By the time this fourth Mr. Vampire went into production, series star Lam Ching Ying was too busy filming countless cash-ins to appear. In his place the makers drafted actor/director Wu Ma. Famous as the Taoist swordsman in A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Ma made cameo appearances in earlier Mr. Vampire movies and also directed a similar mix of spooky antics and knockabout comedy: The Dead and the Deadly (1983) starring series producer Sammo Hung.
Kicking off with a jolly theme tune more befitting of a romantic comedy, Mr. Vampire 4 has amiable Buddhist monk Yi-Yu (Wu Ma) and cute, pigtailed student Ching-ching (Loletta Lee) move next door to vampire buster Four Eyed Taoist (Anthony Chan, returning from the first Mr. Vampire (1985)) and his disciple Chia-Le (Chin-Kar Lok). Klutzy Chia-Le annoys Ching-ching when he accidentally grabs her boobs (yeah, right), while the rival religious clerics can’t seem to get along. Yi-Yu’s Buddhist chanting drives Four Eyes up the wall, so he casts a hex that turns the monk into his remote-controlled buffoon, until Ching-ching sorts him out.
The feuding geezers duel with chopsticks, arm-wrestle over tea, kick each other in the crotch and hurl insults and crockery, while their dutiful students are caught in the crossfire. Hostilities cease when Taoist Crane (Chung Fat) pops by with his band of warriors, escorting a vampire sealed inside a golden casket on its way to cremation. Rain washes the protective ink away, so the vampire bursts free, slaughters the warriors and puts the bite on gay eunuch Wu Yuan (Yuen Wah - camping it up outrageously!) and the 71st Prince (Hoh Kin-Wai). Our heroes must set their differences aside and contain this vampire outbreak.
Fourth time round the balance between horror and comedy is not so deft. The action grinds to a halt every time Chia-Le makes a feeble pass at Ching-ching, or Four Eyes plays a prank on Yi-Yu. Although the central theme concerns China’s two oldest religions trying to get along, the Buddhist emerges a more compassionate figure than the Taoist sifu, who is quick to anger and slow to forgive. When it comes to vampire slaying lore, Four Eyes has the edge. Alongside the familiar magic mirrors and sticky rice as a cure for vampire bites, this introduces malted sugar as a handy glue for restraining springy bloodsuckers, and “snake wine” as another means of treating infected wounds. In case of emergencies a bath in rice milk with some live snakes is a sure-fire cure (if you’re brave).
As usual the martial arts sequences are exceptional, with Chin-Kar Lok a suitably acrobatic clown and Wu Ma and Anthony Chan tag-teaming for some vampire wrestling. Nice to see Loletta Lee given a chance to leap up walls and drop-kick vamps with the boys, as well as flex her comedic chops. However, Mr. Vampire 4 shoots its wad too early with a winningly surreal sequence. Four Eyes leads a conga line of hopping vampires through the misty forest (complete with limbo music!) when a ghostly maiden (series regular Pauline Wong) with flowing sleeves floats down from the trees. She strips off, blows scented bubbles and cel animated kisses that literally set his heart pounding, and lures Four Eyes into ghost sex. Until his high-tech ghost spectacles reveal her as a hairy fox spirit. After that amusing interlude, the film lapses into strained slapstick closer to kung fu comedies about feuding martial arts masters like The Odd Couple (1979) or Warriors Two (1978) than supernatural fantasy.
However, the spectacle of veteran Yuen Wah as a mincing, primadonna gay vampire who bites victims on the bum is pretty funny, if somewhat homophobic. Plus a surprisingly tense and witty finale finds our heroes glued to the floor, coping with a rabid vamp while a Taoist spell inflates Four Eyes physique like Superman, and snakes prove the ideal ingredients to make the undead explode. Lam Ching Ying came back for the next sequel, Magic Cop (1990).