The cause of death would appear to be visual-effects overkill in the case of “Rigor Mortis,” a flashy, incoherent and virtually scare-free Hong Kong horror exercise that marks the directing debut of actor, singer, record producer and fashion maven Juno Mak. Set in a gloomy apartment building where a washed-up actor has come to die, only to find himself and other residents staring down an infestation of computer-generated supernatural baddies, this busy, blood-spattered thriller seeks to reanimate the popular “hopping vampires” movies from the 1980s and early ’90s, and will indeed prove largely impenetrable for audiences not already steeped in knowledge of that particular niche. The result has pulled in strong B.O. at home since last fall, but only Asian genre completists are likely to lick their fangs over it in limited Stateside release.
Winding its way backward from a grim prologue that reveals little but promises a high body count, the story (scripted by Mak, Philip Yung and Jill Leung) begins properly with Chin (Chin Siu-ho, playing himself), a has-been movie star, checking into a vacant flat with every intention of hanging himself. But he’s chosen the wrong seedy apartment building in which to do the deed, as the place quickly reveals itself as a haunting ground for all manner of menacing apparitions. The man who saves his life, Yau (Antony “Friend” Chan), is a retired vampire hunter who now runs a food stall, cooking meals for the building’s various other forlorn residents: Auntie Mui (Nina Paw), an old seamstress who’s trying to bring her husband, Uncle Tung (Richard Ng), back to life; Gau (Chung Fat), an occult specialist who hovers suspiciously around the periphery of the story; and Yeung Fang (Kara Wai), who dwells in a perpetual state of trauma with her white-haired young son, Pak.
Exactly what happened to drive Yeung Fang mad is revealed, sort of, in one of many violent flashbacks — several of which also bedevil Chin, whose suicidal impulses likely stem from his separation from his wife and son. But Mak, who seems to have interpreted the concept of “hopping vampires” as an excuse to jump between subplots as haphazardly as possible, doesn’t seem especially interested in investigating his protagonist’s psychological wounds. The director appears far more taken with the two demonic twin sisters haunting Chin’s apartment, their long, face-masking hair and bloody tendrils showing the clear influence of one of Mak’s fellow producers, J-horror maven Takashi Shimizu (“The Grudge”).
Indeed, to the extent that “Rigor Mortis” appears to have been conceived as something of a feature-length in-joke for Asian horror aficionados (who will recognize Chin and Chan from “Mr. Vampire”) rather than a straightforward scarefest, it’s neither a surprise nor a serious problem that none of it generates so much as a shiver. But as in-jokes go, it’s a strained, overstretched and oddly humorless one, rendered even more monotonous by Irving Cheung’s fastidiously grim, f/x-cluttered art direction: Gray is the perpetual color of the day in this dismal tenement block, offset by the occasional slash of dark red (not just geysers and rivulets of blood, but also Gaspar Noe-style mood lighting).
Hong Kong thesping veterans Chan and Paw leave the most memorable impressions here — particularly Paw, whose Auntie Mui conveys real emotion at the prospect of losing her soon-to-be-undead husband, and that sense of loss seems to similarly permeate Nate Connelly’s beautifully mournful score. But as “Rigor Mortis” grinds its way toward its zombified slasher-movie finale (which is then upended by a twist that brings the story, such as it is, full circle), the growing realization that we’ve spent nearly 100 minutes confined to the inside of this apartment building begins to induce the wrong sort of claustrophobia: Terror never sets in, but tedium long since has.