A Taoist priest grapples with a demon, using a lightning-emitting dagger to slice the chain wrapped around his neck. The succubus — who has taken the form of a beautiful human woman with a popped-out eyeball bulging out of a mass of loose brain — recoils in pain and bends down out of frame. When she snaps back up, her static-shocked hair stands on end like the quills of a porcupine. Her head then detaches itself from her neck, flies across the room, and gives a theatrical snarl.
This battle was just another day at the office around Golden Harvest, the Hong Kong film factory responsible for Mr. Vampire and many of the other gonzo horror-comedy-action mashups collected under the umbrella of jiangshi cinema. Through the 1980s and ’90s, a bizarre microgenre of lucrative oddities took shape around the undead ghouls referred to as “hopping vampires” in the English-speaking world for their distinctively goofy means of hopscotch-style locomotion. (They have to jump around, you see, because of the rigor mortis; “jiangshi” translates from Mandarin as “stiff corpse.”) These Chinese vampires didn’t turn into bats, they rarely had fangs, and they were often described as ghosts, but there’s unmistakable vampiric DNA in their parasitic feeding on qi, the energy of the soul. The stock baddies added their own mythos of physical attributes (pallid blue-green skin, with appearances ranging from the monstrous to the otherwise ordinary) and weaknesses (glutinous rice, hens’ eggs, sheets of paper inscribed with talismans) to a long literary heritage of bloodsuckers overlapping here with the regional folklore of China.
Most significantly, the jiangshi film continued the vampire’s collision of a medieval past with an unfamiliar present, as relics decked out in the hanfu wardrobe of the Qing dynasty rose again to bound through a booming, industrialized Hong Kong. A five-title collection now streaming on the Criterion Channel gathers some tough-to-find choice cuts from a canon that combined hallucinatory experiments with color, surreal slapstick, blistering kung fu, and innovative in-camera effects simulating the soul’s passage in and out of the body. More than delirious treats for obscurity enthusiasts, these wild films stand today as telling artifacts from a nation in political and cultural flux, negotiating tensions between religion and secularism, tradition and modernity, East and West.
The vampire had prowled Chinese fiction in various iterations as far back as the 18th century, first in Pu Songling’s supernatural anthology Liaozhai Zhiyi, a spiritual ancestor to The Twilight Zone in its pointed societal critiques via short-form suspense. 1936’s Midnight Vampire piggybacked on the popularity of the just-imported Dracula with a Europeanized villain, and that same year, Wuye Jiangshi saw the creatures as a hasty resolution to a family drama about greedy heirs. Advertised as “Filmed entirely on location in Hong Kong!” 1974’s The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires grafted the Shaw Brothers’ peerless martial arts prowess onto the Hammer Film model in an international co-production that saw director Roy Ward Baker regularly going berserk on day-wage actors who couldn’t understand his instructions.
The jiangshi film wouldn’t reach maturity until 1980 with Encounters of the Spooky Kind, the first to foreground the hopping menace as the fulcrum of a story rather than accessory to it. Sammo Hung, an unconventional leading man with his soft chin and a scar picked up from a broken Coke bottle in a street fight, directed himself as Bold Cheung, a kindly yet guileless fighting ace cucked by his wife with his employer. The philanderers send a legion of cold-blooded minions after him, though the typically episodic, threadbare plot mostly serves to line up feats of physical talent in both combat and humor. After a spell induces a jiangshi to mirror all of Cheung’s movements, the pair puts on a copycat homage to the Marx brothers’ classic bit from Duck Soup in a lineage of influence later including Sam Raimi, who borrowed a severed-hand gag for Evil Dead 2. (Encounters of the Spooky Kind II, a 1990 sequel produced and choreographed by Hung, has no real relation to the continuity, but features one lively sequence in which a zombie made out of cockroaches tries to bite off our hero’s penis.)
This friendly friction between disparate periods sculpted the contours of the Mr. Vampire series, the other key plank of the jiangshi picture’s heyday. The first was set during the pre-Communist juncture of the early 20th century labeled the Republican era, the second in the present day of 1985; in either instance, director Ricky Lau (with an assist from Hung as producer) located laughs and offhanded insights in the gap between antiquity and the now. In the franchise’s debut, the two boobish assistants of the obligatory priest-exorcist wind up at a Westernized tea ceremony hosted by a worldly businessman, who chuckles at their provincial cluelessness as they’re puzzled by black coffee. The transcontinental comedy of errors even bled into real life with Golden Harvest’s abortive attempt to produce an English-language remake led by Dallas star Jack Scalia and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas, a costly disaster shut down by studio head Raymond Chow with the immortal declaration of “We started, but we need not finish.”
The follow-up went for broader culture-clash gags with a concept oriented around assimilation, as a little boy jiangshi roused from his age-old slumber must acclimate to the ’80s, aerobics jokes and all. While rip-offs piled up (most curious among them 1990’s Magic Cop, a cross-pollination of genres meant to capitalize on Jackie Chan’s name-making Police Story series), mission drift sent the Mr. Vampire films to some unlikely places, hindered by flagging interest in pacing or basic logic. The third movie is closer to a samurai saga than anything else, and the jiangshi take forever to show up in the fourth, though nothing compares to the unhinged fifth: Fetuses not carried to term come back as malevolent phantoms, one of which possesses a nanny in order to find a pregnant woman whose unborn child can provide a suitable vessel for the displaced spectral consciousness.
A little lower down on the budgetary food chain, Hong Kong got its own answer to Ed Wood in Z-movie maverick Godfrey Ho, famed for yelling “I can’t see you acting — more acting!” at one performer he deemed not far enough over the top. Robo Vampire brazenly purloined the beats of RoboCop, and got an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for it; the jiangshi in Ho’s The Vampire Raiders set their sights on a takeover of the hotel industry, and to that end, spend more time than perhaps necessary terrorizing bikini babes. One can almost see the genre shaking toward collapse as the director cut corners and costs, often sticking footage from Filipino, Thai, or mainland Chinese releases into his own work. If you assume that that would render his films near-incomprehensible, you’d be right — but it also enabled Ho to crank out multiple features toeing the line between “lovably slapdash” and “lazy” for the price of one.
The good times could not last forever, decisively ended by a pair of pivotal developments in the late ’90s. The handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997 signaled a turn away from a capitalistic pro-business permissiveness to a rigid secularism with no place for superstition. Seven months later, Golden Harvest founder Leonard Ho passed away, setting his shrinking empire on a track toward a full shutdown of production in 2003 to focus on financing and distribution.
The jiangshi would rate a mention here or there as a shibboleth for those versed in obscurer dialects of pop culture, cameoing in the What We Do in the Shadows TV show and commanding its own half-hour in a standout episode of the 2000 animated series Jackie Chan Adventures. But the hopping dead would never fully rise again, the chintzy yet resourceful mode of anything-goes filmmaking that allowed them to flourish soon overtaken by digital polish. Though, if the movies are to be believed, they’re only a single incantation away from a bouncy, bloodcurdling comeback.