As a kid, there was no feeling more thrilling than a last minute decision to hit the drive-in; packed into the car, still in my pajamas, and ready for whatever the flickering lights would show me. Kung Fu films were often part of this agreement, usually the bottom half of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, and almost always courtesy of Run Run Shaw Productions. But the Shaw Brothers did more than Kung Fu, as it turns out – they started the HK horror explosion with Black Magic (1975) and The Oily Maniac (1976), two very different yet equally joyous turns well attuned to the exploitation vibe.
This isn’t to say that I was fortunate enough to see them at the drive-in; no, I’ve had to settle for streaming to scratch this particular itch I didn’t even know I had. I am surprised however that I never saw either of these at our theatre when I used to live in Jamaica as a kid; Run Run Shaw flicks used to run at least three times a week, in between showings of (new to us, circa 1980) Deep Red, or Killer Fish (I saw It Lives Again there too!) Anyway, the point is that these two films are steeped in weirdness, gore, and nudity that we simply weren’t used to seeing from HK. (Yet.)
Black Magic deserves to be at the top end of this bill; not because of its virtues, but rather because it acts as a primer in terms of pace and structure for the more frenetic The Oily Maniac. To be sure, Magic has more than its fair share of surreal moments and terrific set pieces – we’ll get to those, I promise – but Maniac is a fast paced monster mash more akin to a superhero comic book; and I think when possible one should end with the faster paced feature.
As for the stories, they couldn’t be more different. Magic deals with a Chinese witch doctor who offers spells to those who can afford it; sometimes they are death spells, other times love potions concocted in the craziest of ways (breast milk is a sound elixir, apparently). The film devolves into a romantic melodrama with the twists of a Three’s Company episode before finishing very strong with a Saturday morning cartoon worthy battle between the evil witch and a kind and elderly good one, complete with animated lightning and Cones of Virtue (trademarked) or something along those lines. Maniac tells the tale of a disabled law office worker, whose boss is an unscrupulous lawyer who also dabbles in human trafficking. Our hero learns an ancient spell (that he copies off of a back tattoo, yes), and when he submerges himself in oil – motor, vegetable, you name it – he comes up as an orange-eyed, tar covered behemoth, and avenges those that have been wronged by his evil boss. That the costume looks like a man wearing two snowsuits who can’t bend his arms only adds to the charm.
Meng Hua Ho started his directing career in Hong Kong in 1958; already a seasoned veteran by the time he got around to Magic, I didn’t realize until half way through Maniac that he directed both, about a year apart. He would be recognizable to most folks in the West for The Mighty Peking Man (1977), and these two preceding films share the same surreal sense of fun and energy.
And menace as well, but in an almost fairytale manner - both films are built on redemption and resolution in simple yet no less effective ways; intentions known and sides drawn with few shades of conflict. But this plays into exploitation in interesting ways: we are pulled in by the clear cut characterizations and kept there by the outlandish actions of the players, all while being pushed along by Ho’s kinetic style.
I suppose a large part of the appeal of these two films has to do with my exposure to Run Run Shaw’s films at an impressionable age; after we watched the (for us) latest Kung Fu extravaganza as kids we would head outside and work on our Eagle Clutch and Monkey Claw moves, narrowly avoiding death or injury while trying. I’m unsure if reenacting the lactating breast scene would have had the same impact; although our oily maniac does flail mightily in an attempt at machismo, comically knocking down endless henchmen in his quest for revenge. That is probably closer to what we accomplished.
Black Magic was the start of the HK film industry budding in on the burgeoning world wide horror scene, with a focused eye towards the more lurid end of the spectrum – more blood, more guts, and more nudity. It worked of course; while The Oily Maniac happily continues the trend, neither are really as wild as what was to come from HK in the following decade and beyond. And for now, I’m happy to revel in the kinder, gentler outrageousness of Magic and Maniac. At least I can throw on a couple of parkas, head out to the yard, and pretend to be the monster my inner child didn’t know he needed.
Black Magic is available to stream on Amazon Prime; The Oily Maniac is too, and is also available on a Region B Blu-ray from 88 Films.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: BURIAL GROUND (1981)