What do you think of when you read the words “black magic”? Covens of witches? Cackling necromancers? Card games? Or maybe, you think of gross Asian horror. For over forty years, the black magic sub-genre has dominated all sorts of weird cinema discussions, encompassing a myriad of films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Indonesia focused on hexes, curses, and witchcraft. Since there are tons of these films out there, it can be daunting to find where to jump in, but for my money, there’s no better place to start than at the beginning, with Ho Meng Hua’s genre-defining duology, Black Magic.
Ho Meng Hua was, without a doubt, one of the oddest directors working for the fabled Shaw Brothers studio. In the 1960s, he made a quadrilogy of fantastical films based on the legendary Journey to the West, and when the ’70s rolled around, he jumped right on the wuxia train with titles like Lady of Steel, The Long Chase, and The Black Enforcer. As per genre trappings, all of his wuxia were extraordinarily violent, packed with buckets of blood and high body counts dealt by all sorts of weapons. In fact, he was the first to direct a film featuring the mythical flying guillotine, an absurd device that would snatch the head off anyone unfortunate enough to find it landing on their cranium.
So it should be no surprise that with an imagination that wild, Ho Meng Hua would make the jump to horror later that year. But it wasn’t horror as the West saw it in the ’70s—there were no seductive vampires or gimmick-laden gialli killers, Ho Meng Hua’s vision of terror is a lot different. For in his genre-shaping Black Magic duology, he dared to do what few Hong Kong films had ever considered before: go for gross.
Released in 1975, Black Magic is a bit of an oddity genre-wise, sporting a plot that seems more daytime soap than bone-chilling terror. The film is set in contemporary Malaysia, where the wealthy Luo Yin (Tanny Tien-Ni) aims to win the heart of the humble Xu Nuo (Ti Lung), a construction worker who is already happily engaged. To further complicate things, Luo Yin has a potential suitor of her own, Liang Chia Chieh (Shaw Brothers mainstay Lo Lieh). It’s a formula that, at first glance, doesn’t look like a good fit for gross-out horror.
And then Liang goes to a magician, and everything spirals out of control. The wicked Shan Chien Mi (Ku Feng) is an evil mastermind and master of the dark arts, and of course, is the showstealer. He’s not the only magician to appear in Black Magic. Hell, he isn’t even the first (that honor goes to those in a ten-minute wizard battle prologue that has zero bearing on the plot), but he’s certainly the most memorable of the bunch with his endless trickery and theatrical sadism.
While I’d hardly call Black Magic slow before Shan Chien Mi shows up, it certainly picks up the pace from there on out. In no time, love potions and death curses alike are being thrown around willy-nilly, as the characters find themselves pawns in an increasingly convoluted game of love and magic, and Shan always has the upper hand.
Despite all the convoluted romance, Black Magic is definitely a horror film first and foremost, and it definitely delivers the goods. Shan Chieh Mi and his rival magicians brew all sorts of bizarre potions, which can cause anything from the power of flight to instant death. However, there’s no Harry Potter curse casting for a good bulk of the film—nearly every spell requires meticulous planning, and more often than not a fair share of disgusting ingredients.
Entire scenes are devoted to potion brewing, which can involve everything from blood to snake venom to breast milk. While Black Magic is always weird, it’s here that the weirdness is on full display, making every scene of spell-crafting a gross-out delight. Of course, the film’s magicians can do more than brew potions. They have all sorts of spells up their sleeves, spells which more often than not lead to absurd special effects showcases.
The Shaw Brothers were never strangers for going all-out on their visual effects, and Black Magic is no exception, packed with smoke, blood, explosions, and The Wolf Man-style time-lapse decompositions. Curiously enough, while most of the magic effects are extremely good, the magic lasers are decidedly not. In fact, they look so bad that it’s incredibly jarring to see these near Microsoft Paint-level beams cause highly detailed models to go up in flames.
Still, any lacking in the visual effects can be excused by just how damn fun the end results are. Buildings explode, smoke spews from the eyes of a magic skull, and worms can be found around every corner. While the magic extravaganzas are hardly as unhinged as later genre entries such as Boxer’s Omen or Mystics in Bali, it’s still bonkers, and gleefully indulges in packing the frame full of creepy crawlies at opportune moments. Sure, it’s no Squirm, but any film that features worms crawling under a woman’s skin and the line, “When he regains consciousness again, he has to eat those centipedes,” is bound to be at least a little gross.
Inconsistent special effects aside, the production design for Black Magic is top-notch. The wizard dwellings are filled with all sorts of assorted esoterica and oddly-colored mood lighting. There’s a charming “fakeness” to the sets that’s found in nearly every Shaw Brothers production, not unlike the soundstage saloons of the early Western. And while some may find the undeniable artificiality of the sets a bit hokey, I can’t complain when they all manage to look so damn pretty.
Really, there isn't much else to Black Magic besides being a zany special effects showcase. The characters are flat as a board, and the writing's hardly any better, but to focus on the plot would be to miss the point entirely. It’s clear that Black Magic was made just as an excuse to show off all sorts of crazy scenarios, and while it may not be 100% unhinged madness all the time, the highs are certainly odd enough to make the film worth a watch.
Black Magic Part II, on the other hand, is sheer lunacy. Released a year after Black Magic, Black Magic Part II reunites Ho Meng Hua with the first film’s screenwriter, Ni Kuang, and returning stars Ti Lung, Tanny Tien-Ni, and Lo Lieh. However, Black Magic Part II is a sequel in name only—all three actors are playing different roles (some more drastically different than others).
This time around, the focus is on Zhongping (Ti Lung), a doctor who has traveled to “a tropical city” with his wife, Cuiling (Tanny Tien-Ni), to investigate a series of mysterious deaths that are believed to be linked with mysticism. The only problem is that Zhongping is what I like to call a chronic horror skeptic, in that he staunchly denies any and all possibilities of the paranormal, despite witnessing everything from face-shaped boils pulsating on patients’ chests to someone literally melting before his eyes. There really isn’t anything to his character besides his constant denial of mysticism, and it’s more than a little annoying.
There’s an upside to Zhongping’s absurd skepticism, though. Since he denies everything he sees, he’s a perfect excuse for the film to break out the insanity early while sidestepping the need for logical plot progression. While I’d hardly call this “good” in any objective sense, it’s exactly what Black Magic Part II needs: a reason to hit the ground running with its bizarre sights, and never really let up.
Take, for example, the opening. Like the first Black Magic, Black Magic Part II starts with a tone-setting prologue that has very little bearing on the film’s plot. But while Black Magic’s opening is ten minutes of setting up how the magic system works and establishing the existence of magicians, Black Magic Part II goes right into crazy gore—less than a minute in, a rubbery crocodile puppet is already munching on a bathing woman. Then, before one can really take stock of what’s happening, a mysterious magician (Yeung Chi-Hing) catches the crocodile, guts it, rifles through its intestines, and walks away. This entire opening is only four minutes. The only time he is seen again, he rips out his own eyeballs for Zhongping to swallow.
Of course, the main story at least has a semblance of progression. The wicked Kang Cong (Lo Lieh, and yes, really, “Kang Cong”) is yet another trickster magician taking commissions for love potions, while also dabbling in a side of necromancy. Oddly enough, he’s more of a protagonist than Zhongping or his friend Zhensheng (Lin Wei-Tao), who take more passive roles for a good chunk of the film. Instead, most of the focus is on them reacting to what crazy schemes Kang Cong cooks up, most of which involve melting people, raising the dead, and hanging out in his lavishly decorated villain lair (complete with an army of mysterious hooded figures).
Kang Cong does a lot more cursing and hexing than Shan Chien Mi, and if that’s not good enough, his spells are a lot more disgusting across the board. Even the heights of Black Magic’s disgusting sights can’t match the more middle-of-the-road gross-outs in Black Magic Part II, and the peaks of Black Magic Part II? Easily among the most disgusting sights I’ve seen on film this side of Italian sleaze. Black Magic Part II not only ups the worm count of the original, but it throws in more messy decomposing corpses, more nails peeling right off of fingers, more pus, and more uncomfortably long scenes of magicians consuming breast milk.
Unfortunately, Black Magic Part II suffers from the exact opposite problem that Black Magic does—the third act’s terrible. Aside from the fact that it’s kicked off by one of the worst-written choices put to film, the film takes the whole love potion angle to some really dark places, without the script realizing just how horrible its characters are being. Our protagonists essentially become monsters, but the film never seems aware of it, making watching them an uncomfortable viewing experience in all the worst ways. It even slows down with the crazy special effects for a while as well—that is, until the big finale, which more than makes up for the lackluster twenty-odd minutes proceeding it with truly ludicrous action and a stupid amount of zombies getting burnt to smoldering corpses.
Really, that’s the perfect way to sum up Ho Meng Hua’s Black Magic duology. Neither of the films have much in terms of plot, themes, or technical craft—in fact, besides some nice production values in both, the latter is incredibly unremarkable. But to get hung up on such things would be to miss the point of the Black Magic duology entirely. They exist for one reason and one reason only: to show viewers as many disgusting sights as the film can conjure up, and then shove them right in the viewers’ eager faces. And as far as that’s concerned, Black Magic and its sequel are a roaring success.Next: Crypt of Curiosities: A Look Back at Universal’s Horror Films Featuring Rondo Hatton’s “The Creeper”