Directed By: Juno Mak
Written By: Lai-Yin Leung and Philip Yung
Cast: Siu-Hou Chin, Anthony Chan Yao, Kara Hui, Hee Ching Paw, Richard Ng
When I read that Rigor Mortis was the first film effort from a pop-star from Hong Kong by the name of Juno Mak, I knew that I had to see it. The fact that it is a horror movie made it all the more intriguing. What would that movie look like? What could it look like? I couldn’t imagine. I had to get into that theater, so I did. As with almost every movie I saw at Fantastic Fest. This was a great choice. Mak has surprising chops behind the camera. There’s a lot to like in this movie, but the haunting cinematography is what defines the film.
Rigor Mortis is a tribute (not without its winks to the audience) to the old Mr. Vampire movies; a Hong Kong series that introduced the hopping vampire to the world of cinema. Mak does that series justice by a landslide. The goofy sense of humor that permeated the older films has been replaced by a very spooky sense of atmosphere. Siu-Hou Chin (a former Hong Kong star who played the student of a vampire hunter in the Mr. Vampire series) is a famous actor of the same name who has fallen on hard times. His wife and son recently passed away. He gets an apartment in an old, run down public housing building for the purpose of committing suicide in private. As he slides the rope around his neck and kicks the chair supporting him aside, willowy black vapor fills the room. It’s a ghost. A ghost that triggers a horrifying, intense montage.
After the ghost induced freakout, the actor is saved by Uncle Yao (Anthony Chan Yao a co-star in the Mr. Vampire series), the food stall owner. From there, the terror only grows. Mysterious children appear and disappear. A mysterious group of ghosts with umbrellas trudge down a misty hallway late at night. All the while the ghosts (creepy twin ghosts!) continue to float in and out of frame trailing shadows behind them. As the story continues the actor learns about the history of his apartment and the impact those events had on the community. At the same time, Aunt Mui attempts to bring her dead husband, Uncle Tung back to life with the help of a Taoist priest and his ritualistic magic. Resurrection is a risky business at the best of times. It’s especially dangerous in a haunted house filled with g-g-g-g-g-g ghosts! As the danger builds it is up to Uncle Yao and Siu-Hou Chin to excise the evil and make the housing complex safe again.
This movie doesn’t have a lot of deaths, and there are very few shock scares. It’s not the kind of movie that gets you jumping out of your seat. Instead, Rigor Mortis just drags you deeper and deeper into the darkness until every movement of the camera is absolutely terrifying. I just can’t say enough about how the camera is used in this movie. The lighting always leaves just enough shadow that you can imagine something creeping just out of sight. With the rest of the movie as spooky as it is, my mind ran wild at every hint of danger.
Juno Mak must have watched a lot of horror movies at a young age. The kind of fear this movie generates isn’t that of a known thing. In fact, it’s more anxiety than fear. There’s no object for it until late in the film (there’s a hopping vampire of course), and by then the theater will feel haunted. It reminded me of being a kid in the dark, so positive that the little bit of light creeping into my room was the hand of a skeleton or some kind of specter. The ending (literally the last 45 seconds) leaves a lot to be desired (I, for instance, desire that the movie ends 45 seconds earlier), but that’s a small complaint for an otherwise stunning debut. Who knew that a pop-star from Hong Kong could display this degree of horror expertise.