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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

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