Juno Mak may be most familiar to UK viewers as the star of the rather macabre thriller Revenge: A Love Story, but he began his career as a canto pop singer in Hong Kong at just eighteen. An unlikely superstar in many ways, Mak has gone on to endure scrutiny over his career and family background whilst managing to carve his own path in the perilous Hong Kong entertainment industry. Having made his acting debut with Revenge: A Love Story he now makes another unusual move and steps behind the camera with a slick, modern horror film that seeks to pay homage to the much loved 1980s Mr Vampire movies.
Ditching the series’ trademark humour, Mak’s is a more meta take on its subject matter as it begins with the once famous actor, Chin, carrying a cardboard box full of his paltry possessions into a rundown apartment complex where he plans to end his own life. His plans are frustrated though, as his newly lifeless body is possessed by the building’s resident ghosts. However, luckily or unluckily, the guy who runs the local noodle store doubles as an exorcist and manages to expel the demons from Chin’s body just in time to save his life. His troubles don’t end there though, as a nice and seemingly old lady neighbour hides a terrible secret, as does a frightened woman who often roams the corridors with her young albino son. Someone is indulging themselves in a bit of necromancy, which threatens to change life on the block for ever more.
The film is certainly a very dour and gloomy affair, as the suicidal Chin has flashbacks of his life as an A-list star with a pretty wife and a cute-as-a-button son whose last voicemail Chin keeps replaying. It’s all gone wrong for him already, which is presumably why he’s come to live in such a “modest” place. He comes to build up a tentative relationship with the frightened woman and her son, but they have traumas of their own linked to the strange haunting of the building. Mrs Mui who lives upstairs is the archetypal nice old lady who takes in sewing because she’s bored, but after her husband dies in a freak accident she’ll stop at nothing to bring him back. It’s her husband that’s the stiff from the movie’s title (well, perhaps - perhaps not) and she’s roped in a priest to work some black magic to bring him back but it isn’t really working, necessitating her to take ever more drastic measures.
The Mr. Vampire movies are a Hong Kong institution and particularly well loved by the generation who grew up watching them in the 1980s. However, they are considerably less well known here and viewers expecting a Western style “vampire” story are going to be disappointed. Chinese “hopping” vampires are more like a vampire/zombie hybrid - they feed on qi (life force) but shuffle like zombies and have about the same level of intelligence. There’s only one reanimated corpse here, but Mak also throws in a couple of J-horror influenced ghosts with grudges that are also martial arts masters - as are the Taoist priests who are around to keep them in check. Mak has largely ignored the genre’s humorous aspects and gone for a fairly po-faced, supernatural martial arts drama, which largely works but may have the less genre-savvy viewer feeling a little lost.
Everyone’s just very bored in a very modern way - their ennui is close to religious. The former vampire hunter who runs the noodle stall downstairs and makes sure to produce extra food for the benefit of his customers who have already passed over (after all, they still need to eat, right?) spends all day in his boxer shorts and dressing gown and doesn’t even bother to put on any special vampire fighting gear. Chin is, obviously, suicidal and most of the other residents of the block are facing metaphorical demons even if they aren’t actually battling physical ones (there are a lot of metaphorical layers in the film if you're the sort that likes to see them). It’s all very cool in a slick and modern way but sometimes feels a little pompous and fails to engage.
Simply put, Rigor Mortis not quite as much fun as one might hope, but also lacks the depth that might have made the experience feel more worthwhile. Having said that, it all looks great - aesthetically the film is very interesting and has a lot going for it including some unusually well made and impressively realised special effects. It is all a little style over substance though and the film’s final twist feels like a step too far (as does a strange mid-credits shot and odd post-credits sequence). There’s something a little cold and unengaging about Rigor Mortis (perhaps appropriately so) but it still has its moments and fans of slick, good-looking martial arts movies with a supernatural bent may find a lot to enjoy.