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The House, Black Magic and an Oily Maniac: 3 from 70s Weird Asia

  By Western standards, Asian cinema can look a little strange with its different emphases and plots that would not past muster with Hollywood or Europe but were given the full-blooded treatment anyway. However, come the nineteen-seventies and the loosening of censorship across the world for films, the creators of these entertainments began to reach ever further for wilder and wilder storylines. Where to start with these? How about three suggestions, starting with one of the early heroes of gonzo Hong Kong cinema, Danny Lee, who in 1976 took the lead role in Oily Maniac, a vague remake of an earlier movie that adopted a more superheroic form for what had been in its original incarnation a fantasy-style villain.

Not that the Oily Maniac was of pure heart, as he did have a habit of laying waste to entire rooms of people whether they deserved it or whether they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, but one thing was for sure: you rarely saw such a ridiculous superhero. This begins when Lee is playing a lawyer who needs crutches to get around, frustrated with his body but also with the way his cases go, unable to get the breaks that justice required. This strikes particularly close to home when his father-in-law is jailed for murder when his actions were self-defence against the baddies who were attempting to take over his business, ah, but the old man has a tattoo on his back that details a magic spell; Lee makes a note of it for future use.

Therefore when these ne'erdowells continue their campaign of crime and intimidation, Lee was able to turn himself into the titular maniac with the spell, and rush to the rescue of, say, a young woman about to be raped by two of the evildoers. There was a lot of that here, not full on sexual violence perhaps, but the threat of it was ever-present and it did occur, though mostly offscreen. Normally that would freeze any laughter in the throat, yet while you could not exactly ignore the fact that most of the female cast were seen topless, the scenes where the maniac visited his terrible retribution were genuinely hilarious. This was as much down to the cheap and cheerful monster costume, with its visibly beating heart and lit-up, too-close-together yellow eyes.

The lawyer aspect was given short shrift after a certain point, though the sequence where a trial was seen (yes, it was a rape trial) was rendered ludicrous by the wigs the barristers and judges were sporting, plainly women's permed affairs that made the men wearing them resemble Mrs Slocombe on Are You Being Served? But it was the action where Oily Maniac sprang to life, not the protagonist's doleful yearning for romance, as if you couldn't giggle or guffaw at the sight of the slippery customer (Lee douses himself in bizarrely handy oil for the desired effect) flinging around his enemies then movies like this were likely not for you. Director Ho Meng Hua also helmed Lee's The Mighty Peking Man, another essential title in this style.

Oily Maniac was a product of Shaw Brothers, that titan of Hong Kong movie production for a few decades, and Ho was a part of their stable of directors; evidently impressing his bosses, the same year he was in charge of Black Magic 2, the sequel in name only to, yes, Black Magic in 1975 with which it shared little other than the horror premise and a number of cast members. Ho had directed that one too, but this follow-up had a modern day setting, not that you would know it from the first five minutes: Oily Maniac had featured a rip-off of John Williams' theme from Jaws whenever its lead character was on the rampage, but Black Magic 2 had a sequence to kick things off with a killer crocodile instead of a shark in, let's be charitable, homage to the Steven Spielberg blobckbuster.

After said reptile munches on a swimming maiden, the village witch doctor starts casting spells on the river and manages to catch it, then cuts it open to reveal, no, not a car number plate, though junk was a feature, but the item of jewellery the deceased had been wearing when she was bloodily consumed. Quite what this has to do with the rest of the movie was a mystery until the last half hour when the witch doctor made a return to the plot to cast more spells and hand over an amulet to the hero, Ti Lung, who is seeing his social life ruined by the powerful machinations of a far more evil and conniving wizard, played by Lo Lieh in one of his villainous roles, as opposed to his kung fu hero phase, and he has a most individual method of bending his victims to his will that does not involve simple mesmerism.

We find out fairly quickly that Lo's sorcerer has a very peculiar fetish, but one which keeps him youthful, no, not some high-class moisturiser, but human breast milk. Apparently this has sustained him for decades, for he is in his eighties yet looks fifty years younger, but if you're thinking this might be worth a try to preserve your looks, think again as the process involves kidnapping a young woman, making her drink a potion brewed from her own pubic hair, and keeping her a prisoner so you can have the milk on tap, as it were. It's just too much trouble, not to mention illegal, but Lo has all sorts of dodgy techniques of ensuring he is on top of any situation that comes his way: drinking straight from the teat (not even pasteurised!) is but one element.

Naturally, when his latest conquest falls under his influence, her boyfriend and the couple they count among their best pals (including Ti) must do their best to work out how to break this spell and stop this happening to anyone else, easier said than done as it turns out as Lo seemingly has an answer to pretty much everything. Preferably, for this movie, a disgusting answer, as the reaction Ho appeared to be dead set on was making his audience go "eww!", with its worms in gaping wounds, nails driven into (and prised out of) the tops of skulls, and a general amount of sexual bad behaviour that would put Harvey Weinstein to shame. It had an undeniable verve, however, and a genuinely strange set of mystical rules for its good guys and bad guys alike to abide by: Mr Vampire must have taken notes.

It wasn't only Hong Kong who were crafting the weirdo flicks in Asia during the seventies, as you would also find them across the Eastern half of the continent, from Taiwan to Malaysia to South Korea and more, but of course the main player in contention had to be Japan, which saw the dawning of this decade to serve their moviemakers with carte blanche to be as out there and outrageous as they possibly could. This meant a heightened degree of sex and violence, as it had in other territories, but it also meant writers and directors were prepared to explore the less travelled paths of their psyches, and nowhere was that more evident than in Nobuhiko Ôbayashi's House, though to be more accurate it was exploring the psyche of a ten-year-old girl.

That girl was the director's daughter, who he consulted in crafting the nightmares his characters would experience when they visited the mansion of the title, and on watching it there was something juvenile about how it unfolded, which also indicated you would need a high tolerance for giggling Japanese schoolgirls if you were going to appreciate what Ôbayashi was aiming to achieve. It was pointedly a horror movie, taking what would be the slasher movie template come the arrival of John Carpenter's Halloween the following year; in 1977 when this was released in its homeland to great success at the box office it was more following the pattern established by Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None some decades before.

You could anticipate what was going to happen before the seven teenage girls had reached the house, they were going to be picked off one by one, but what you may not be able to anticipate was the precise nature of their demises. The premise was simple enough: the building is haunted by one of the girls' aunts (here nicknamed Granny) who yearns for her sweetheart to return, after he was killed in the war, and therefore jealously executes any nubile woman who may enter the halls of her domain, but there was more to it than that, not least because in a manner that was as quaint as it was jarring, this appeared to be endorsing the need a girl has for a mother in her life, and paid tribute to that relationship as much as the director was paying tribute to his daughter.

Yet with its blaring soundtrack, busy visuals and ideas of terror that made only a surreal form of sense, House was not quite like anything else, save for perhaps what Dario Argento was conjuring up in Italy with Suspiria around the same time. If you had heard of this, you would know it as the movie where a girl was eaten by a piano, but that sequence was even more preposterous than that simple description applied to, as each of the gang, all named after their specific traits (Prof is bookish and brainy, Kung-Fu is strong and agile, and so forth), must be coaxed into submission, often violently, by the malevolent ghost. A white fluffy cat's green eyes would flash every time that was about to happen, the obvious but lavish sets added to the unreality of it all, and the whole thing was pitched at a growing level of semi-comedic and quasi-sexual hysteria. Not everyone would get on with its madness, but House stood out even among its peers like Oily Maniac and Black Magic 2 as the ne plus ultra of seventies weirdo cinema from this region.

[House is available on a special edition Blu-ray from Eureka's Masters of Cinema. Here's what you can expect:

Stunning 1080p presentation from a high-definition digital transfer
Original monaural soundtrack presented as uncompressed LPCM audio
Optional English subtitles | An exclusive video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns
90-minute archive of interviews with director Nobuhiko Obayashi, scenarist Chigumi Obayashi, actress Kumiko Oba, and Toho promotional executive Shoho Tomiyama
Original Japanese theatrical trailer
A collector's booklet featuring an essay by Paul Roquet; poster gallery; and archival imagery.
]

Thanks to Andrew Pragasam for assistance with this article.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006