Shaw Brothers produced the granddaddy of all Hong Kong horror films in Black Magic which, partly inspired by Hammer Films and The Exorcist (1973), established their patented gross-out formula of copious bugs, slime, breasts, steamy sex and most importantly, wacky supernatural hoodoo.
We open with a quote from philosopher Zhuo Nan stating “excessive sex has the same effect as being under a spell.” Before viewers can ponder that moral quandary, things hop headlong into hair-raising weirdness when a village woman asks black magician Shan Chien Mi (Ku Feng) to kill her adulterous husband and his mistress. So he decapitates a corpse and boils the head into a broth while mumbling incantations. Quicker than you can say Beelzebub, the naked lovers shag till their brains haemorrhage. Hmm, maybe Zhuo Nan was onto something. Nevertheless, Chien Mi is forced to flee the village when a good guy holy man cracks his shack over a fiery pit of hell.
Meanwhile, in groovy mid-Seventies Hong Kong, sultry Ms. Zhou (Tanny Tien Ni) has the hots for handsome construction worker Xu Nuo (kung fu icon Ti Lung), but he already has a girlfriend, sweet schoolteacher Wang Chu Ying (Lily Li, also better known for her martial arts skills). Flush with her late husband’s cash, Ms. Zhou is used to getting what she wants, but Xu assures her “you can’t buy me.” Elsewhere, oily playboy Liang Chia Chieh (the great Lo Lieh, so greasy he oozes across the screen) hassles Ms. Zhou for a fling, but she isn’t interested and trashes his sports car to prove it. A friend points Liang in the direction of Chien Mi’s snake infested forest lair, where he sees the wizard rub sticky rice all over a sexy naked girl (Shaw’s top nudie cutie Dana) and milk her breasts. Add a dash of snake venom and you’ve got a love spell.
Thanks to Chien Mi, Ms. Zhuo becomes Liang’s love toy. They go at it with sweaty abandon to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil, while her jolly German Shepherd plays voyeur. The dirty dog. Next morning, Ms. Zhuo angrily threatens Liang till he confesses all. Whereupon she hires Chien Mi to put the love whammy on Xu. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.
The success of Black Magic made veteran Ho Meng-hua, Shaw Brothers’ go-to guy for monsters and horror. Whereas the films of Shaw’s other resident horror helmer Kuei Chi-hung are seedy and downbeat, Hua is an EC comics/Hammer style moralist revelling in sex, sleaze and gloopy horror, but with clearly delineated good guys and bad. No surprise for a director who packed kids’ films, musicals and chivalric swordplay epics into his eclectic filmography. Meng-hua had yet to hone his formula so consequently the film drags in spots, with a love triangle that gets a bit Mills & Boon and a handful of silly scenes. Lo Lieh went on to take centre-stage in the superior sequel and became the genre’s most prominent player, but here makes an early exit after a cursed coconut melts his face into a maggoty mess. Ti Lung is uncharacteristically weak, largely because he doesn’t have a whole lot to do besides switch from stoic to zombie love slave. He does get to go crazy at his construction site where he bites co-workers and zaps himself with electricity. We’ve all been there.
Despite occasional pacing problems, Meng-hua still pitches a load of spooky stuff that keeps the audience glued to the increasingly outrageous events. Among the classic set-pieces: the wedding party where Xu hallucinates his bride and guests are hideous mutants and walks out right into Ms. Zhou’s arms; a graveyard voodoo session wherein Chien Mi defiles a corpse then fondles Ms. Zhou’s breasts all in the name of spell-casting of course; a nightmare sequence with Chu Ying menaced by leaping ghost girls with long black hair; and the bit where she goes all Linda Blair until sagely Master Fu Yong (Goo Man-Chung) extracts poison worms from her swollen belly.
Slimy bugs play a major part in Hong Kong horror, with poor Xu forced at one point to eat a bowl of centipedes (see also: Centipede Horror (1988)), as indeed does the contrast between modern values and old world superstition. As in later efforts, Thailand serves as Hong Kong’s equivalent to Transylvania, a world where magic still rules and city slickers are at the mercy of dark forces. Another key ingredient was softcore sex and, although Celestial’s region 3 DVD release seems cut to appease the Mainland censors, Tanny Tien Ni obligingly disrobes for numerous steamy scenes. A regular in upmarket, arty erotica from Illicit Desire (1973) to Forbidden Tale of Two Cities (1975), Tien Ni married multi-talented Shaw star Yueh Hua, who appears in a cameo.
The finale goes all out including a car chase, a hypnotised Xu dangling above a building site and a fiery wizards’ duel with cartoon laser beams, force fields, withering hags and melting villains. Meng-hua’s follow-up: Black Magic 2: Revenge of the Zombies (1976) would be one of most memorable Hong Kong horrors of all time.