Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Black Magic (1975)


Directed by Ho Meng Hua

Shan Jian Mi, an evil magician, earns a living by casting love spells for the heart-broken and death spells for the vindictive. Despite paying for his services, no one is truly free of Shan's black magic. Luo Yin (played by erotica starlet Tanny), a wealthy and horny young widow, lusts after Xu Nuo, a hunky construction worker (played by HK mega star Ti Lung) who happens to already be dating a pretty young lady (played by Lily Li). Meanwhile, a greasy playboy named Jia Jie (essayed by Lo Lieh) desires the naked body of the sultry Luo Yin, but she wants nothing to do with him. With Shan's aid, Xu Nuo leaves his bride-to-be at the altar and begins a sex-filled affair with the financially well off Luo Yin. Xu's betrothed is soon put in mortal danger with a death spell and Shan himself lusts for Luo's affections, bewitching her with his magic so as to have his way with her body. After thwarting the death spell, an old sorcerer well versed in white magic challenge Shan's wicked wizardry once again.

Like horror cinema in both America and Great Britain, Hong Kong horror received a violent surge during the 1970s. The Shaw Brothers essentially cornered the market with a string of noteworthy, and notably sleazy efforts. Having established himself as a director of respectable dramas and intricately scripted swordplay pictures, Ho Meng Hua changed gears in the mid 1970s and embarked on a series of peculiar films of diminishing taste and quality.

BLACK MAGIC is one of the best of Ho's career during his later years, but much closer in spirit to the weirdness of the equally plotless THE OILY MANIAC (1976) than any of his films pre-1975. It's special for a few reasons; one of them being that it regurgitated a slimy, bug scarfing, squirm-inducing sub genre of body horror spectacles that were the Chinese geekshow equivalents of what David Cronenberg was doing on North American shores at the time.

The then untapped supernatural reservoir indigenous to exotic Asian locales offered an attractively macabre vein of potentially lucrative possibilities for film producers wishing to exploit such backwoods legends to flocks of superstitious Hong Kong'ers. The gamble paid off and led to many more similar productions including a BLACK MAGIC 2 (1976), WITCHCRAFT OF MAO PEOPLE (1977), THE MAGIC CURSE (1977), BEWITCHED (1980), THE DEVIL (1981), CENTIPEDE HORROR (1982), BLACK MAGIC WITH BUDDHA (1983), BRUTAL SORCERY (1983), THE BOXER'S OMEN (1983), RED SPELL SPELLS RED (1983) and SEEDING OF A GHOST (1984) among others.

Ho's inaugural film about evil alchemy gets off to a rollickingly repugnant start with a ritualistic punishment of an adulterous husband and his lover followed by a brief duel between magicians. Aside from an occasional grotesquerie, the film deteriorates, much like some of the victims, into a sorcerous soap opera tinged with moments of horror. The only major unintentionally funny moment occurs when Ti Lung is "attacked" by a German Shepherd; it's obvious the dog is trying to get away, but the actor grabs and pulls at the dog to make it look like he's in danger. By the time the conclusion rolls around, it's a spectacular (by Hong Kong standards of the time), if crude effects laden war of the wizards atop the beams in a construction yard replete with optical blue lightning, swirling dark clouds and laser beams.

Performances are serviceable across the board although award winning actor Ku Feng rules the screen with his sandy gray haired interpretation of the vile practitioner of the title sorcery. Hong Kong's then Queen of Exploitation, Chen Ping has a cameo as does Tanny's real life husband, Yueh Hua. Shaw's weren't attempting to make a work of art here and Ho does quite well with the material. But when situated alongside such notable features as the genre defining THE MONKEY GOES WEST (1966), the award winning SUSANNA (1967), classy swordplay epics like VENGEANCE IS A GOLDEN BLADE (1969), THE LONG CHASE and THE LADY HERMIT (both 1971) and the influential period thriller THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975), some might think BLACK MAGIC was the work of a different director entirely.

Ho did show signs of helming quality trash with the successful 1973 exploitation favorite THE KISS OF DEATH; it, like a few of Ho's films, was later the subject of a remake. BLACK MAGIC was remade in 2007 and a new version of his THE FLYING GUILLOTINE is being readied for theaters as of this writing. Ho left the business in 1980 after finishing two disastrously anemic Shaw Brothers quickies, but did return to the devilish well of spell-casting in 1992 with EVIL BLACK MAGIC. Despite his many cinematic accomplishments and critical notices, Ho Meng Hua was also well adept at creating celebrated trash such as the influential BLACK MAGIC.

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