While the world famous Shaw Brothers studio is a name synonymous with kung-fu and martial arts movies, like most major studios they dabbled in whatever genres would turn a profit for them so it should surprise no one to find that they also put out their fare share of horror films as well. 1974's Black Magic isn't the best horror offering that the studio made but it's definitely up there and it still proves to be a whole lot of trashy fun even thirty years after the fact.
An introduction sets the stage for what is to come by introducing us to two wizards – a good wizard named Furong (Koo Man-chung) and an evil one named San Kan-Mi (Ku Feng). These two, working on opposite sides of the magical spectrum, don't necessarily get along so well. From there the movie switches quite drastically and we meet a construction worker named Xu Nu (Ti Lung). When he's not building stuff, he's making time with his lovely lady friend, Quming (Lily Li) and he fully intends to make this gal his wife sooner rather than later. Unfortunately for our two star crossed lovebirds, there's another lady in town, a foxy widow named Lu Yin (Tien Ni), and she's got eyes for the hunky Xu Nu and could care less what Quming thinks about her intentions – she also happens to be his boss! If that weren't enough drama, throw Jiajie (Lo Lieh) into the mix – he's got the hots for Lu Yin, figuring she's a catch as not only is she hot, but she's also got a pretty fat bank account.
If it all sounds like a bad soap opera, fear not, as soon enough we're back to the wizards from the opening scene. Jiajie knows that on his own he won't be able to win Lu Yin's heart or hear riches but with the aid of San Kan-Mi, the evil wizard, he's pretty sure he's got a good shot at it so he hires him to work for him. San Kan-Mi, being an evil wizard and all, moves in and starts working his magic but things don't necessarily go the way that Jiajie had hoped that they would, and when San Kan-Mi starts to get out of hand, it looks like only Furong can put a stop to his evil ways.
A truly bizarre cross between soap opera style melodrama and stylish exploitation, Black Magic is a great mix of romance gone wrong and battling wizards. Things don't take too long to get moving once the plot is set up and once it all kicks into high gear, the spells and potions start weaving their way back and forth between opposing sides, providing plenty of odd results. This provides ample opportunity for gross out effects and strange set pieces, such as the usage of breast milk in one spell or using pieces of corpses in another. While all of this is going on the camera is zipping all over the place and really complimenting the frantic energy up there on the screen in front of us. Meng-Haw Ho, the same man who did The Flying Guillotine and The Mighty Peking Man (the later was re-released in the 90s by Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder on home video where it experienced a bit of a resurgence), is stylish and tight as it makes great use of the sets and the set pieces.
In terms of the performances we're treated to a really strong cast for this film, with Lo Lieh stealing the show as the sinister but ever so slick Jiajie. He's perfectly crafty in his pursuit of the sexy character played by Tien Ni, and they have an interesting chemistry together. Ti Lung and Lily Li are good as the chaste heroes of the story who just want to run off and get married, but as is often the case with a horror movie, the villains here are a lot more fun than the good guys are.
There's good news and bad news about this 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The good news is that the picture shows only the tiniest instances of print damage and that the color reproduction is fantastic. The bad news is that it looks like this disc is the victim of a botched PAL to NTSC conversion job as there's some fairly serious motion blurring that occurs pretty much whenever anyone moves at a decent pace. Depending on your hardware it may or may not be all that noticeable to you (turn off the progressive scan settings on your player and it helps) but the fact of that matter is that it is there, which is a shame as otherwise things look excellent.
Image has supplied three different audio tracks for this release – the original Mandarin Mono track, a Mandarin 5.1 Surround Sound track, and the old English Mono dubbed track all of which have optional English subtitles available. Unfortunately the English track isn't in the best of shape as it's got some background hiss present but it's perfectly serviceable even with the flaws and it is nice to have it here. As far as the Mandarin tracks go, the Mono is the one to opt for as the Surround Sound mix sounds a bit too artificial, though it makes some of the more active scenes more fun. It's nice in that it spreads things out a bit and if you're a 5.1 junkie then you've got your fix but otherwise the old school track is the more appropriate of the two. The subtitles are pretty much flawless in that they're easy to read and don't contain any noticeable typos or mistakes.
While there aren't a ton of extra features on this release, Image has included a few fun little supplements that are worth taking a look at. First up is a generous selection of lobby cards, press-book materials and still photographs that play out in a series of still galleries. There's also a collection of un-subbed Shaw Brothers trailers for upcoming titles to be released through Image (these are the newer Celestial trailers, not the original theatrical trailers) and a collection of other trailers for Asian films that Image has either released or will be releasing soon (none of which include any subtitles). Animated menus and chapter stops for the feature are also included.
Inside the keepcase is an insert booklet which includes some images from the film and some pretty comprehensive liner notes from Linn Hayes that explain the background of the film and which provide some biographical information on the people who made it.
It's a shame that the transfer is flawed as this is an otherwise very fine release of Black Magic. The movie itself holds up really well and the extras, while not all that plentiful, are a nice touch. Recommended for those who don't already have the R3 disc from IVL and who know that they want the movie, a solid rental for everybody else who enjoys a good horror/exploitation film.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.