bigger troubles with a gang of horse thieves that practice black magic.
The Transfer: Mr Vampire III
Mr Vampire III gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer, but the sole audio track here is a PCM 2.0 Mono Cantonese track with optional English subtitles. There is no dub. The image is what you would hope for, clear and sharp, with excellent detail and rich colours, and there are no signs of print damage or compression. Actually, the quality of the print is so good that the gore and visual effects can only be seen as comical, rather than have any real horror overtones. The audio is fine, warm and balanced, while the dialogue is clear and audible throughout. The subtitles are accurately timed and are free of typos.
Conclusion: Mr Vampire III
In case you haven’t surmised from the introduction to this third film, there are no vampires to be had in Mr Vampire III, hopping or otherwise. In fact, the alternate title of Mr Supernatural, revealed in the subtitles is a lot more appropriate. But it does feature Ching-Ying Lam in a prominent role again, and more interestingly, it has the late Richard Ng in a starring role as Mao Ming (note that the audio commentaries were recorded before his passing). I usually see him as comic relief or in supporting roles in eighties Hong Kong movies, but this time he carries the film, and does so with ease, as a rather avaricious Taoist priest. The comedy comes naturally as usual, but he also shows off his action chops, even if it is with comic overtones.
I love the Frighteners, but it turns out that Mr Vampire III did it first with its exorcist employing a couple of ghosts to spook home-owners out of their money. It was all going so well too for Mao Ming, until first, the homeowner mentioned that the ghost haunting their house was female (Ming’s spectral associates are male), and then the malicious ghost shows up with her whole unworldly family. That’s more than Ming can handle, and he has to get out of there pretty quickly.
In the village they arrive at, they encounter Taoist Master Gau, who takes a dim view of a priest associating with a couple of ghosts, especially after Ming and his friends have a little too much fun with one of Gau’s disciples. But they have to work together when the gang of horse thieves raid the village, charged up on black magic, and more than a match for the villagers trying to defend themselves.
Mr Vampire III is an enjoyable bit of nonsense, just as silly as the first film in the collection, but Richard Ng’s comic talents elevate it above mere mediocrity. It also has a more consistent tone as a horror comedy, with no pretensions to being a family film on top.
Introduction: Mr Vampire Saga IV
A Buddhist priest lives next to a Taoist master. His disciple is a young girl named Ching-Ching, who catches the eye of the Taoist’s young disciple, Kar-lok. While their flirtation is stereotypically abrasive, that’s nothing compared to the antagonism between the priest and the Taoist, who are constantly pranking each other in their never ending games of one-upmanship. But they will have to put aside their differences and work together when a vampire escapes from its bonds, and attacks the convoy guarding it. Normally this would be the Taoist’s stock in trade, but this vampire comes from the Imperial family, and is invulnerable.
The Transfer: Mr Vampire Saga IV
Mr Vampire Saga IV gets a 1.85:1 transfer with a PCM 2.0 Mono Cantonese track with optional English subtitles. Again, there are no issues with the transfer here, clear and sharp, with strong, consistent colours. Print damage is absent, as are signs of age, and any visible compression artefacts. One thing is that dating from 1988, you can see that they’ve shifted film stock, and you don’t quite get the same vivid colours, or depth of field as you do with the first two films in the collection. The audio is presented without issue, the dialogue clear, and the sound generally warm and lifelike. The subtitles are accurately timed, and free of all but one typo.
Conclusion: Mr Vampire Saga IV
This is probably the worst place to admit this, but of all the vampire media I have seen, the hopping vampire is my least favourite. They’re effectively zombies, mindless monsters, hunting by instinct, and completely lacking for personality. While I might have enjoyed the first Mr Vampire movie, seeing the same monsters wheeled out time and again in a bunch of identikit sequels could have been a dispiriting experience. Thankfully, the filmmakers must have seen that as well, so they shifted the action to the modern day in the first sequel, and ditched the vampires altogether for the second sequel. The hopping vampires and the period setting is back for this film, although mainstay of the series to this point, Ching-Ying Lam is notably absent, with Anthony Chan this time donning the robes of a Taoist master.
But the filmmakers still hold onto that fundamental truth that the hopping vampires are monster maguffins rather than actual characters, and instead focus on the entertainment value. Mr Vampire Saga IV is by far the funniest of the films to date, practically adopting a sitcom format to develop its characters; The Odd Couple meet Dracula kind of thing. In this case I’m talking Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon Odd Couple, not Sammo Hung and Lau Kar-Wing martial arts Odd Couple.
The Buddhist priest is a kindly soul at first glance, who has a soft spot for his disciple Ching-Ching. But he reveals his mischievous side when he introduces her to Kar-lok, leading to what could be a budding romance almost ended prematurely with a meat cleaver. The Taoist master on the other hand is a cantankerous man who’s hard on his disciple Kar-lok, and the rivalry between him and the priest is apparent from their first encounter. The film takes more than half its runtime playing with this dynamic, with Kar-lok trying to impress Ching-Ching, all while both of them try to keep their respective masters from coming to blows.
It’s all done with great humour, warmth and silliness, a momentum which carries forward, more than halfway through the film when the monsters show up, and the genre changes from comedy to horror comedy. With the two priests having to work together to defeat the monster, and while still maintaining their antagonism, it really helps hold the attention where the pogoing zombie vampires might not. Mr Vampire Saga IV as this Eureka release calls it (as usual for any Hong Kong film, there are plenty of alternate titles), is the best of the Mr Vampire sequels thus far. Just one more to go.
Introduction: Vampire vs. Vampire
Eclipses are ominous events at the best of times, but for the One Eyebrow Priest and his disciples, things are going to get decidedly weird. That’s saying something given that he’s a Taoist priest who keeps a little hopping vampire child around. A female banana tree ghost is hunting virgins, the village water is tainted, there are bats all over the place, the ghost of a murdered prostitute can’t rest, and someone has just dug up the corpse of a Western vampire, and destroyed the seal keeping it dormant.
The Transfer: Vampire vs. Vampire
Just like the other film on this disc, Vampire vs. Vampire dates from the end of the eighties, where the film stock had changed, and the vivid colours and crisp depth of the Hong Kong scope offerings from earlier in the decade had been replaced by 16:9 ratios and softer, flatter presentations. The film here gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer, and this time you have the choice between the PCM 2.0 Mono Cantonese theatrical mix, and the Home Video mix, which is what I opted for with this viewing. The image is still clear and sharp, with good colour and strong detail, and no signs of print damage, age or compression. The audio is fine, clear and warm, with no apparent flaws. The subtitles are accurately timed and are free of typos.
Conclusion: Vampire vs. Vampire
Lam Ching-Ying returns to the Mr Vampire franchise after missing the previous film, this time as the Unibrow priest, and he takes on directorial duties as well. It seems my previous comment about Hopping Vampires being rather uninteresting in the long run holds true, as they really try to spice this film up, not least by adding a Western vampire (Dracula-style) to offer a contrast, although they still choose not to add any personality. He’s still more of a mindless monster than a devilish seducer. And they really throw everything into this film, not just relying on vampires, but ghosts and spirits too. And of the four films in this collection, it plays the comedy card the hardest.
However, it does break the trend that I had been seeing with this collection, of enjoying each new movie more than the last. Vampire vs. Vampire might just be the weakest of the four in my estimation, just because it does indeed over-egg the pudding. It’s like it takes the first four Mr Vampire films, and combines them into one. You have your basic hopping vampire of course, a priest and his disciples to deal with them, but this time it’s the cute kid hopping vampire of the second movie, and he’s a mischievous good guy. Like the third movie, there are more supernatural menaces than just vampires for the protagonists to face, and like the fourth movie, it takes half the runtime before it gets to the point, by resurrecting the Western vampire.
It really is all over the place, throwing in a church and a brace of nuns for added comedy value. The plot is motivated by a corrupt village official, an officer in glasses, who is cracking down on the church for hosting a plague of bats, flirting with his cousin, and ready to steal the jewel from the dagger in the vampire’s corpse to pay for their wedding, breaking the seal and bringing the vampire back to life in the process. It’s just that with all the other plots that play out in the film, the two ghost stories, the antics of the disciples, the nuns as comic relief, all jammed into 85 minutes, the film never has the chance to breathe, or bed in. It feels more like a sketch show than a coherent narrative, and despite some genuinely funny moments, it was more an effort to watch than an enjoyment.
Both discs boot to static menus.
Audio commentary on Mr Vampire II from Frank Djeng
Audio commentary on Mr Vampire III from Arne Venema & Mike Leeder
Audio commentary on Mr Vampire III from Frank Djeng & John Charles
Taoist Cinema: The World of Mr Vampire (11:51)
Mr Vampire II Extended Scenes (6:38)
Mr Vampire II Trailer (4:12)
Mr Vampire III Trailer (3:19)
Audio commentary on Mr Vampire Saga IV from Arne Venema & Mike Leeder
Audio commentary on Vampire vs. Vampire from Frank Djeng
Vampire Legacy (16:44)
Mr Vampire Saga IV Trailer (3:46)
Vampire vs. Vampire Trailer (2:44)
You’ll also find a 24-page booklet with writing from James Oliver and stills and production imagery, looking at all four films in the collection, and the hopping vampire genre in general.
The Hopping Mad: The Mr Vampire Sequels collection stays true to the 80s maxim that sequels were never as good as the original, but bucks one 80s trend in that for the first three movies at least, the films actually improved as they went along. Vampire vs. Vampire came and derailed that particular train, but it is still a positive attribute to this collection. But, my suspicion that I’d be all Hopping Vampire’d out by the end of this collection was justified. If I don’t see another Hopping Vampire film, it will be too soon. It’s still a distinct possibility though, as while these four films and the original comprise Golden Harvest’s contribution to the niche genre, subsequently other studios would hop on the Mr Vampire bandwagon (pun intended), with a sequel to the original directed by Ricky Lau released in 1992. I’m glad to have seen Hopping Mad: The Mr Vampire Sequels, but I would never have sought them out.
Hopping Mad: The Mr Vampire Sequels can be bought direct from Eureka Entertainment, from Terracotta, and from mainstream retailers.