Not to be confused with the campy Japanese transvestite crime comedy made in 1968, this Black Lizard is yet another Shaw Brothers wu xia (“swordplay”) mystery from genre maestro Chu Yuan. Mind you, a Japanese transvestite criminal mastermind would not exactly look out of place here. According to legend, a one-thousand year old lizard able to assume human form returns every three years to claim another victim. Newly-married detective and kung fu expert Long Fei (Derek Yee) learns of this legend from his comely spouse Zi Zhu (Helen Poon Bing-Seung). Not the most romantic topic to be discussing on your wedding day, but then the pair have just seen Xiao Lik (Yueh Hua), chief of the local security bureau, leading the villagers in their tri-annual peace offering to the Black Lizard.
En route to escort a prisoner into custody, Long Fei receives a cryptic message from a stranger calling himself Visitor from Hell (Goo Goon-Chung) warning if he does not return home, his wife will die. Along the way, Fei has a scary encounter with a hideous ghoul in red robes (Yuen Wah) and a mysterious woman in white (Chan Man-Na), whom he discovers is Xiao Lik’s wife, except she has been dead for days. Now this ghostly duo wander the countryside bearing a coffin containing a coffin that looks exactly like Zi Zhu! What is going on? Local constable Tieh Fu (Sun Chien) assists as Fei interrogates Xiao Lik. It turns out Xiao slew the Black Lizard years before, but the monster swore vengeance and was reincarnated as his only son, Ruo Yu (Ng Yuen-Jun). Having killed his own mother, the reincarnated reptile boy is on a cross-country rampage. At least that is what everyone comes to believe, or is there another explanation?
Most of Chu Yuan’s swordplay movies were wildly fantastical but now and then he stirred a little horror into the mix, as was the case with his peerless Web of Death (1976) and not-so-hot Bat Without Wings (1980). Black Lizard has a marvellously spooky atmosphere combining garish EC comics by way of Mario Bava visuals with a synthesizer led score mimicking Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho strings everytime something scary happens and touches of Edgar Allan Poe, as when one character finds herself buried alive. There is an eerie frisson to scenes where an opium-addled undertaker meets the coffin-carrying creatures, Zi Zhu follows her undead aunt inside a cobwebbed crypt, or whenever the red-robed fiend leaps out of nowhere. All of which compensates for the storytelling being somewhat too esoteric for its own good, although the complex mystery upholds Yuan’s history of crafting stories that stand as a perfect riposte to anyone who thinks all martial arts movies have simplistic plots. The key to unlocking the mystery hangs on a Rashomon -style incident retold from multiple perspectives, but the Scooby-Doo solution fumbles the sword-fighting climax with a lengthy “why I did it” speech and a few more last minute revelations, before the villain exits, unsatisfyingly, bumping his head on a big rock.
Yuan touches on some of his familiar themes: deception, illusion, wedded to the compelling idea of a perpetual liar no longer able to recognize the truth. There are the usual outlandish martial arts superpowers on display with characters falling victim to the “Black Sand Palm” and “Ice Palm” - see also, The Spirit of the Sword (1982) - but the film lacks Yuan’s trademark poetry and allusions to Chinese classical literature, while the female characters are uncharacteristically weak. On the other hand, you get to see Yueh Hua grappling with a stuntman in a shoddy lizard costume.