Ahh…chinese vampires. Who remembers them? Actually, I didn’t before watching this movie because I’m not familiar with this genre. I have never watched Mr. Vampire (1985), but I do have memories of a particular chinese vampire film in which two vampires were hopping on top of trucks and scaring the crap out of motorists on a road. I obviously remembered that movie for how silly it was, especially when everyone was running away from the vampires as though they were godzilla. It could have been one of the Mr. Vampire films but I honestly don’t remember because it was so long ago! Still, I was pretty excited to rediscover this somewhat forgotten genre.
Rigor Mortis aims to pay tribute to those old chinese vampire films and to modernize them. Which isn’t a bad idea I guess, considering how my generation’s idea of vampires are…
When I was younger, horror was a genre I was gaga over, and I pretty much watched any crap that was appearing in theatres then. Nowadays my tastes for films have diversified quite a bit although I do revisit horror films every now and then, such as The Conjuring (overrated) and this particular film.
Although Rigor Mortis brands itself as a horror film, which it is, there’s more to the movie other than the scare factor. It is a fairly solid drama that deals with issues such as undying love and regret. The protagonist of the film is Chin Siu-Ho, one of the original actors from Mr. Vampire. In this movie he plays a washed up version of himself, which is actually not that far off from reality. With no choice other than to move into the old, gloomy and derelict apartment place, he attempts to take his own life. However, his suicide attempt was interrupted by Yao, a vampire haunter played by Anthony Chan, who is also from the Mr Vampire films. From then on, Siu Ho finds himself having to forget about what he dealt with in the film world and face vampires and spirits haunting the building for real. Along the way, he builds a relationship with a (crazy) widow and her son in order to make up for the loss of his own family. Although this story does drag a bit sometimes, I actually thought that it was pretty remarkable (especially) for a horror film to have such a well constructed emotional core without coming off as overly contrived or ridiculous like most other films of the genre. Chin’s performance was a bit one-note in my opinon, but then again I remind myself that the guy is playing a depressed version of himself. The sadness and hopelessness that he displayed over his life and career were pretty effective and disturbing, but I thought that the scenes where he bonded with the mother and son duo were a bit…stiff. The strength for those scenes came primarily from the writing, which was really quite good and moving, as it showed the brief glimmer of hope and love that Chin needed to turn his life around.
The other memorable storyline is the one involving Auntie Mui, a kind old lady whom slowly descends into madness as she desperately tries to resurrect her dead husband. I thought this was the stronger story, thanks to Nina Paw’s really great performance. She effectively showed how Auntie Mui transformed from a kind, motherly figure to someone who will do anything (and I mean, holy crap ANYTHING) to bring back her husband.
Of course, what is a horror film without the scares? Although I’m not a fan of over stylized horror films with CGI explosions, they actually worked for me here. Some elements were especially creepy, like the demented twin ghosts (The Shining? Ju-on?) and surprisingly enough, the vampire, even as he was hopping around with his rotting face and all *shudders*. Not sure what was the point of the twins’ “tendrils”, but the weirdness of it actually added to the creepiness factor.
I also thought the cultural and religious references were very well done, although I’m not really familiar with all of them. I’m a terrible chinese LOL. I actually recognised the “kumantong” (child ghost), which is something that I have ALWAYS found disturbing, and why anyone would want to get involved with them (even here in Singapore) is a pure mystery.
Of course, the film ultimately is veered more towards the action horror genre, so that reduces the creepiness factor by quite a bit. It is, afterall, meant to be a reference to the martial art element of the old chinese vampire films. With the modernization and CGI, the movie becomes strangely “matrix-silenthill-ish”, but the ridiculousness of it is replaced with a pretty high level of stomach churning gore and violence in these scenes.
The technical aspects are quite divisive, since some people find the stylized nature of the film superfluous, but as a whole I thought it fitted what the movie was really going for (action horror). The use of colour filters really brought out the atmosphere very well, such as the gloomy, murky green corridors or the chilling red altar room. And of course, the sound effects, such as the singing children and cracking bones (my pet peeve) added to the scariness and gross factor.
However, the ending is something that really bugged me (and everyone else, it seems). I ‘m not going to spoil it here but I actually understood the twist it was going for. I even thought that it was a very well thought out way to relate back to the theme of regret. However, the execution was a bit disjointed and lazy, which is why it confused everyone (including me initially) and left most people feeling underwhelmed.
Even so, with this being the directorial debut of Juno Mak, I must say that Rigor Mortis is pretty impressive as a whole. Of course there are a few flaws here and there, such as the ending, the pacing issues and the tendency to overuse CGI and slow-mo effects in some scenes. Still, I find the film a very respectable effort. 3.5/5.