By Jason Lin
Reviving one of the well-loved classics may well be as dangerous as reviving a corpse. Often is the case where contemporary remakes and adaptations take a toll and destroy any goodwill established. While half-expecting the first feature filmmaker Juno Mak to be all style without substance, his attempts at the 1985 Mr Vampire series do however provide some amount of pleasant surprises (including the chilling arrangement of the series’ iconic theme “Ghost Bride” in the opening scene).
In this eerie and chilling, contemporary, action/special effects laden homage to the classic Chinese vampire movies of the 1980's, writer-director-producer Juno Mak makes his feature directorial debut. Co-produced by J-Horror icon Takashi Shimizu (JU-ON), and reuniting some of the original cast members of the classic MR VAMPIRE series, RIGOR MORTIS is set in a creepy and moody Hong Kong public housing tower whose occupants we soon discover, run the gamut from the living to the dead, to the undead, along with ghosts, vampires and zombies.
Produced by contemporary Japanese horror maestro Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On) and Mak himself, it is perhaps no surprise that the visual treatment adopts a dark and grim palette to void the production of any whimpering signs of life. This is also accompanied by Ng Man-Ching’s (Infernal Affairs 2, Initial D) fine photography in low light.
A film based on a classic series is never easy to maintain its relevance and intrigue. Mak, who co-scripts and directs, opts to remove its signature comedy and replaces with occult elements and reference. The most enjoyable moments are those on the detailing of various ritual practices and process, such as feeding a corpse with only black crow blood and collecting corpse oil essence with a flame under its chin.
As part of its genre obligations to instill production value, Rigor Mortis features quite a number of visual effects and high framerate sequences to accentuate Mak’s stylised approach. At times resembling a snapshot from a dark music video, viewers may observe the film as a melting pot of several influnces that prominently screams out the filmmakers’ creativity and impressionable art direction.
Mak takes a good amount of screen time for its lead protagonist (whose name is never revealed or discussed until the very last sequence of the film) Chin Siu-Ho, a washed-up actor of Mr Vampire (his past glory is referred to by an aged photo of him with Maggie Cheung) by the tides of time, who has retreated to an old public housing block to waste the rest of his life in depression although the actual rationale behind is relatively unknown.
Affairs turn to the dark when Chin hangs himself in his newly rented apartment on the very first day of moving in. This is also the pivotal scene where the film invests more time to adequately introduce and develop the supporting characters (Chin’s new neighbours).
With quite a handful of interesting personalities in the neighbourhood, Rigor Mortis suffers from a loosely-managed main plot as it tends to branch off into side plot threads briefly from its main story arc. These side agendas are often seen to be opportunities for the filmmakers to fit in and experiment with different horror elements, including those from Shimizu himself. The good news is that most of these sub-plots do connect with one another, such as the twin vengeful female spirits (that feels like they have been borrowed right out of a Shimizu’s film) and the strange litle white-haired boy who roams the housing block.
Despite its heavy-handed approach to graphically stylise the production, Mak and his team thankfully serves a much-welcomed emotional depth that draws the audience so much closer to the characters. This is particularly observed in Paw Hee-Ching’s character as she gets a dedicated minute or two’s worth of solo emotional monologue with her husband under an unearthly situation.
Aside from the poorly mastered Mandarin-dubbed dialogue tracks that has hindered with one’s enjoyment of the film, Rigor Mortis serves not just contemporary stylised horror elements and an emotional dimension, but also a mind-bending plot twist at the end to instill a certain message:
Life is sometimes more ridiculous than movies.
(Preview courtesy of InCinemas. Also published on InCinemas.)