After a brief jump into mid-Eighties Hong Kong in Mr. Vampire 2 (1986), the series went back to olden times with this superior third instalment. Charlatan exorcist Uncle Ming (comedian Richard Ng) has genuine powers, but prefers scamming gullible families with his “pet ghosts” Ta Pao (Lui Fong) and little Hsi Pao (Ho Kin-Wai). But when vengeful spirits gatecrash his bogus haunting, Ming and friends are forced to flee. They stumble across a town besieged by evil wizard-warriors led by the powerful Devil Lady (Pauline Wong), but defended by sagely Taoist master Uncle Nine (Lam Ching Ying, of course) and idiotic Captain Chiang (Billy Lau). Chiang falls foul of the Pao’s playful pranks, but his fumbled exorcism allows Devil Lady a chance to wreak supernatural havoc. It’s up to Uncle Nine and a redemption-seeking Ming to save the day, while the good ghosts prove their valour amidst the zany, inventive climax.
Part three got things back on track after the muddled, if hugely profitable second effort. Since the cuddly little vampire subplot proved popular last time round, this one features two wholly sympathetic ghosts but avoids cutesiness in favour of witty slapstick set-pieces and more interesting subtext. Keeping ghosts is tantamount to slavery in Uncle Nine’s eyes and he warns Ming that spirits and men cannot mix. “How about one country, two systems?” asks Ta Pao, in a gag reference to Hong Kong’s then-imminent handover to Mainland China.
By the time this film was in development, A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) was breaking box office records and you sense producer/fight choreographer Sammo Hung (who cameos as a waiter, alongside Wu Ma and Corey Yuen Kwai) and director Ricky Lau wanted to up their game. The action and special effects are more ambitious with several large scale set-pieces and some freakish gore. Vampires have extendable arms and inflatable necks. Magic mirrors shoot laser beams. Necks are snapped, evil wizards punch through spines. Devil Lady vomits maggots to heal gaping neck wounds and sends molten lava missiles shooting out of the ground. Arguably the unsung heroine of the Mr. Vampire movies, Pauline Wong really shows off her range throughout the series, going from supernatural sensuality in part one to slapstick silliness in two. Here she makes a vicious, cackling hag, truly scary as she spews cockroaches and vampire bats and returns after death as a hideous ghoul. She is even game enough to bite the head off a lizard - which somehow turns Tao Pao into a bloodthirsty fiend.
The comedy is a little blacker this time round, with series regular Billy Lau playing an absolute bastard. His cowardly antics cause half the trouble and he even seals Ming in a room full of vampires (“Better sacrifice him to save the village”). Still, the film features plenty of winning silliness, including a possessed Pao visualising Ming as a tasty giant chicken and the ever-popular “clowning around with frozen vampires” bit. Somehow that gag never gets tired. Also making a welcome return are those little insights into Chinese folklore. Here we learn that clay urns can trap restless spirits and urine has mystical properties, while coin swords and paintbrushes dipped in holy ink are added to the vampire hunters’ arsenal. Perhaps most intriguing: deep frying ghosts in a vat of oil is a sure-fire way to seal magic spells (and presumably, their tasty flavour!). Which leads to the unforgettable sight of the crispy-battered vampire chasing a naked Richard Ng around the room. Sure enough Mr. Vampire 4 (1988) soon followed.