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‘Rigor Mortis’ Doesn’t Have the Decency to Scare Its Audience

It wouldn't seem possible to make a dour movie about China's famous "hopping vampires", but somehow Juno Mak has done it.

We invoke all that is horrifying and unholy and we ask thee, Lord Satan, we beg thee, O Befouled Beast of Babylon, we beseech thee: why do you allow such tame and sanitary movies to be made in your name? Rigor Mortis selects in an apparently random manner from the many typologies of horror. There are murders, ghosts, vampires, and black magic. On the surface, Rigor Mortis should be a nasty brew, and it is this which makes it all the more frustrating that the final movie is actually so meek.

The first point of note is that the film bears some relation to the Mr. Vampire series from the ’80s and early ’90s. What relation that might be is not entirely clear. It is not accurate to call it a homage because it is not exactly paying respect or honoring that franchise in any strict sense. Mr. Vampire was a highly successful 1985 Hong Kong horror comedy, the first in a series of five Mr. Vampire movies directed by Ricky Lau, based around jiangshis, the “hopping vampires” of Chinese folklore. Rigor Mortis features such a creature but lacks humor or even playfulness. It also throws in numerous other horror elements and plotlines which undermine any notion that it is some kind of tribute to the original series.

The main connection between Rigor Mortis and the Mr. Vampire franchise is Chin Siu-ho, who was one of main stars of the original movie and its 1992 sequel; here, he plays himself. However, intellectual horror hounds should well smooth down their pricked ears at this point, because we are not treated to any of the metatextual highjinks of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, for example, where Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp showed up as themselves in order to interrogate the original movie and adjust the frame through which the audience viewed the other movies in the series. Siu-ho plays a version of himself post-Mr. Vampire. He has apparently fallen on hard times. He is estranged from his wife and son. He still has some of his old movie costumes. The film makes no discernible use of his extra-textual status though either to comment upon the original films, as might be expected, or even as a simple plot-point. If the filmmakers had removed Siu-ho and replaced him with an actor unconnected to the Mr. Vampire series, Rigor Mortis would have lost nothing. The film may have suffered at the Hong Kong box office in that circumstance because of the elimination of the name recognition which he brings, but aesthetically the film would have been unaffected.

The Siu-ho with whom we are presented moves into a rundown apartment building and discovers, following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, that his new digs are haunted by an annoying set of twin girls. Not only are they probably invalidating his lease because they’re likely not listed on the tenancy agreement, they also have the cheek to possess him as he hangs with a noose around his neck waiting for the end to come. It’s just one thing after another. Luckily, to his rescue in rushes Lau, a retired vampire hunter, who cuts him down and exorcises his body. It soon becomes clear that the whole building is full of spirits and occultists of one kind or another. It’s almost a classic horror movie set-up. However, as stated, Rigor Mortis uses the apartment building setting to introduce too many threads, with each resident bringing another plotline to this very dull block party. There are the prenominate evil twins and vampire hunter, the albino child and his mentally unstable mother, the elderly couple with an unhealthy interest in necromancy, the black magician, the vampire himself who makes an appearance far too late in proceedings, and all manner of other spirits flitting in and out of reality. The storylines uneasily bump together to form an unsatisfying whole.

Visually the film is as arresting as a piece of roofing slate. Everything is given a tiresome blue wash. Think of the bludgeoning blue color palette used in the Underworld series, but without the always welcome sight of Kate Beckinsale’s shiny black PVC catsuit to punctuate the cerulean gloaming. The CGI effects are abundant and cheap. The vaporous appendages of the aforementioned ghost twins are just about acceptable, but the unconvincing physicality of the blood spatters is not. It is probably best not to use an effect if it’s going to rip up the single microdot of belief the audience may have in the reality of what they are watching.

Western horror fans eager to expand their vocabulary and learn about the wonders of the jiangshis — and in most ways they are a lot more entertaining than your common European neck-biter — would be advised to check out the original Mr. Vampire. In contrast to the humor and analogue fun of that movie, Rigor Mortis is a mirthless melange of ideas without even the common indecency to scare its audience.

RATING 2 / 10
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