Monday, 23 January 2017

Black Magic (1975)


Director: Ho Meng-Hua
Screenplay: Kuang Ni
Cast: Lung Ti (as Xu Nuo); Lieh Lo (as Lang Jiajie); Ni Tien (as Luo Yin); Lily Li (as Quming); Feng Ku (as Shan Jianmi)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #73

The only real regret with this Shaw Brothers chiller is that it's a pretty basic morality tale with a very bland black and white morality behind it. Folklore and fairytales in general have a clear cut distinction between good and evil, which is something never to complain about, but it's always a nuisance whether it's a genre film from a country known for prolific amounts of horror cinema (Japan, the US, Spain etc.) and those which you dig up as you explore other country's film cultures (Indonesia, India, Hong Kong) that the leads, unlike those in fairytales who can by usually ciphers for the readers/listeners, are so bland you could put a mannequin in their place, where the villains and side characters are what make a film like Black Magic utterly entertaining nonetheless alongside its depiction of the titular arts. Aside from this Black Magic was an utter hoot, another Hong Kong horror film that's been recently released in the United Kingdom which opens up the stranger tastes of Hong Kong horror cinema.


The thing of greatest interest with Black Magic, why a film like it so much more better than a lot of modern horror films, is that it feels so much more transgressive in its viscous and lurid tone alongside having an internal logic mixed with this that's more compelling. Whether the mythology of the black magic is real or not, it's interesting that the good older wizard called upon to save the day, when the lead hunky male is brainwashed by magic for a rich and spoilt woman to have him as her boy toy, is also a black magic practitioner, suggesting evil here is dictated by an evil magician who provides death curses for gold jewellery and seduces female customers with his own magic. That and said logic in these Shaw Brothers horror films is one only found in their productions, the depiction of said magic is in its own distinct form you never forget.

The plot's got a few serpentine twists of interest - what starts off as a conman bum getting a love charm on the spoil rich woman leads to her hiring the same black magician for her own cause after the love charm works so successfully - but the real interest is witnessing the gruesome, strange sights of having to go to a graveyard to use the reanimated pus of a corpse for a spell, worms crawling under the skin next to someone's heart, bloody worms in a coconut used to curse someone with death if they don't pay up for the magician's services, and countless other macabre moments in a world where the worms are actual worms and even the plastic skull the villain has and waves around is still charmingly macabre, a sense of gross tangibility lost with CGI but found in international genre cinema from decades before.


It's curious to see a company in Shaw Brothers, having martial arts films as their bread and butter, attempt other genres and awaiting to see if they ever slip into their comfort zone abruptly, a car chase suddenly happening the middle of the plot when you normally don't expect it in supernatural horror, and the ending in a construction site which brings in rotoscoped lightning, something that'd unfairly get mocked but for me here is Black Magic pulling out all the stops in context for a seventies film. Also the sense of mythology that the Shaw Brothers' martial arts films had, of mysterious fighting techniques and lore, does cross over into these horror films for very unexpected results, such as centipedes being a cure for love potion charms or how one needs the footprints of the target of interest, in the mud, as part of said love charms. The thing most likely to be the most notorious for new viewers to the film is how, also for a love charm, a female customer always has to provide their breast milk as a vital ingredient, something that's an excuse for nudity (body double or not) but, ironically, even if it's a lurid plot piece has far greater verisimilitude with real world magic in how fertility and symbols related to it do actually find themselves used in magical rituals or part of their ideologies, particularly with the emphasis on a strong Earth Mothers in modern paganism.

Admittedly there's two obvious issues with this view point watching a film like this, that one it'll be a crass reading from a foreigner's point of view of a culture's pulpy genre cinema, and two whether it's based on actual mythology or whether it was merely made up or exaggerated for the target audience indulging of exploitation horror films; in either case particularly with trying to comprehend another film like The Boxer's Omen (1983), which is notoriously bizarre, just accepting the more eyebrow raising moments of Black Magic matter-of-factly actually adds to the appeal of them. Particularly in my case, having found I hate most British horror films from this era, and bored with a lot of modern mainstream horror movies, something like this for all its flaws is so much more compelling because of this type of content that you never witness in English language horror movies barring the more underground ones and how it's attempts at depicting this supernatural content through the means they had give them their own distinct aesthetic.


It's helps as well, in spite of the bland lead and his similarly bland love interest trying to claim him back as the figures the audience was meant to follow, it's still a Shaw Brothers film with their usual production value. It does emphasis more on-location exterior scenes rather than the built sets of their period films, which does give it a surprisingly gritty tone than to their usual work, but the fantastical sense of the artificial is still found from their films in the ways it tries to be creepy or just gross. This earthly sense of transformation and horror makes up for any issues with the plot because it taps into what horror as a genre should be, weird and utterly about the material in all its viscous form, and thankfully the plot's as melodramatic and surreally matter-of-fact about the events taking place as one would hope for, the fact that it comes from a region (Asia) where spirituality and mysticism are still held with great respect having a sincerity to the proceedings even if this is the pulp, deliberately gonzo take on witchcraft than a proper documentary. That and the best thing about Black Magic and the factor which punched me in the gut, the utterly unpredictable and incredible score by in-house Shaw Brothers composer Yung-Yu Chen. As erratic as it is eclectic, it's one of the most diverse and frantic scores I've come across in a long while; against a film as frantic as it, it seamlessly lunges from exotic lounge to psychedelic rock guitar, to literal electronic noise to what sounds like ambient whale song, every part of which especially through headphones compelling by itself. This type of production value puts a film like Black Magic films from various countries like Mystics of Bali (1981) because, rather than large passages of padding and less than stellar production value, Black Magic manages to both be compelling weird at times but have the technical quality that people praise Shaw Brothers for.


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