On paper, Tsui Hark’s Vampire Hunters holds tremendous cult movie potential. The premise alone is enough to spark interest: in 19th-century China, five kung-fu fighting heroes chase hopping zombies and the dreaded Vampire King through a house filled with dead people preserved in wax. The fact that it is produced by master Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark (pronounced “Choy Hok”) only sweetens the pie.
Sadly, the result is listless, neither scary nor funny. Preposterous even by Hong Kong action film standards, the film goes wrong at almost every turn. More depressingly, it marks the further decline of a gifted filmmaker who seems to be seriously slumming.
During the golden age of Hong Kong cinema (late 1980s and early ‘90s), Tsui Hark Man-kong turned moviemaking on its ear. As director, producer, and writer, he was behind some of the biggest hits in Asia, including The Swordsman (Xiaoao jiang hu 1990), A Better Tomorrow (Ying huang boon sik 1986), A Chinese Ghost Story (Sinnui yauman 1987), and the influential Once Upon A Time in China (Wong Fei-hung) series.
His best films emphasized story and characterizations over gore and gratuitous violence, while also featuring bravura action and breathtaking visual style. Time magazine went so far as to dub him “the Steven Spielberg of Asia.” In recent years, he entered the digital imaging realm and scored a 1997 hit with an animated remake of A Chinese Ghost Story.
So it’s a mystery that Vampire Hunters looks so chintzy. Filmed on a budget of $1 million, it has an amateurish look that robs it of any real horror. An example of this comes near the beginning of the film, when four vampire-fighting monks (named Lightning, Wind, Rain, and Thunder) and their master (Ji Chun Hua) meet an adversary whose reputation precedes him. The dreaded Vampire King is a rotting, maggot-faced creature in putrid robes who can suck blood from a distance, using a suction-like power that causes blood to spurt from the eyes, mouths, and fingernails of his victims. He can also breathe fire and, when trapped, can burrow Tremors-like through the ground, gobbling up horses and people as he goes.
When we finally see the Vampire King, he is unintentionally hilarious. One would expect a creature this formidable would be cause for some similarly scary makeup effects, but the Vampire King looks like someone tossed a banana cream pie in his face and left it there. A little imagination and digital animation could have created a fearsome monster. Instead, he looks like a bad Ghost of Christmas Future from a high school production of A Christmas Carol. Nothing strips a horror film of scares faster than unintended laughs.
When their master is presumably killed in the encounter with the Vampire King, the apprentices continue searching for zombies, who, in Chinese lore, hop rather than walk. They stumble upon the eerie compound of the immensely rich Jiang clan: old Master Jiang (Yu Rong Guang) has taken to preserving all of his dead relatives in wax, including his wife (“Sometimes it’s a blessing for a couple if one of them can’t talk,” he observes). At the moment, he’s preparing for the marriage of his giggling, child-like son (Wang Zhen Lin) to the beautiful Sasa (blandly played by Hong Kong actress Anya).
Sasa is seriously creeped out when she first meets her waxen relatives-to-be and the scenes in the Jiang house are some of the most film’s most effective. The sight of scores of waxed-covered corpses sitting in neat rows of chairs is truly creepy and one of the few times the film musters anything resembling dread. What Sasa doesn’t know is that her conniving brother Dragon Tang (Horace Lee Wai Shing) has set up the marriage for her, with Jiang’s butler (Lee Lik Chee), in an attempt to get his hands on the Jiang fortune. When Dragon learns of the waxed bodies in the house, he hires a Zombie Wrangler (don’t ask) to awaken the spirits of the Jiang dead, essentially making them zombies. His plan is to find the fortune in gold while old man Jiang is preoccupied with his newly resurrected relatives pogoing around the house.
It’s at this point that the film turns ridiculous as the attack of the hopping zombies comes off looking like a potato-sack race. Again, shoddy makeup cheapens what should be a truly horrifying effect as their wax coverings give them a bland, non-threatening look. They also seem to hop around without any sense of direction, and it seems out-running them wouldn’t be that difficult. Choppy editing gives the sequence a jumbled, confused feel and it soon becomes difficult to follow what is going on.
Of course, the bouncing zombies attract the interest of the Vampire King, leading to a climatic battle involving Dragon Tang, Jiang, the butler, the Vampire King, scores of zombies, the vampire hunters, and Master Mao, mysteriously returned to settle up with the King. This being a Hong Kong action picture, things blow up, people bleed prodigiously from the mouth, and the battle ends with an obligatory shot of surviving zombies to set up the sequel.
For Vampire Hunters, Tsui produced and wrote a screenplay of sorts, leaving the directing to Hong Kong B-movie helmer Wellson Chinn (Sing Wai Chin). Curiously, Tsui’s script lacks his usual rich characterizations. We learn so little of the four monks’ personalities that, by the end of the film, they’re still just the fat one, the impetuous one, the goofy one, and the one with no personality at all. Each supposedly can harness the powers of the meteorological element he is named for, yet this fascinating premise never develops.
The meltdown of Vampire Hunters is most frustrating, considering that Tsui still seems to be at the top of his game. His 2000 film Time and Tide garnered six nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards, and he recently directed a landmark television commercial that told the “entire history” of human communications in 90 seconds. But Vampire Hunters is uninspired, a series of potentially good ideas that never come together. Indeed, Tsui’s name in the title evokes John Carpenter more than Steven Spielberg; and like Carpenter, he’s rehashing his hits from the past. The only scary thing about Vampire Hunters is witnessing a once legendary filmmaker drive a stake through his own career.