MR. VAMPIRE (1985)

Let’s talk vampires.

As the superstars of the undead, vampires exist in most cultures and have been around for a while: tales of bloodsucking demons and spirits have been told for millennia. There are about as many “vampires” as red blood cells in your body, all of varying shape, color, nationality, and fang-size. And yet most films tend to deal with one kind of vampire: the Lugosian species, the elegant suit-wearin’ pretty boys who never drink wine and seduce maidens with a seductive stare. I love these suave spooksters as much as the next creep, but there’s a lot of variety in the vampire bloodline that has mostly been ignored by the living. Which is why I want to celebrate one of my favorite breeds of vampire —the jiāngshī.

Jiāngshī are indeed members of the Nosferatu family, but you won’t find them attending any fancy theater performances. Like the Lugosian vampire, this creature usually rests during the day, often in a coffin or some other dark area . . . but that’s about where the similarities end. Jiāngshī are often depicted wearing official garments from the Qing Dynasty (the era they first entered literature), but they aren’t particularly attractive, and they’re anything but charming. Jiāngshī hail not from Transylvania but from ancient China. With arms outstretched and flesh rotting, they will kill any kind of animal to absorb their qi, or life force, though they enjoy the occasional shot of human blood. Strange as all of those traits are, the most peculiar thing about the jiāngshī is that it moves not by walking or even flying but by . . . hopping. You see, their putrid bodies are so stiffened by rigor mortis that they are forced to hop. That may sound silly at first, but these creatures are nothing to scoff at. No matter how fast you run, the jiāngshī hop faster.


What they lack in maneuverability, they make up for in sheer strength. Jiāngshī have razor-sharp claws that tear through flesh like a knife through butter. The extent of their power varies with the legend, but it’s always terrible. They’ve been known to possess enhanced hearing, extreme durability, teleportation capabilities, and the ability to suck souls, often with their awesome prehensile tongue. Like many great monsters, they can infect humans and transform the poor victim into one of their own through a bite or scratch. While they do have their fair share of weird weaknesses (blood of a black dog, a wooden sword made from a peach tree, a hen’s egg, glutinous rice, etc.) and can be controlled with an enchanted paper talisman, these bouncing beasts are still formidable fiends.

What causes these ghastly figures to hop the earth? Qing Dynasty scholar Ji Xiaolan mentioned in his book Yuewei Caotang Biji that there are two primary categories of jiāngshī reanimation: the recently deceased coming back or a long unburied corpse that has not decomposed. They can be created through supernatural arts, spiritual possession, a corpse’s consumption of sufficient yang qi, a soul failing to leave a body due to an improper death, suicide, or simply a desire for mischief. In the movies, the jiāngshī spread their virus much like their Lugosian cousins.

Jiāngshī, though practically ignored by Western films, enjoyed immense popularity in ’80s and ’90s Hong Kong cinema. Sammo Hung’s brilliantly batty Encounters of the Spooky Kind/Spooky Encounters was the first of these features. While it employs a wide variety of phantom threats, its jiāngshī is the most memorable. The creature moves in a jerky yet eerie manner, all while demonstrating a ferocious fighting style. Spooky Encounters built the foundation for the jiāngshī genre, which would be a combination of horror, action, and oddball slapstick.


The most important and popular of the jiāngshī movies is 1985′s Mr. Vampire, a fantastic marriage of horrific spectacle and silly slapstick that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Evil Dead II, which it predates by two years. This is where the jiāngshī genre really begins, for it takes the one sequence from Spooky Encounters and uses it as the template for the entire film. Mr. Vampire is a deeply goofy movie with cartoonish characters and Three Stooges-style physical comedy. But simultaneously, the action is genuinely thrilling, and the horror is genuinely chilling. In fact, it has the same strength that made Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein a masterpiece: the monsters are not the punchline. They’re scary, they’re serious, and they are not to be laughed at.

Just about every traditional element associated with jiāngshī can be found in Mr. Vampire, the most notable being a Van Helsing-like Taoist priest and his two bumbling assistants battling the hopping stiffs. The Taoist priest in many of the early jiāngshīfilms (including Mr. Vampire) was often played by the incredible stuntman/actor Lam Ching-ying. In my book, Ching-ying is up there with Bruce Campbell and Peter Cushing in the pantheon of horror heroes. Ching-ying worked as Bruce Lee’s assistant in his youth before becoming cinema’s go-to jiāngshī buster. The martial artist appeared in Spooky Encounters, but Mr. Vampire solidified his persona as a stoic yet slightly naive fighter of darkness. He starred in countless sequels and spinoffs to Mr. Vampire, including the first two sequels, Magic Cop, Encounters of the Spooky Kind II, Mr. Vampire 1992, and The Musical Vampire. Ching-ying also directed Vampire vs. Vampire, a film that pits jiāngshī against a Western vampire.


The jiāngshīhave also hopped their way into many video games. In Darkstalkers, a series of Japanese fighting games based around classic horror monsters, there is a quirky, heroic jiāngshī named Hsien-Ko. Hsien-Ko is likely the most famous jiāngshī in fiction, having appeared in many Capcom video games (including Marvel vs. Capcom 3), comic books, anime, and an American cartoon series. Beyond Hsien-Ko, jiāngshī are the main creatures in Phantom Fighter for the Nintendo Entertainment System, which borrows heavily from the Mr. Vampire franchise. For the 2017 Halloween season, the popular Blizzard game Overwatch gave one of its main characters a nifty new jiāngshī costume. Jiāngshī even menaced beloved Italian stereotype Mario in Super Mario Land for the Nintendo Game Boy back in 1989.

the jitters 1989

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Jiāngshī have a history as rich and vast as the Lugosian sort, yet they are mostly unheard of here in the States. There was one attempt at an American jiāngshī flick in the form of 1989’s The Jitters, but it didn’t catch on. With our innumerable Western vampire films, I think it’s high time for another attempt at jiāngshī. As long as it respects the rich folklore it sprang from, I’d go hopping mad for new jiāngshī stories in the West. There’s enough room in the graveyard for every type of vampire.

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