Rigor Mortis is one of the most beautiful and emotional horror films I've encountered in many years. An actor moves into public housing in Hong Kong when his career begins to fail. He attempts to kill himself, but is saved by a Taoist exorcist who senses something is wrong in the long-haunted apartment 2442. The actor soon discovers that nothing is normal in his new home. Ghosts, zombies, and vampires roam the halls and coexist with the tenants. Everything is balanced until a generous older tenant loses her husband in a tragic accident and wants nothing more than to spend the rest of her life with him intact. This Cantonese language horror from Hong Kong is not afraid of the darkness in the soul. Rigor Mortis is a sad film filled with sad characters and sad stories. These tenants, new and old, have been through more than their fair share of tragedy and nothing is held back.
Room 2442 is central to the story because of the overlapping elements in individual lives. The actor's failed suicide attempt is just the latest act of violence in the home. A mother and her young son are the only survivors of a very bloody string of deaths started by the father trying to force himself on the mother. Her twin daughters fight back and the mother is the only one who walks out alive, pregnant with her new son. The older woman watches the young boy while the mother tries and fails everyday to unpack her grief and confront Room 2442. The exorcist who saved the actor has tried and failed time and again to free the mother from her grief. It only spirals out further from there.
Hee Ching Paw, as the older woman, gives one of the most gut-wrenching performances in a pure horror film in decades. She has the most dynamic character arc and never overplays a moment. Her big monologue at the halfway point of the film signals a dark descent into madness and the supernatural that no one will be able to escape. She circles the elements of the ritual designed to bring her husband back, chastising him in short sentences lifted from his own dialogue earlier in the film. The woman is trying anything she can to bring life to her husband and is losing her grip on reality in the process. It's just heartbreaking.
Rigor Mortis only grows more powerful through its masterful action sequences. First time director Juno Mak helps stage some phenomenal wirework stunts. It's actually quite amazing to think that more horror films centered on ghosts and vampires don't use the range of motion provided by these rigs to create memorable monsters. The ghosts and vampires don't have to move in a natural way because they're not natural, so why not let them twist, spin, flip, and fly off of every conceivable surface as they attack the living?
Cinematographer Man-Ching Ng and visual effect supervisor Enoch Chan really make those action scenes flow well. There are recurring elements of smoke and fire that accentuate the line of the monsters. Even simple movements look fantastique when they create visible movement in the air that obscures and redefines the simple environments of the public housing building. The visual language is novel in appearance but totally believable in the moment.
Rigor Mortis follows in the style of horror films like Santa Sangre and Hour of the Wolf, presenting a simple story driven by the psychological and emotional state of the characters. The result is a dark and somber story you won't soon shake off.
Rigor Mortis is currently playing in limited release. Find a screening near you.
Distributors Well Go USA provided a digital copy of Rigor Mortis for this review.