Directed by Juno Mak
Distributed by WellGo USA
Any time a somber man, seemingly incapable of smiling, takes up residence in a decaying apartment complex void of any sense of style whatsoever, you can be sure supernatural chaos is not far behind. Point of fact – a good 90% of the time, when ANYONE moves into a new house, apartment, condo, or even a friend’s cabin in the woods, there’s bound to be bloodshed!
Perhaps this is a filmmaker’s way of expressing the stress and heavy anxiety surrounding a major upheaval of one’s life… picking up from one place you’ve made a home and moving into a new place that someone else poured energy into… whether good or bad.
Rigor Mortis begins with our own somber man: aging movie star Yau (Chan), who comes to live in a nondescript high-rise with a box of his belongings and a weight upon him that labors every step. It’s not long before his apparent sadness is preyed upon by the creatures already living in this structure… and within his very apartment as well.
â€œHello, exterminator? Yes, we’ve got Grudges. Yes… long dark hair… wacky, crawly walk, way too pale to be Goth. How soon can you come out?â€ Yau’s cramped apartment is revealed to already have two tenants who refuse to leave and seem hellbent on nabbing themselves a new body. As the ultra creepy set of female specters attack, we find a sliver of hope in opposing supernatural forces which, rather reluctantly, stand as a beacon of light in the darkness… or, as his day job would suggest, the best damn rice cook in town. Sometimes, a rice cook is the same as a shiny beacon… at least in Asian cinema.
This single event opens the door to all manner of creatures hiding in every crack and shadow of this massive complex, scurrying alongside an odd cast of human characters. As to which group is stranger, I’ll leave that for you to decide. The film skillfully parades an endless stream of horrors before us while introducing characters so likable you’ll never suspect any could be capable of violent acts. Just give it a minute… that will change!
Rigor Mortis, which originally screened for this reviewer at the New York City Asian Film Festival, rarely breaks away from its ultra quiet tone while exploring a haunted hallway, eavesdropping on a conversation between a married couple, or even revealing the steps of a black magic ritual. This is not to say the film is without any action, as we learn every monster can be fought with the right tools… and practiced kung fu moves. Looks down long hallways give a labyrinthian feel, assuring us that, even though the apartment complex is massive, everyone within it may be hopelessly lost. This element, coupled with that nerve-wracking silence, helps to build tension as the crack of a pebble on stone can echo down a stairwell and so possibly originated from everywhere and nowhere at once.
As counterpoint, the occasional explosion of action is enough to knock you back into your chair. This one-two punch makes the film a unique entry into the haunted location genre, as it isn’t necessarily trying to slowly creep up on you, but rather wow you with supernatural spectacle generated by top-notch CGI artists and a director who has surely done his homework on what visual elements will send a chill up your spine. No jump scares, no dark figure just around the corner, and no visitors creeping under the bed while we sleep. The monsters of Rigor Mortis, in a way, are meant to feel as real as we are as they walk right up to you and make their intentions clear.
With comic book-like sensibilities, Rigor Mortis rolls out a complete mini-universe within these walls, suggesting there is a story to be told behind every door. With a skillful eye for lavish imagery, the filmmakers create amazing visuals that could easily double as art prints accompanied by ghostly tales. The use of blues and greys dominates the palette to such an extent that, when red enters the scheme, it nearly vibrates out of the shots, making a newly formed pool of blood all the more impactful. So we’ve got an incredible artist’s touch enhancing refreshingly new monster imagery accompanied by stellar martial arts battle as forces meet and inevitably clash, all wrapped up in a story so fantastically odd it would make the entire cast of â€œKingdom Hospitalâ€ stand up and start the slow clap.
Rigor Mortis is an incredibly fun haunted house film that is sure to spark inspiration across all points of horror creation as it pushes conventions and breaks out of a mold we may have thought represented the furthest this genre could go. Fans who have been following Asian horror cinema for years will have plenty to gush over as the film nods to their favorite creeps while your everyday horror fan will be dragging friends home for repeated viewings much like fans of comic book-inspired films do with Brotherhood of the Wolf. Grab your friends and see this film!
4 out of 5
1/2 out of 5