Sunday, May 12, 2019

Black Magic (1975) review


Ti Lung (Xu Nuo), Lo Lieh (Liang Chia Chi), Lily Li (Wang Chu Ying), Ku Feng (Shan Chien Mi), Tanny (Luo Yin), Ku Wen Tsung (Master Fu Yong), Lin Wei Tu (Wei Te Chin), Yueh Hua (Mr. Wong), Chen Ping (Mrs. Wong)

Directed by Ho Meng Hua

The Short Version: Veteran Shaw Brothers helmer Ho Meng Hua started a popular horror trend with this gruesomely ambitious movie that is a little too big for its budgetary breeches; but therein lies its charms. Ho's Hong Kong Hixploitation is a play on Chinese folkloric fears wherein exotic local customs and superstitions of isolated villages clash with the pettiness of the industrialized world. Ku Feng stars as the Grand Wizard of Grue who uses BLACK MAGIC for both money and personal gain. Shaw's low budget quickie is less nauseating than later stomach-turners it gave birth to, but the disheveled, malediction-muttering spell-casters, doomed adulterers, disgorging of invertebrates and assorted maggot mayhem began right here.

Liang, a greasy and greedy playboy, hears of a creepy sorcerer named Shan who can give him anything he desires. Poor and with little money, he promises to pay the magician if only he will put a love spell on Luo Yin, a wealthy widow who detests him. However, Luo's thighs ache for Xu, a handsome engineer who is engaged to the classy Chu Ying. Determined to have him, Luo wants Xu's bride-to-be dead. After a few deaths and inexplicable occurrences leaves modern doctors baffled, an elderly practitioner of white magic recognizes the cruel handiwork of Shan and his Black Magic.

Cheaply made but exorbitant in entertainment value, BLACK MAGIC opens with a severed head and the lining of a human stomach cooked for ingredients in a death spell; a naked couple murdered with voodoo dolls; and a duel between two wizards... and that's all in the first ten minutes. The lunacy continues from there but slows down in the middle section when it becomes a sordid soap opera where multiple characters lust after one another--casting spells to get them into bed. Things pick up in the last act when the good and evil wizards do battle atop a construction site, using talismans to fire substandard optical effects at one another while the sky turns to darkness amid back projected rolling clouds. 

One of the nuttiest Shaw Brothers movies, who'd of thought that stuffing sticky rice into a vagina and mixing breast milk with snake venom would keep a boyfriend loyal forever? Or placing human teeth and severed fingers under a man's bed to rot would make him a woman's love slave?  Elsewhere there's worm-infested coconuts, rubber centipedes, dissolving bodies, worms wriggling around under the skin and being puked up. Setting the stage for future envelope-pushing HK horror, later examples would showcase actors devouring real worms, scorpions, etc and regurgitating them on cue. Still, Invertebrate mayhem began in Ho's sorcerous classick. 

Even though BLACK MAGIC stands on its own, it might not of come into being if it weren't for the enormous popularity of an American horror movie.

The global success of THE EXORCIST (1973) signaled there would be plentiful ghosts and demonic possessions in a variety of cultures. In Hong Kong, the power of box office receipts compelled the Shaw Brothers to do their own horror movies in this vein. Exploitation sold lots of tickets for them in 1974, and the trend pointed to more of the same. 1974s THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (itself featuring a body-hopping Dracula) was a success, but nothing quite like the phenomenon of Friedkin's controversial movie that became the first horror film nominated for an academy award; nominated for ten and winning two (Best Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing).

Chinese possession movies began cropping up with rapidity. These ranged from traditional, period style ghost features (THE REVENGE OF THE TWO EXORCISTS [1975]; WITCHCRAFT OF THE MAO PEOPLE [1977]) to modern-day spookshows with rural/primitive superstitions (MAGIC CURSE [1975]; THE REINCARNATION [1976]; GHOST LOVER [1976])

The Shaw's responded with the heavily ballyhooed GHOST EYES (1974) about an evil optometrist and his sinister contact lenses; a film directed by HK's greatest, yet unheralded director of exploitation, Kuei Chi Hung. With the relative newcomer Kuei eventually cornering the market on HK horror, one of Shaw's elder statesmen, Ho Meng Hua, dove into devilish subject matter in a way never seen before.

Ho's approach was a bit different, going in a direction Kuei would later explore (and going to even more absurd levels of tastelessness). Unlike Kuei, though, Ho lit the fuse for the vomit-inducing black magic sub-genre that would thrive at a steady rate for a ten year period; becoming something of the equivalency of Italy's mondo/cannibal cycles. In many of these movies the primitive hexes are introduced into modern civilization, infecting (or cleansing depending on your point of view) an already decaying society where ethicism has lost its place. 

Working from a script by I Kuang tentatively titled 'The Magic', the story dealt with rural folklore and Southeast Asian mysticism that, depending on the buyer, was used for good or evil. For the purposes of this movie, naturally, the latter is the desired outcome. Four types of Asian sorcery were detailed in the script; these being 'Life Magic', 'Death Magic', 'Love Potions', and 'Flying Magic'. The first three are self-explanatory while the fourth is supposed to be an all-powerful, near omnipotent form of alchemy. 

With such an unusual story, director Ho Meng Hua would shoot in exotic locales to capture the required forbidding atmosphere. Thailand was initially chosen, but Malaysia was settled on.

Production for 'The Magic' began in December of 1974. Scenes had already been shot with most of the main cast such as Ti Lung, Tanny, Lo Lieh and Lily Li; but the role of the wizard hadn't been finalized yet. The crew was to travel to Malaysia in February of 1975 for location shooting. By then, Ku Feng had signed on as the evil black magician--one of his most insidious portrayals. On a side note, when the cast and crew landed in Kuala Lumpur, it was reported a local boxing champion challenged both Ti Lung and Lo Lieh to a fight but both stars politely declined the offer.

This was Ti Lung's second stage of his long career. Having spent the last seven years doing swordplay and action movies under the aegis of the revered Chang Cheh, he was now branching out into genres he'd never done before and for different directors. Starring in the first of only two horror films he made, Ti seems a bit out of his element even though he handles the material about as well as can be expected. 

Under a spell through most of the movie, Ti Lung's pedestrian role is basically window dressing for Luo Yin's (Tanny Tien Ni) sexual appetite. Her libidinous impulses highlight the film's most shameless sequence not involving worms, naked women, and corpse defilement. In it, Xu has just married Chu Ying (Lily Li) and, not being one to waste time, Luo Yin and her revved up sex drive walks right into the wedding reception and walks off with Xu now in a trance-like state after the spell has taken effect.

During production on BLACK MAGIC, Ti Lung's second directing gig, THE YOUNG REBEL (1975), went into theatrical release while he was on location in Malaysia. The actor was also working on two top tier dramatic epics for perfectionist Li Han Hsiang, THE LAST DAYS OF THE EMPERESS DOWAGER (1975) and THE LAST TEMPEST (1976). To top it off, Ti Lung married Amy Tao, his longtime girlfriend of four years. Becoming husband and wife on March 23rd, 1975, Ti had to wear a wig for his wedding (and the film shoot) since he shaved his head for the two movies he was making for director Li.

As for BLACK MAGIC, Ho's trendsetter is a lot of fun if extremely campy--hindered by a low budget that tries to do more than the allotted funds will allow. The special effects are poor yet ambitious. Hong Kong didn't have the level of quality FX technicians in comparison to the United States and elsewhere. Minor steps were taken during the 1970s to advance HK's state of special effects filmmaking, rudimentary as it was. On a few occasions, Japanese special effects artists worked on Shaw productions; and British makeup man Les Bowie did the monsters on LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974). Still, it would be about eight more years before HK would greatly improve their optical FX and other special effects techniques.

Like Ti Lung, this magic movie was a turning point for director Ho as well. Having earlier been at the helm of some prestigious, and or award winning works (like JOURNEY TO THE WEST and SUSANNA) and a number of classy swordplay dramas at Shaw Studio, the remainder of his career was dominated by exploitation movies (THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN [1977]; THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY [1978]); one of which included an even more outrageous BLACK MAGIC sequel (also starring Ti Lung) that is basically a retread but features Lo Lieh in the role of the villainous necromancer.

In spite of the unsavory elements, there's an underlying theme of immorality beneath it all. Many Chinese horror movies of this period exploited revolting subject matter as an allegorical excuse to exploit the nature and perversion of propriety. In the case of BLACK MAGIC, it's adulterous lust that gets everyone in trouble. Tanny's horny widow desires Ti Lung's muscular engineer and he wants nothing to do with her; Lo Lieh's unemployed shyster lusts after Tanny's ignoble character yet she wants nothing to do with him. Then there's Ti's girlfriend (played by soon-to-be Kung Fu starlet Lily Li) whom Luo Yin wants dead after her $100,000 love spell fails after a good wizard intervenes. That leaves us with the slimy sorcerer expertly played by Ku Feng...

Essaying pure evil in the film's one standout role, Ku's interpretation of Shan Chien Mi is a calculating, self-serving piece of human crud. Essentially the Devil, he offers desperate people whatever the carnal craving but at a price; and often with an additional cost they're not even aware is being paid till it's too late. Shan satisfies his own urges for sex and human pain at the expense of those lost souls seeking whatever desire they can't cleanly procure on their own. 

It's in these soap opera sections where Ho's film loses some of its MAGIC while visualizing the consequences of human folly when man's dark, libidinous impulses ultimately leads to disaster. Much of its subtext is lost upon first viewing due to the bad special effects and unintentionally hilarious scenes such as when Ti Lung fights a (supposedly) possessed four-legged friend. It's clear the dog is trying to escape and at one point, you can clearly see Ti grabbing at the dog to keep him from running away.

In keeping with the film's seedy subject matter, some of Shaw's sex film actresses like Helen Ko and Dana pop up in minor roles, clothed and otherwise. Other than the Malay locations, the HK shoot includes some nice shots inside Movietown and the actors dormitories.

As a bonus, Yueh Hua and Hong Kong's then Queen of Exploitation Chen Ping are guest stars (see above). Their single scene appearance adds nothing to the movie outside of marquee value. Playing rich friends onscreen, Yueh and Tanny briefly dance together (see insert); offscreen the two were in a real life romance and would tie the knot in December of 1975. 

When BLACK MAGIC was being shopped around for foreign distributorship in 1975 (along with THE SUPER INFRAMAN), it used Enrique Torres Prat artwork from the cover of 'Vampirella' #28 as a selling point (click HERE to see the ad). US distribution would wait till 1979 when World Northal released it in America. Their advertising department created promotion that was about as bizarre as the movie itself. Ti Lung became 'Ty Young'; DP Tsao Hui Chi became 'Antonio St. John'; the canned soundtrack was listed as 'Music by Ferrara'; and director Ho Meng Hua became 'Calvin Moore'!

It's worth noting that director Ho also started another trend that, unlike BLACK MAGIC, had no prior foreign reference--the head-cleaving classic, THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975) and its sequels and spin-offs.

Delectably preposterous, BLACK MAGIC (1975) is loaded with grotesque imagery, terrible special effects, and a genre-defining narrative that's of historical exploitation importance. Never pretending to be anything more than escapist trash, the spell cast by Ho's movie is only broken when curious viewers wanting more uncover better, even more outrageous examples of Hong Kong's unique brand of gross-out horror.

This review is representative of the German Media Target bluray. Specs and extras: 16x9 anamorphic widescreen; photo gallery; trailers; running time: 01:35:43

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Monster Shark (1984) review


Michael Sopkiw (Peter), Valentine Monnier (Stella), Gianni Garko (Sheriff Gordon), William Berger (Dr. Donald West), Lawrence Morgant (Dr. Davis), Iris Peynado (Sandra Hayes), Cinzia De Ponti (Florinda), Paul Branco (Miller), Dagmar Lassander (Sonja West), Dino Conti (Dr. Hogan), Darla N. Warner (Dr. Janet Bates)

Directed by Lamberto Bava

The Short Version: When it comes to JAWS inspired movies riding the waves of its success, MONSTER SHARK is usually placed well below the depths in its sub-genre. Like Spielberg's movie, you see very little of the Monster Shark; but unlike Spielberg's movie, this doesn't play in the film's favor. Looking like a giant shuttlecock with oversized chompers, the blunderous creation is seen mostly in quick flashes at infrequent intervals--denying B-movie lovers of an abundance of low-rent entertainment they've paid to see. Released on American shores as DEVIL FISH, this version had more monster shots but was horribly re-edited by someone apparently high on recreational drugs. Superior in its original European cut, it's still an overly talky, low budget fish fry with little flavor. Fans of Italy's lost art of bandwagon movies will be the most attentive audience for this MONSTER SCHLOCK.

Scientists working on illegal genetic experiments for the West Ocean International corporation create a monstrous creature and hire an assassin to keep their nefarious plans a secret. Combining DNA of an octopus and the prehistoric Dunkleosteus fish, the beast gets loose on the Florida coastline and proceeds to eat the locals. Scientists soon learn the monster is asexual and that any time it loses cells it will form into another sea beast. An electronics expert and a dolphin specialist try to stop the thing before local authorities blow it up, creating potentially thousands more Monster Sharks.

With the success of JAWS in 1975, it was only a matter of time before similar movies (or outright rip-offs) began breaking the surface. Italy, then famous for producing shameless bandwagon pictures modeled on moneymaking American films, wasted no time sinking their teeth into underwater creature features. The limited sub-genre of Italian aquatic horrors began with Ovidio Assonitis's TENTACLES in 1976 and peaked with an absurd level of plagiarism in Enzo Castellari's THE LAST SHARK in 1981 (released briefly in America as GREAT WHITE)

Lamberto Bava's MONSTER SHARK is less a clone of JAWS than it is merely inspired by it. There's no thriving resort with plentiful opportunities for human food in the water; nor any scenes of a concerned sheriff to close the beaches. It's all down to a script that's much bigger than the budget allows to breathe; and an unnecessarily stacked cast of characters made up of doctors, an electronics wiz, and a hired killer used to cover up the mess created by an unscrupulous scientist. There's even that old mainstay of the evil corporate entity that wants the creature for some nefarious purpose. That's not to say Bava's movie doesn't contain elements of the JAWS films, because it does. The main problem is the movie spends way too much time on mystery as opposed to the main attraction. The whodunit portions of the film lags when the monster isn't onscreen. Boasting that the beast moves at 30 knots, it's a shame the film doesn't move as fast.

The numerous characterizations end up muddled in the simplistic script that, for whatever reason, required a multitude of writers. After its initial story idea and script were handled by Sergio and Luciano Martino and Luigi Cozzi respectively, it eventually fell to four additional writers--Gianfranco Clerici, Dardano Sacchetti, Herve Piccini, and Vincenzo Mannino--to finalize what ended up on screen in 1984. Everyone used pseudonyms, including Bava, directing as John Old Jr., a nod to his dad's old alias.

Italian sources of the film's production suggest it was a chaotic shoot with Sergio Martino and his brother Luciano devising the idea and asking Luigi Cozzi (STARCRASH; HERCULES) to write and direct but with the film originally set in Venice, Italy. For whatever reason, the Martino's decided to abandon the picture to make another movie--returning to the sea monster story a few months later. Upon returning, Cozzi streamlined his initial script; reportedly inspired by the 1961 novel 'Creatures of the Abyss' written by Murray Leinster (William Fitzgerald Jenkins). With the Martino brothers handing the film over to producer Mino Loy, Lamberto Bava was then hired to take over directing duties. 

Not one to candy-coat things, Bava has stated his dissatisfaction for the film, citing the poor special effects and monster built by Ovidio Taito, a crewman who has very few credits behind the camera and only one in front of it--as an actor in another Italian monster flick, PANIC (1982); a film that's even schlockier than MONSTER SHARK.

In some shots looking like a big balloon and others resembling a giant shuttlecock with teeth, views of the life-sized critter was purposely kept to a minimum. Two smaller versions of the monster were built and reportedly got the bulk of the screen time. With the shoot already troubled by a disagreeable sea beast, the Italian cast grew homesick for Italy and their families as summer was approaching. Italian audiences got to see the result in September of 1984. It would be two years before the MONSTER SHARK would surface in America as DEVIL FISH. 

The US version is a re-edited cut of the film that does feature additional shots of the monster not found in the Italian original. Examples being the daytime chase just prior to the finale when Peter is luring the monster into the canal. He leaps from his boat and the thing, giving chase, swims underneath it. This isn't seen in the Italian version. The same goes for a shot of the Sharktopus trying to snatch Peter as he's being hoisted into the Coast Guard helicopter. As Peter goes up into the air, we see the monster descend below the depths.

Aside from the additional bits of the sea monster, the US version's erratic editing moved scenes around or chopped them up--wrecking havoc with what little suspense Bava was able to create. For example, an attack scene that occurs nearly 40 minutes into the movie is placed at the beginning. This was likely done because nothing much happens till over 20 minutes into the picture. By comparison, the original cut of the movie is superior to the ineptly edited, more widely familiar DEVIL FISH release.

Fabio Frizzi's unremarkable score doesn't even sound like a soundtrack for a movie about a man-eating shark with tentacles. There's one cue that resembles the main theme from JAWS but it's heard fleetingly in the original cut of the film while it dominates the soundtrack in the inferior, drunk edit for the US. It was released on CD in 2016 through Beat Records. 

Michael Sopkiw stars as the womanizing electronics expert who creates a device to track the monster. He's top-billed but the screen is so crowded he never fully takes hold as the film's hero nor does he figure significantly in the finale; it's more of an ensemble affair.

This was Sopkiw's second of four Italian exploitation pictures. He began his 4-picture deal under Sergio Martino's direction in 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983); then moving on to MONSTER SHARK for Lamberto Bava and BLASTFIGHTER (1984), again for Bava and both shot in Florida and Georgia respectively. Sopkiw's last was the penniless in budget but million dollar titled MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY (1985) for Michele Massimo Tarantini.

If you're a fan of Italian westerns MONSTER SHARK is made more tolerable for the tumbleweed set by the participation of William Berger and Gianni Garko. The Austrian Berger famous for such six-shooters as FACE TO FACE (1967) and SABATA (1969); while Croatian Garko garnered international fame for the SARTANA series of trick gunslinger movies among several others.

As obscure a title as it is, MONSTER SHARK is on the list of movies that got an unacknowledged remake of sorts. Whereas it was inspired by JAWS (1975), Bava's SHARK influenced the Roger Corman produced SHARKTOPUS (2010)--an irrefutably asinine movie that gleefully piles on the typically shoddy CGI of all your finer SyFy Channel fodder. Remarkably, the quality isn't much better than Lamberto Bava's quasi-shark fest. The Corman one is played for laughs and the Italian original (there's something you don't hear very often) is unintentionally so.

The filmmakers do get a lot of mileage out of the Florida locations. It's not totally ocean-set, some of the most important sequences take place in canals such as the finale when the Coast Guard assail the monster with flame throwers. Italian genre pictures were taking full advantage of US locations for their movies during this time period. Both Georgia (Margheriti's CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE) and Arizona (Martino's HANDS OF STEEL) were popular states where these types of movies were shot.

With more budget and time this could've been an immensely entertaining picture regardless of how lousy the special effects are. Just a few more attack scenes would've been beneficial. One wasted opportunity could've seen the toothsome, tentacled monstrosity latching onto the helicopter Gianni Garko is firing from and pulling it into the water, a la JAWS 2 (1978). GREAT WHITE homaged that famous sequence as did the Corman distributed DEMON OF PARADISE (1987); itself a remake of another Corman pick-up, UP FROM THE DEPTHS (1979). There's simply not enough of the Monster Shark to hold viewer attention. Tolerable in its original European version, it still pales to similar movies made in American waters. Simply put, as an underwater monster movie the MONSTER SHARK Is Not Working.

This review is representative of the Code Red bluray. Specs and Extras: Brand new HD scan done in America; 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; audio commentary with Michael Sopkiw; trailers; reversible artwork; running time: 01:33:47

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