This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s movie is Hong Kong vampire homage Rigor Mortis (2013), directed by Juno Mak (his directorial debut), and recommended by friend Charmaine Pang. (I knew Charmaine and I would get along when – while at Centennial College together – one of the first things we did was decide who would among our class of 47 would win in a Battle Royale death match.)
A big shout-out to Queen Video, who provided the DVD of Rigor Mortis, and who has currently been recommending it over their Twitter account. (And before we get into the plot too much, I issue a trigger warning here for rape.)
Rigor Mortis, while a serious horror/action movie, is a tribute of sorts to the more comic series of ‘hopping vampire’ Hong Kong films of the 1980s (the most well-known of those being Mr. Vampire). While I’ve seen at least one of those Hong Kong vampire films, my background in them is not extensive. Though I surely missed many references to the earlier films, I still really enjoyed this very spooky and different take on the vampire genre.
Like Sunset Boulevard before it, Rigor Mortis opens with the end: a tableau on a concrete street block – one man bleeding to death on the ground, the other injured and smoking while propped up against a wall. We then return to the beginning, where our narrator – whose name I never caught, but according to IMDB is named Chin Siu-Hou (which is funny, as that’s the actor’s real name) – says he used to be a fairly successful actor, but has fallen on hard times. He’s moved into a crumbling apartment block, and Chin is a little depressed. As he says, ‘Smiling is tiring. I’m very tired.’ It’s not fully explored, but he’s estranged from his wife and son, and he sometimes listens to a phone message recording of his son when he’s feeling blue. The apartment’s super, Uncle Yin, greets him and lets him into Room 2442, assuring him, despite the derelict look of the building, it’s a safe neighbourhood. Inside the apartment, Yin – after remarking that they’ve never had a famous tenant before –conducts a ritual with incense to pay respects to the spirits.
The next we see Chin, he’s about to hang himself from the ceiling fan. He listens to the phone message of his son one last time, looks at the watch his son drew on his wrist in ink, then suddenly has a dark vision of his son and wife in the kitchen, flooded with blood. He panics and falls off his chair, slowly hanging himself. As he does, he experiences disturbing visions. Dark spirits begin to infuse his body. That’s when, from out of nowhere, a neighbour in his underwear and robe busts through the door, frees Chin from the noose, and forces the evil spirits out of Chin (through a combination of kung fu and making the spirits look in a mirror). The neighbours gather as Chin recovers, but they’re a bit spooked by the apartment. It probably doesn’t help that Chin vomits black ink for minutes – a lengthy sequence second only to Team America: World Police – immediately after coming to.
Now would be a good time to describe some of the tenants of this unusual apartment building. I’ve talked quite a bit about Chin and Uncle Yin already. The robed man who saved Chin from the spirits is Yau, the manager/owner of a noodle place on the apartment’s ground floor. The building also is home to Auntie Mui, who does a lot of sewing for the apartment tenants; her husband, Tung; and a mysterious man named Gau, who everyone seems fairly reverent to. A woman, Feng, and her albino child Pak also roam the hallways of the apartment building. Chin often finds them stealing food left outside his door by Yau. The apartment complex doesn’t allow for a lot of privacy: people are always going in and out of other people’s apartments, and doors are rarely closed. Brother Yau, who wears what you or I would consider pyjamas at all times – even when manning the cash register at the restaurant – gives Chin the lay of the land while he’s visiting the restaurant. Chin befriends Auntie Mui and asks if she might repair some of his old film costumes. That night, while taking down the garbage, Tung is startled by ghost child, and – in a cringeworthy scene – breaks his neck falling down the stairs.
A later conversation between Chin and Yau about glutinous rice reveals that Yau’s father was a vampire hunter. Glutinous rice was once used to protect against vampires, but since there are no vampires left, the vampire hunters all became cooks. Chin thanks Yau for saving his life, but Yau points out that he just prevented Chin from doing what he wanted to do: commit suicide. Auntie Mui, having found her husband’s dead body, takes Tung to Gau. Gau is a practitioner of black magic: he tells Mui to bury Tung’s body in soil in the bathtub, sew his wounds closed (including a nasty gash along one side of this face), and feed him crows’ blood. She is to keep him in a raised coffin overnight and to never take off his mask of coins for any reason. Gau says Tung’s spirit should return in seven days. Other tenants wonder where Tung has gone, but Mui says he’s just been ill and she has to take care of him in her apartment.
When Chin finds Feng and her son Pak again stealing his food, he invites them in, but Feng is terrified of his apartment. Chin asks the super, Yin, about the two of them and he tells them their very sad (and disturbing) story. Feng and Pak used to live in Chin’s apartment, Room 2442. Feng’s husband tutored twin sisters, but one day, he attempted to violently rape one of the twins (even pinning her hand to the table with a knife). The other twin came upon this scene and stabbed the husband to death with a pair of scissors. When Feng came back to the apartment that night, her loathsome husband was dead, and both twins had killed themselves. (This seems like it would be an important story to tell the new tenant before he moves into the apartment.) Feng’s mental state has suffered ever since, so Uncle Yin houses her and Pak and watches out for them. Meanwhile, Mui spends her nights in her apartment pleading with the unresponsive body of Tung to come back to her.
Chin goes over to restaurateur Yau’s apartment for dinner and notices the place is full of ghosts; Yau calls them his ‘flatmates.’ Peering over his wooden Harry Potter glasses, Yau says the ghosts have been here much longer than he, so he made sure they developed a good relationship. Chin shows Yau some of Pak’s spooky drawings and asks if he’ll help him aid the troubled family. Yau says he’s tried and Feng can’t be helped. Plus, he adds, going for Chin’s throat, how is Chin in a position to help anyone? He’s a mess, fresh off a suicide attempt, still wearing his child’s watch drawing on his wrist. Disheartened, Chin trudges back to his apartment and gets a bucket of blood splashed in his face the moment he opens the door. Gau was hiding in his apartment, and he chokes Chin and puts a paper spell (or fu) on his forehead. The actions bring out the spirits of the dead twin girls, one of whom possesses Chin. Gau and Chin then engage in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Yau senses the altercation downstairs and runs up to aid Gau. Together, they are able to free Chin from the one spirit and, using blood-soaked twine, bind the twin ghosts and trap them in a wardrobe. When Gau thanks Yau for his assistance, Yau slaps him for using the actor as bait. Gau says he’ll take the wardrobe and set it on fire in a special ceremony.
Things look better for a short while. Chin washes off the watch on his wrist (he’s moving on), and Pak and Feng are able to visit him in the old apartment (though they have to get rid of the furniture first, because of the terrible flashbacks). Mui begins to grow impatient and complains to Gau that his magic isn’t working. Tung’s spirit hasn’t come back. Uncle Yin, now really suspicious about Tung’s disappearance, starts to believe Feng’s earlier claim that ‘some guy with a bunch of kids’ killed Tung. He visits Auntie Mui, who – surprise, surprise – has Gau over, and asks them a bunch of leading questions (while surreptitiously dropping candy on the ground to see if any ghost children pick it up). Suspecting Gau is still ‘messing around with that black magic shit,’ Yin confronts him, and is quickly (and viciously) bludgeoned to death by Mui and her stone bowl. Mui continues her journey to the dark side: when Pak starts hanging around her apartment, she traps him in the storage room with her now vampiric husband. The resulting screams and banging on the door are haunting.
When his vampire hunter father’s weird heirloom disc thing starts moving on its own, Yau realizes something dark is happening in the building. He visits Gau and finds the apartment covered in blood. Gau, who was already dying of lung cancer, has had his throat torn out. He confesses to Yau that he helped Mui turn Tung into a vampire, and was planning to put the dead twins’ spirit into his body. (That is, the wardrobe with the twin ghosts hasn’t been destroyed.) Looking around the apartment, Yau sees white-blond hair and realizes that the vampire has completely torn Pak apart. Feng, wandering the halls, searching for her son, encounters the wardrobe, rocking and rumbling. She opens it up hoping to find Pak, but inadvertently frees the ghost twins. She continues her search (unable to see the ghosts) and encounters the vampire. The vampire (Tung) looks very Nosferatu-like (bald head, long nails), but with a really nasty open scar on the one side of his face. He both glides across the floor and occasionally leaps to get around. A fight between Feng and the vampire ensues (during which Feng somehow picks up a spiked baseball bat), and Feng is impaled and killed. The actor, Chin, comes across this and tosses a firebomb at the vampire. The vampire and ghosts meld into one to make a super-monster, and skewer Chin with a long metal rod.
The actor, leaking, like, a literal river of blood, staggers to Yau’s apartment, where he’s been prepping for vampire battle. Yau does some emergency triage on Chin, then (a) writes a spell in blood on his chest, and (b) mops a spell in Chin’s blood on the hallway floor. He tells Chin he’ll have the length of a cigarette to defeat the vampire/ghost hybrid: after the lit cigarette meets its end, his time is up. Yau will conduct spells using that weird disc thing while Chin battles the vampire, hand-to-hand. What follows is an epic kung fu battle, rife with special effects that look like they came out of The Cell: Chin fights the vampire as Yau works the spell disc (which eventually twists off his right arm with its endless revolutions – yikes!). Finally, using the fire spell, Yau turns the vampire to ash as he, it, and Chin fall off the side of the apartment building (which is where our story began). Auntie Mui walks up to what remains of her husband and slashes her own throat with a large piece of glass to join him in death. However, that’s not the end, readers! What we see next is Chin again moving into the apartment complex (which looks a bit nicer and sunnier this time around). He encounters a happy widow (Feng) and her son in the elevator. Mui lives on her own; a picture of her dead husband, Tung, sits on the mantle. Chin is successful in committing suicide, as Yau discovers him too late, and Gau is the doctor who declares him dead at the hospital. The final shot of the film is Chin’s son identifying his dead body.
- As you may have gathered, Chinese vampires (or jiangshi) are a bit different from the vampires of Eastern European folklore. Popularized by films like Mr. Vampire, jiangshi are usually depicted as reanimated corpses dressed in garments from the Qing Dynasty who move about by hopping with their arms outstretched like a traditional zombie. And like the Eastern European vampires, they have a particular set of rules and methods of protection (such as mirrors, items made of wood, glutinous rice, and fire, among other things). While the vampire in Rigor Mortis doesn’t exactly hop in the traditional fashion (see this clip for some of that), it does leap and glide! But this vampire is much more serious business than the vampires in those mostly comedic movies. The film also – in a nice touch – uses the actors from many of those 1980s films in the principal roles of Rigor Mortis, much like Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle featured now middle-aged or older legends of Hong Kong martial arts films. Most spookily, Chin Siu-ho seems to be playing himself (a la Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD), which must be strange for him, as he commits suicide in the movie.
- Though it’s an action film, in essence, what struck me about Rigor Mortis is how much the movie is about loneliness: everyone in that apartment is so incredibly lonely. Chin is driven to suicide by his estrangement from his family. Feng and Pak have each other, but are treated mostly as pariahs by everyone save Uncle Yin. The death of Tung makes Mui so lonesome she turns to Gau and the dark arts to get him back, in a plot similar to that of Pet Sematary and even – to some extent – my last film, Deathdream. Mui’s monologue about growing old alone as she circles Tung’s vampiric corpse is terribly sad. Loneliness makes us do strange, sometimes awful things, Rigor Mortis seems to tell us. But companionship, such as when Chin reaches out to Feng and Pak, can be life-saving.
- One thing I love about Chinese hopping vampires is the power of the written word has in their legend. In European folklore, writing down some words won’t help you one lick in combating the undead. But with jiangshi, you can write a spell on a strip of paper and stick it to a vampire’s forehead to stop them in their tracks. It’s like a spooky game of Headbanz! As someone who works with words, I am fond of the reverence the written word is given in Chinese supernatural folklore. Plus, it makes for some great visuals on film. How cool did it look when Yau wrote hanzi on the hallway floor using a mop and the gallons of blood that Chin had recently lost?
- What does that ending mean? Right? It’s a real Wizard of Oz thing, where all the characters from the more fantastical story appear in the ‘realistic’ story that follows. Tung was dead, not a vampire. And Gau wasn’t a dark occultist, just a doctor. Was the entire vampire story Chin’s mind coping with his own incredible despair and eventual suicide? Was it his personal dealing with the heady concept of death, though the scrim of his own vampire films? It’s left fairly open-ended – like that spooky episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she’s in a mental institution – with the audience left to either believe the legend or the grim reality.
Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Truly terrifying. In reality, Rigor Mortis is more of an action movie than horror movie (like Underworld, but way better). Still, there are some genuine scares. The vampire (or jiangshi) is one of the scarier movie vampires I’ve seen, and the ghost twins move in an unearthly and creepy fashion – think of the staircase scene in The Grudge or that unsettling surveillance video of Elisa Lam. (But don’t click that link if you ever want to sleep again.)
Best outfit: The fashion in Rigor Mortis is totally normcore. Everyone is wearing white T-shirts and gray sweatpants. Anything fashion that can be considered interesting or unusual is kept wrapped up in plastic: Chin’s old film costumes. Brother Yau should be singled out for taking normcore to the next level, though, walking around in his underwear, slippers, and robe, whether he’s managing his restaurant or in pitched battle with vampires. The fact that his wooden glasses look like they could be sold by Rapp Optical is a nice contrast to his steadfastly normcore and ultra-casual look.
Best line: ‘The cigarettes I smoke are made from the ashes of the unborn.’ – Gau, prophesying the next step after vaping.
Best kill: Auntie Mui’s stone-bowl braining of Uncle Yin is so sudden and unexpected, it left a strong impression. It was particularly affecting, as Yin was such a pleasant and sympathetic character.
Unexpected cameo: As mentioned in the ‘Takeaway Points,’ almost the entire cast appear in the more comic Mr. Vampire film series of which Rigor Mortis is a sort of tribute. Chin Siu-ho is sort of playing himself as the former star of those movies. But Anthony Chan (Yau), Richard Ng (Tung), and Fat Chung (who plays Gau) were also featured in that film series. Fat Chung was also in another Hong Kong classic horror comedy, Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind.
Unexpected lesson learned: It couldn’t hurt to have glutinous rice on you at all times. Just in case. Also, a good realtor can give you a full account of an apartment’s history.
Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Room 2442
Next up: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).