Black Magic [降頭] (1975)
Starring Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, Lily Li Li-Li, Ku Feng, Tanny Tien Ni, Goo Man-Chung, Lee Sau-Kei, Yueh Hua, Chen Ping, Lam Wai-Tiu
Directed by Ho Meng-Hua
Expectations: High! I love black magic movies and this is basically where they all started!
If only I had seen this a few years ago, I know I would have enjoyed it even more. As it is, Black Magic is a fun black magic romp, but it’s hard not to think of later films that go so far over the top that you forget just where the top was in the aftermath. But that’s no fault of Black Magic itself, and any self-respecting fan of black magic films owes it to themselves to check out the film that spawned countless imitators and an entire sub-genre of Hong Kong horror films.
Black Magic was written by notable Shaw scribe Ni Kuang, and within just the first few minutes his script sets out the basic formula for just about every black magic movie I’ve ever seen. A woman visits a black magic practitioner named Sha Jianmai (played expertly by Ku Feng), seeking revenge against her man who is cheating on her. She asks for a death curse on both her former sweetheart and his mistress, and Sha Jianmai is more than happy to oblige. Adulterous love (or as the opening text calls it “Excessive Sex”) is something that does not pay off in black magic movies. But after the spell has been wrought, a local practitioner of good magic is brought in to investigate the couple’s deaths. He looks about, says a few chants, and before you know it Sha Jianmai is slicing his tongue with a blade and pasting paper wards all over the walls of his shack, his blood smeared all over them.
The quickness that all this happened took me by surprise, as in later black magic films these battles between the forces of good and evil are more drawn-out and built up. They definitely don’t usually occur in the first act! But Black Magic wasn’t working with the collective knowledge of the black magic movie-going public; it had to set the scene, lay down the rules, inform its audience of exactly what type of shit they are dealing with. Only then does Black Magic move into its actual story.
Unfortunately, this story is a little too disjointed and slow-moving to rank the film as a major success, but in a film that features a scene with worms crawling under a woman’s skin, it’s hard not to forgive it its faults. No matter how it might have been tightened up, it’s undeniably a fun movie for those inclined to like something like this. The battles between the magicians are great fun, and show a lot of promise for what later films like Bewitched would evolve them into. But these battles definitely stand tall on their own and add a lot of enjoyment to the film. I’d like to have seen more of them, but I respect that with Black Magic they weren’t quite ready to turn it up to 11. They were definitely aiming for more of a traditional film than the gory depths that the genre later descended into.
But no matter how fun the battles are, I’m afraid that many of the special FX (especially the ambitious ending) don’t look all that hot these days, so that will probably cause many to laugh at the film instead of laugh with it. Their loss. And besides, I’m pretty sure I heard that if you willfully laugh at a black magic movie your hair falls out on the first day, your fingernails on the second, and you die coughing up maggots and worms on the third. Maybe. I wouldn’t tempt fate if it were me, but you’re welcome to try and let me know what happens in the comments.