If you were to describe Juno Mak’s Rigor Mortis in one sentence, you’d say…well, actually I don’t know if that’s possible. The film draws from a range of influences in the ‘Hong Kong’ or ‘Asian’ horror genres to create a tapestry of strangeness that willfully, stubbornly cannot be deposited into just one box. This both a good thing and a bad thing as the film is at its best when it doesn’t rely so heavily on the styles and looks of those who preceded it but, at the same time, feels anchored down by those same influences. It’s a strange balancing act that results in a mostly successful work that never stops being entertaining even when it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The story follows Chin (Chin Siu Ho), a past-his-moment actor who moves himself into a run down apartment building with the intention of putting an end to his life. There are early references to some past tragedies in his life (wife and child dying?) but frankly they aren’t illustrated in any way that you could say one way or the other if they’ve actually died or if the symbolism of some of his dream sequences are only to show his loss on a personal level. Again, you could make the argument either way. Chin’s first suicide attempt is thwarted by his neighbor Yau which seems to then set in motion a series of interconnected events that bring Chin’s story full circle while also addressing a young widow and her son, an elderly woman trying to bring her husband back to life and a pair of vengeful twin-girl spirits that all relate in one way or another to one another in this building. Kind of. A coherent plot, this movie is not burdened with by a long stretch.
That is not to say it isn’t interesting and compelling to watch because it absolutely is. The visuals are really something else; between Chin’s dream sequences to the sister ghosts to the process of creating a monstrous hopping vampire out of the old woman widow’s husband to a host of others, this film has creativity coming out its ears. Chin seems basically forced to deal with each part of this messy net of people in this building and come to some sort of resolution about his own life. Whether it all means that he should’ve just died in the first place, or, if it means his life must amount to something in order to help others, who knows?
Outside of all the effects-driven work, the filming style is quite lovely. There is a stark-greyness to the whole affair that punctuates the action and violence and dark imagery in a smart way. With too much stimulus going on in the background, some of the more impressive effects might get lost in the shuffle but that isn’t the case at all. This balance between bleak and hyper-action is perfectly orchestrated from a visual standpoint.
If you come into Rigor Mortis having never seen the classic 1985 Mr. Vampire or the James Hong English-language The Jitters (1989) both dealing with the hopping vampire mythology and ritual, you’ll likely be okay. The film does a good job of laying out how the whole creation process works, the dangers and how one goes about dealing with them. I won’t go into all that here, but rest assured it is one of the most gonzo, crazed and creatively brilliant parts of the film.
So taking this wild, mish-mash of creativity all into account, you have to decide whether or not it works as a completed idea. While it’s entertaining to a high degree and balances all its visual and historical influences in a mostly effective way, a more cohesive script would’ve done wonders to bring it all together better.