A washed-up former movie star Chin (Chin Siu Ho) moves into an old and decrepit apartment complex and into room 2442, an apartment that has been vacant for quite some time. With his star faded and with his depressing surroundings, he attempts suicide but is startled to find his body being possessed. Breaking in to expel the spirit, former vampire hunter Yau (Anthony Chan) saves Chin’s life and gives him another chance. Meeting the other tenants, including an elderly couple (Richard Ng and Paw Hee-ching), a black magic specialist (Lo Hoi-pang), and the odd mother (Kara Hui) and her son seemingly wandering the building. When supernatural forces start to swirl violently out of control, the only way that may save the apartment is through Yau and the new believer Chin.
The jiang-shi, Chinese vampire craze of the 80s is among my most beloved of the period. With the sadly departed Lam Ching Ying in the lead, the idea of Taoism and horror juxtaposed made for some arresting and awesomely entertaining cinema. Though there have been a few recent attempts to revisit the genre with varied results, the heyday of the “Mr. Vampire” films did seem long past and perhaps died with the ‘Vampire Expert’ himself. So when director Juno Mak and producer Takashi Shimizu, the J-horror icon, released their first images and teaser for Rigor Mortis, I was psyched to see it, probably unhealthily so. I’m happy to say that while the film makes a lot of missteps, they are all minor in a film that is nostalgic, brutal, and one of the best visual horror films I’ve ever seen.
Chin Siu Ho, ostensibly playing himself, is back onscreen and while he shares the screen amongst a bevy of established character actors, he never feels too over shadowed despite the film’s general lack of action until the film’s explosive final act. The supporting cast is great with Paw Hee-ching absolutely stealing the film as a darkly obsessed wife who brings a surprising tenderness to her role despite the macabre leanings of her character’s role. In particular, her long take scene which is around 3 minutes of pure performance and facial expression is mesmerizing. It is always nice to see the great Kara Hui and her recent career renaissance continues to impress.
Mak and Shimizu craft a visually arresting film with an immersive atmospheric aspect. Sets are dark and lived-in with a degree of disorder and decay that is evocative of Silent Hill and abandoned ghost towns. The color palette is expectedly dark and, depending on the scene, will explode in an array of filters and exposures that truly is indicative of classic HK experimental techniques. The visual aspect is so strong that one would expect that the plot and storyline would suffer, but while the horror aspect never truly frightens, these films typically aren’t that type of cinema despite the supernatural aspect. Moody and atmospheric, you’ll have an unsettling feeling and share some strong emotions, and it’s a rollercoaster ride of sorts with the twisting turns and deep gutshots. Action is fairly strong though certainly mature. I was actually surprised at how brutal the fights turned out to be, the ultraviolence tends to come out of nowhere and always shocks when it happens.
Not the new advent of Taoism horror movies I perhaps unjustly expected, Rigor Mortis is nonetheless a stunningly engrossing action horror picture with enough nostalgia and new visual panache to satisfy fans of the film’s predecessors. While not a perfect film; it lacks legitimate scares and the ending will definitely be divisive, it is one heck of a experience and a film I expect to revisit frequently and soon.
You may enjoy this film if you liked: the Mr. Vampire series, Magic Cop, and/or Era of a Vampire