11:00 - 20th June 2015, by Calum Waddell

Rigor Mortis

Remember Mr. Vampire? If not, then you really need to rush out and buy it on DVD. Go on. This review will be waiting for you when you return…

Hurry now…

Okay, with that said and done, 1985’s Mr Vampire was the ultimate Hong Kong horror satire – and, unsurprisingly, it was also a smash hit, leading to numerous spin-offs and sequels (Dr. Vampire anyone?). It also largely typified the island’s terror trade until the Category III boom replaced jovial ghost-romps with limp-lopping gore. Now, three decades after that initial explosion in Cantonese fanged-fiends, we have Rigor Mortis – an updated, CGI-heavy, po-faced ‘homage’ to the garishly coloured and comically creepy ghouls of old.

So, the inevitable question has to be, does it succeed?

Well, yes and no. The best of Hong Kong fright cinema has almost always been awash with bright red and blue hues, and Rigor Mortis is, stylistically, a link to the ‘good old days’ of the former British colony’s celluloid golden age. However, in the interim there has been the influence of J-horror, and with Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge) credited as one of the producers on Rigor Mortis, is it evident where else the story draws inspiration from. All too often we have long haired female spirits stalking the screen – a factor that is far more indebted to The Land of the Rising Sun than it is the area’s own lineage in scream-cinema.

Furthermore, the plot at hand – suicidal actor Siu-hou Chin (from Mr. Vampire itself) battles beastly supernatural beasties in a grimy tower block – actually feels a little bit more like a fear-version of The Raid than it does a proper full-blooded genre project. To make matters worse, the narrative really does not evolve the obvious postmodern plot during the film’s running time. As with The Raid this is, in effect, just a series of increasingly daft and delirious set pieces – usually splattered with swathes of digitally-created sanguine and, occasionally, evidencing a ‘knowing’ wink. Of course, it is nice to have Siu-hou Chin battling some evil entities – but Rigor Mortis fails to live up to the grand old ghost-gems of yesteryear.

Directed by the erstwhile record producer and pop star Juno Mak – who was only one year old when the first Mr. Vampire staked its way into the hearts of Hong Kong cinephiles – the main problem here is the lack of any solid scares. In the place of tension, or even a mild hint of suspense, there are knifings, an impalement and a splatter-packed final reel, but due to the lack of any practical magic even this is thoroughly lightweight. Hard to believe, but the cheap and cheerful creeps of three decades ago were infinitely more memorable.

The supporting cast for Rigor Mortis are almost instantly forgettable as well. There is a pair of pale-faced twins who haunt the apartment block, and this prickly twosome is probably the most effective thing here – albeit torn directly from The Shining – whilst a number of oddball neighbours, all superstitious and secretive, come and go via flashbacks and subplots. Shimizu’s presence may well have been to instigate a more fractured narrative ala his Ju-on / The Grudge series, but it only ends in confusion and it is remarkably easy to ‘time out’ from the action. In lieu of a gripping story, then, Mak achieves some gaudy music video visuals – it is all fast-cut editing and random ‘eerie’ attacks – but little here adds up to anything that sneaks up and screams ‘boo’. In addition, the curious decision to eliminate the humour – which is so pivotal to the Mr. Vampire mythology – means that Rigor Mortis frequently creates the greatest sin of all… it is all too often tired and tepid.

Nevertheless, there are still some things to enjoy here. Mak may not evidence any sort of subtlety, but the flipside of this is that his aesthetic approach is, at the very least, not without its merits. When the camera actually does stay still, some well designed rooms and passages are brought to life – evoking the sort of atmosphere where one really could expect a passing poltergeist to emerge. Part of the appeal of Hong Kong cinema’s golden age, back in the 1970s and ‘80s, was to use some of the city’s more crowded or rundown areas to mesmerising effect. Doubtlessly, the grungy beauty of, for instance, Kowloon’s most populous living quarters, complete with neon signs and blinding lights, provided an exotic squalor – and, to Mak’s credit, he does present a little bit of this in Rigor Mortis. There is, ultimately, some promise of a fitting tribute to a cinema that he, clearly, adores trying to break out here – and it is unfortunate that not enough thrills and spills are thrown into the proverbial pot...

Even so, Rigor Mortis is not a total waste. There are moments here, few and far between as they are, that keep up the faith in Mak one day emerging as a filmmaker with a better script and a less hyperkinetic approach to horror. Hong Kong has a varied genre legacy, but its supernatural shockers arguably outdo the bulk of the later J-horror flicks. Sad it is, then, that this maddening, and insanely fast-paced, mix of Japanese and Chinese never quite fulfils its paranormal potential…

Mr Vampire-lite – but old time Hong Kong horror buffs might enjoy some of the nods to frighteners from the past…
SCORE: 2.5/5
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