For the auspicious debut of The Purple Stuff, I bring you my musings on Black Magic 2, aka Revenge of the Zombies, aka the literal translation of it’s original Chinese title, Bewitch Tame Head
Why is the first full entry in my blog (on my blog? For my blog? Of? I bet it’s of. What’s the proper lingo, internets?) about a sequel to a movie I haven’t written anything about before and which you probably haven’t seen? You’re already asking too many questions. Accept the mystery. But if you must know, Black Magic isn’t as special. It’s basically about a love triangle, except there are at least four people involved so it’s more of a love rhombus, and everyone is secretly under a black magic spell from everyone else and there are all sorts of betrayals. It’s a weird movie, and if you really love Hong Kong movies you could do worse, but it’s kind of boring.
Black Magic 2, on the other hand, is awesome. It’s a film that has a reputation for being weird and entertaining, coming from the Shaw Brothers in the late 70s when they were doing crazy shit like Super Inframan and Mighty Peking Man. Plus, the two Black Magic movies have nothing important in common. This is a sequel in the sense that it rehashes some plot points and themes of the original, but there’s no direct continuity between the two and it improves on its predecessor in every way. Everything is cranked to a new level of crazy; more blood, more breasts, more action, more old dudes sucking worms out of holes in women’s backs. In other words I’m not talking about Black Magic 1 because Black Magic 2 is the movie you actually want to see.
The film ups the exploitation ante right out of the gate, cause within moments of starting a bunch of girls from a small riverside village have arbitrarily stripped and gone for a swim, only to be attacked by fake crocodiles. Give the people what they want, I guess. But it’s ostensibly about setting up an old mystic type who will come into play later. He thwarts the crocs with a trap that’s basically a crocodile sized fishing pole – and I guess black magic helps somehow too. It mostly seems to be the trap and stabbing the shit out of the crocs once they’re up on the dock but there’s some magic-y music and weird shots of the sun and the old man looking all mystical so clearly something else is up. Still, when he walks off into the sunset David Banner style and the opening credits start up you can’t help feeling a little underwhelmed with the magic aspects of his performance.
But forget all that cause now we’re in the city and it’s modern and cosmopolitan and looks like a tourism board promotional film. A bunch of the Asian supernatural films I’ve seen are interested in that contrast – the modern world clashing with the lingering vestiges of the superstitious ancient one. Obviously it’s a theme that pops up in the west as well but it’s really prominent in stuff like this, Mystics in Bali and the like. They’re sort of like The Manitou, except they make a lot less sense.
The scene shifts to the city to introduce us to the main characters, and they perfectly exemplify the clash between ancient and modern. They’re doctors, but one of them is convinced that some patients’ maladies – mostly nasty latex growths and one dude with worms stuck to his back – are the result of black magic. He’s brought in his stuffy skeptical friend under the pretense of needing medical help, but from what I can tell he just wants to convince him magic is real.
Meanwhile, there’s an evil sorcerer lurking around town, as is usually the case in movies like this (and sadly not in real life). Besides the fact that he’s played by prolific kung-fu movie villain Lo Lieh, we know he’s evil the second we see him because evil discordant music plays and there’s a smash zoom on his evil magic looking evil ring of evil. There are so many portentous smash zooms in this movie, which is expected since it’s from the 70s, but the best part is how many of them are on inanimate objects. Every time the evil sorcerer performs a ritual in his lair the camera slams in like a reaction shot on the face of a statue that I think he worships but which always looks utterly shocked and horrified at what he’s doing.
Until things get crazier in the third act, rituals are the film’s set pieces. They aren’t super exciting per se but they’re really strange in a drawn out, methodical (one night say… ritualistic, DUR) way. So while they lack the energy you initially want, they really sneak up on you. Things might seem slightly humdrum until suddenly you realize you’ve just watched the sorcerer shave a woman’s pubes, burn them, mix them with a potion and feed it to her, all as part of a plan to stay eternally young by drinking human milk, and you think, “wait a minute, is it just me or is this movie a little odd?”
Yes, that’s the villain’s plan, sort of a pervy old man version of Liz Bathory, and the woman in the pube ritual is the hero’s wife. Getting her to produce the milk requires the bad guy to first impregnate her with a monster baby that reaches full term and has to be c-section’d in the span of a day or so, but the movie is surprisingly nonchalant about that plot development and abruptly shifts focus completely to a little side thing the villain’s got going, where he more or less pimps out his zombie slaves to horny nightclub patrons.
Wait, allow me to explain that a bit. First of all, they’re technically ghosts, not zombies. Baddy has a bunch of old lady corpses on slabs in his basement and when he drives huge nails into the tops of their skulls and drizzles a little of his blood on their boobs, they revive and become young and beautiful again. And he controls them with his evil magic ring. So that all makes perfect sense. But then he has them dance at the local nightclub. I don’t know if he owns the club or has a deal with whoever does or just crosses his fingers and hopes they’ll get hired there since it’s crucial to his scheme, but they dance there and young men watch and fall in love with them.
See where this is going? Oh, no? Well the young men then come to the sorcerer, cause I guess in addition to being part owner of the nightclub he’s taken out an ad in the sorcerer section of the yellow pages, and they pay him thousands of dollars to use his black magic to make the girls fall in love with them (this, by the way, is a huge part of the first film). But what the young men don’t realize is the ladies are already Mr. Sorcerer’s zombie slaves! So, cha-ching, profit… I guess, even though he still uses magic every time he needs to revive them. Apparently there’s less magic involved that way. I don’t know why criminals go to the trouble of robbing banks to get rich when there are much simpler, easier ways like this. But there is a drawback, which is that the ghosts/zombies sometimes turn all gross and decrepit again while you have sex with them. Oops, sorry, no refunds. In fact the sorcerer took a hanky you forgot when you first met him and used it to put you under his spell too, and he’ll melt you if you threaten to reveal his scam to the cops.
If you’re thinking I took way too long describing all that, you have a sense of what a long digression the whole segment is. It’s not really a flaw though, honestly. You don’t watch a movie like this for Syd Field style screenplay structure. The important thing is that this section is entertaining. And fucking strange. The film finally meanders back to the main plot because the two heroes are part of the crowd of horrified onlookers that sees the guy melt and they take it upon themselves to investigate his death. His family probably won’t let them do a post-mortem (no point even asking) so they go ahead and exhume his body, perform an autopsy right there in the cemetery. Turns out he’s an empty husk filled with insects and worms, so results: inconclusive? The hero and his friends all seem to have forgotten the monster baby thing that happened to his wife earlier, though I assume they think it’s all connected. Or they just like desecrating corpses in their spare time. In either case their curiosity leads them to the evil sorcerer and some semblance of coherent conflict. I’m hesitant to make that last claim since everything in the film revolves around elaborate, nonsensical schemes and rituals.
But it doesn’t matter, as the film really amps up the craziness and action in the second half. Eventually the crocodile slaying old mystic from the beginning shows up ABSOLUTELY OUT OF NOWHERE for just long enough to smack one of the female leads with a piece of roadkill and bestow the hero with the tools to beat the bad guy. These include the old guy’s eyes, which he plucks out of his own head and tells the hero to eat, for reasons the film makes abundantly unclear. I think, if the film could talk, the all-purpose “why” re: all the strange stuff that happens would simply be “ummm… black magic?”
And by the way, when I said hero in the previous paragraph I was talking about the skeptic friend of the guy you think is the hero for the first half of the film. Turns out the other guy, played by HK great Ti Lung, is actually the main character. Needless to say he comes around to believing in magic, which would be a genuine character arc and not at all arbitrary if this was a movie that was interested in things like character arcs, or characters for that matter. Instead it’s more interested in flesh melting amulets, more zombies, hopping ghosts, and lest we forget it’s a Shaw Bros production, some kung-fu. Yes, things get very weird and wild in the climax.
Despite the high baseline level of weirdness on display, the movie did take a little while to click with me. But by the end, Black Magic 2 had completely won me over. Like many cult movies, it’s not as fun by yourself (though still worth a look if this is your scene) but if you can actually find a couple of other people who are willing to watch it with you, it’s one of those great “beer, pizza, and b-movie night” movies, the kind some of us are eternally searching for more of. Here’s another one to add to the list.
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