Vampire vs. Vampire (1989) Movie Review

“Vampire vs. Vampire” is another entry in the time honoured genre of Chinese hopping vampire films, once again starring the late, great Ching Ying Lam as an undead-battling, one-eye browed Taoist priest. The film is notable mainly for the fact that Lam also directs, utilising his considerable experience gained from having basically played the same ghost-busting role on countless past occasions. Thankfully, Lam manages to avoid the pitfalls which have ruined many of the imitations and spin offs of the classic “Mr. Vampire” series, and adds a few original touches of his own. The film benefits greatly from taking its horror aspects a little more seriously, as well as trying to mix in some genuine frights amongst the martial arts battles and Taoist magic. The result is a great, fun film which stands amongst the best in the hopping vampire genre, and which cements Lam’s reputation as a true master of the form.

The plot starts in familiar style, with the one-eye browed priest (the instantly recognisable Lam) living in a small village along with two incompetent assistants and a cute vampire child. The motley bunch make their living through exorcising and battling the undead, and the first part of the film is made up of their encounters with a variety of spooks, most notably the ghost of a murdered woman who haunts a nearby palm grove. Eventually, a Western-style vampire is awakened when a greedy general (Billy Lau, also in “Mr. Vampire” and its sequels) removes a bejeweled crucifix from the vampire’s dried up corpse. The vampire quickly sets his sights upon a local group of catholic nuns, forcing the Taoist priest to save the day. But matters are complicated by the fact that none of the priest’s usual methods have any effect on the Western beast, forcing our hero to employ more desperate measures.

The plot, for the first hour or so at least, does move along without much focus, and is more a collection of undead battling vignettes in which Lam showcases his skills both as a director and martial arts star. As a result, the film’s title is somewhat misleading, especially given that there is in fact none of the suggested conflict between two vampires, and instead the ending has Lam in a 30-minute face off with a Western bloodsucker (as was the case in the lacklustre “Exorcist Master”). Fortunately Lam invests in a number of subplots, and includes some imaginative scenes which, although fairly irrelevant to the overall narrative, are nevertheless highly entertaining.

With “Vampire vs. Vampire”, Lam avoids the out and out comedy which has reduced many genre entries to mere slapstick, and although there are a few laughs here, mainly involving Lam’s bumbling sidekicks and the rather odd mini-vampire, they are generally effective and wisely never allowed to dominate. There is also a surprising focus on the film’s horrific elements, with a number of creepy scenes of the vampire stalking the nuns around a ruined church, and an attack by a swarm of bats. It is fair to say that these are not strong enough to qualify the film as actually being frightening, but they are still a welcome inclusion, lending the proceedings the atmosphere and sense of threat which has so often been missing in similar efforts.

The film features some outstanding martial arts action, as would be expected from choreographer Stephen Tung (who worked on “Hero” and the upcoming “Seven Swords” amongst others). There is some highly impressive wirework, and some incredibly acrobatic stunt work (including one amazing scene where a character effortlessly scales a building), especially from Lam himself during the breathtaking final confrontation. There is a great deal of action throughout the film, and the pace is never allowed to slow, with any gaps in the slightly incoherent narrative being neatly plugged with creative and imaginative fight scenes.

The film’s only real weakness comes in the form of the Western vampire himself, who is little more than a drooling fiend, with no spoken lines or discernable schemes or motivations. Whilst he does provide an effective foe in his battles with Lam, it would have been nice to have seen a more intelligent undead villain, or at least one with ambitions beyond terrorising the local nuns. The special effects for “Vampire vs. Vampire” are generally quite convincing, with some good, ghoulish makeup, and effective, pre-CGI magic scenes. Lam employs the special effects quite judiciously, and it is only in the scenes with bats, some of which are quite obviously cheap models, that things slide into unintentional comedy.

However, these are only minor criticisms, and they in no way prevent “Vampire vs. Vampire” from being an excellent film. Fast paced and packed with invigorating martial arts, it comes highly recommended to fans of Lam or the genre in general, and as a perfect starting point for the novice’s journey into the world of hopping Chinese vampires.

Ching-Ying Lam (director)
CAST: Ching-Ying Lam …. One-Eyebrow Priest
Siu-hou Chin …. Hoh
Fong Liu …. Fong
Billy Lau …. General
Sandra Ng Kwan Yue …. General’s Cousin

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