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Black Magic and Sleazy Spells: The Shaw Brothers Horror Films

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Although the famous Shaw Brothers studio is primarily known for its martial arts films and tales of wandering swordsmen, the company also dabbled in a wide range of other genres, including comedy, romance, musicals, and perhaps most significantly of all, horror. In fact, the studio began producing films with supernatural themes even before its establishment proper back in the late 1950s, and continued to do so until its demise in the mid 1980s. Unsurprisingly, this horror output to an extent drove the early development of the genre in Hong Kong and largely held sway until the arrival of Spooky Encounters, Sammo Hung's high energy blend of martial arts and scares which revolutionised the form in 1980. The influence of Shaw Brothers horror has also been apparent in more recent times with the films of directors such as Ho Meng Hua and Kuei Chih Hung, packed with sleazy sorcery and grotesque black magic, having provided the inspiration for many similarly themed efforts during the 1990s boom in Category III rated genre cinema. This influence can still be seen today in films such as Herman Yau's gruesome Gong Tau, which features the same Grand Guignol atmosphere and brand of outrageous visceral shocks.

As with the rest of Asia, the horror genre was relatively slow to start in Hong Kong and Mainland China, with most early films being romantic fantasies of young scholars and lonesome female spirits drawn from the famed 1679 text Liaozhai Zhiyi, or Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling. The Shaw Brothers' first venture into the supernatural came with Tao Qin's Beyond the Grave in 1954, based upon Pu's Nie Xiaoqian, though focusing on the dramatic rather than ghostly elements of the story. Inspired by the same text, Li Han Hsiang's 1960 film Enchanting Shadow is generally regarded to be the studio's horror debut, in which a young tax collector who spends the night in an abandoned temple encounters a beautiful woman who turns out to be a ghost. A relationship develops between the two, threatened by forces both worldly and otherworldly, with the girl's demonic mistress and a stern Taoist swordsman doing their best to thwart any romance. Although unlikely to frighten modern viewers, the elegant film is eerily atmospheric and features a gorgeous set design that gives the proceedings a subtly haunted feel. Certainly, it was a hit at the time, earning director Li a Golden Palm nomination at the Cannes Film Festival, and went on to spawn a great many imitators. The film has come to be regarded as an early classic, and was essentially remade by Ching Siu Tung and Tsui Hark in 1987 with the blockbuster A Chinese Ghost Story, which itself inspired hordes of sequels and similar productions.

The process of modernization was gradual in the horror genre, though the next Shaw Brothers release of note, Lady Jade Locket in 1967, did show a shift away from the time honored form. Whilst retaining the same basic Nie Xiaoqian-like romantic plot of the original Liaozhai story Lian Suo, the film featured far more in the way of scares and overtly supernatural devices. These were combined in entertaining fashion with the conventions of the wuxia genre which was also growing in popularity at the time, and director Yan Jun arguably improved upon Enchanting Shadow by keeping things moving at a far faster pace. One aspect of the film likely to surprise viewers is the fact that the male lead role of a young fighter was actually played by actress Li Lihua, something which may be a little disconcerting for those not used to the cross-gender casting common in Huangmei opera and the like, though her performance is skillful enough not to undermine the romantic plot.

The studio eventually began to move away from traditional spiritual romances and to experiment with other forms of the genre, as seen in haunted house murder mystery The Five Billion Dollar Legacy directed by Japanese director Inoue Umetsugu in 1970. Ghost films of the time also began to show a greater determination to scare audiences, with revenge-themed period piece The Bride from Hell and Korean director Shin Sang Ok's The Ghost Lovers (which also provided an early role for Ricky Hui, who later featured in Mr. Vampire and many other 1980s Hong Kong horror classics); both show increased reliance upon visceral thrills which, though they may seem rather quaint today, were considered daring for the time.

A sure sign that the Shaw Brothers had embraced the horror genre came in 1974 with The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, an ill-fated collaboration with the British Hammer studio that combined the talents of martial arts legends David Chiang and Szu Shih along with Western star Peter Cushing. Sadly, this attempt to mix vampire lore from the two different cultures with kung fu action turned out to be a rather chaotic affair, and despite the best efforts of directors Roy Ward Baker and Chang Cheh, it failed to live up to its billing of providing "Hammer Horror! Dragon Thrills! The First Kung Fu Horror Spectacular!?"

The horror genre worldwide underwent great change in the 1970s following the release of films such as Night of the Living Dead and The Exorcist which featured previously unseen amounts of bloody carnage and ambitious special effects. The Shaw Brothers were quick to pick up on this new trend, and the studio abandoned the chaste ghostly romances of old in favor of black magic and evil sorcery, producing films which revolved around hideous worm curses, backfiring love spells, grave robbing, and all manner of deviant behavior, usually with a perverse sexual undercurrent. Interestingly, though distastefully, these films often carried with them a distinct air of xenophobia, with most evil magicians coming from Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries, a theme which was also seen in similar films of the later Category III boom. Many of these wild films remain shocking even by the standards of today and unsurprisingly have become cult items for lovers of bizarre and extreme cinema.

One of the key directors of this new graphic wave of sleazy horror was Ho Meng Hua, best known for his colorful Shaw Brothers adaptations of the classic text Journey to the West in the four late 1960s films The Monkey King Goes West, Princess Iron Fan, The Cave of the Silken Web, and Land of Many Perfumes. Although he had previously painted the screen red with fantasy martial arts efforts such as Lady Hermit in 1971 and the bloodthirsty Flying Guillotine in 1974, it was in 1975 that he took his first proper stab at the horror genre with Black Magic. The film follows an evil sorcerer who skulks in the forest and sells his services to locals, usually in the form of horrible curses or powerful love spells. After a scheming rich widow pays him to hook her a handsome young construction worker (played by Shaw Brothers star Ti Lung), his wife enlists the aid of a good-hearted magician to win him back. Most of the film's shocks come from the disgusting ingredients needed for the spells, which include such savory treats as blood, human milk, flayed skin, severed heads, and rotten flesh. Added to scenes of self-mutilation and curses which leave victims with worms crawling beneath their skin, this all makes for good, gruesome fun in a manner which thankfully distracts from the soap opera shenanigans of the plot. Black Magic 2, also directed by Ho followed in 1976, offers even more in the way of icky thrills, but it has sadly yet to be re-released on DVD alongside the original.

Ho's next genre effort was the bizarre Oily Maniac in the same year, in which an unfortunate young man (played by ubiquitous Hong Kong actor Danny Lee) is turned by a Malaysian spell into the gooey titular creature. He uses his newfound powers to protect the girl he loves from her enemies in the only way he knows how, by killing them one by one, and in the case of his female victims, by spying on them while they shower. The film is a wacky affair, dripping with sleaze and jarring shifts of tone, and though it makes little sense and boasts some hilariously cheap special effects, it has become a firm favorite of trash cinema fans. The same is true of Ho's follow-up, The Mighty Peking Man, the Shaw Brothers' shameful attempt to remake King Kong, which provides plenty of unintentional hilarity, again with Danny Lee in the main role. Sadly, although Ho continued to make a handful more martial arts films for the studio, such as Shaolin Abbot , he never again reached such giddy heights, and his last film, the 1992 return to the horror genre Evil Black Magic, went largely unnoticed.

The director responsible for the Shaw Brothers' craziest and most extreme horror films was undoubtedly Kuei Chih Hung, who had initially made a name for himself in the early 1970s with the violent crime films The Teahouse and its sequel Big Brother Cheng, as well as the unbelievably seedy women-in-prison film Bamboo House of Dolls. Kuei's first horror film came with Ghost Eyes in 1974, which featured a plot likely to be all too familiar to fans of modern genre films, following a woman who receives a pair of contact lenses which allow her to see ghosts. However, it was in the following year that he really made his mark with the infamous exploitation classic Killer Snakes, a misogynistic, sadistic nightmare in which a bullied young man takes revenge using a horde of obliging snakes. The film is bleak and disturbing enough to make it difficult viewing even for hardened genre fans, not least due to the many scenes of innocent reptiles being thrown around and butchered, a fact which has inevitably won it an enduring cult reputation.

In 1980, Kuei directed Hex, the first part of a loose trilogy revolving around black magic and revenge. Influenced by Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 classic shocker Les Diaboliques, the film follows a woman who murders her cruel husband with the help of a young serving girl, only for his body to go missing and apparently return from the grave for vengeance. Filled with macabre touches, Hex sees Kuei aiming for atmosphere and pitch black comedy rather than gory shocks, and the film is effectively creepy throughout. However, he does manage to sneak in a few wild moments, most notably during the climax, for which the film will in all likelihood be remembered, a naked exorcism scene which appears to be a sleazy take on the Japanese ghost classic Kwaidan, complete with druggy visuals and screeching music. Less successful were the two sequels, Hex After Hex and Hex Vs Witchcraft, both of which focused on laughs rather than scares, and aside from a few flashes of imagination, compared unfavorably to the likes of Spooky Encounters which was released around the same time.

Kuei was back on form with the truly nauseating Corpse Mania, a film which really has to be seen to believed, and which is about as far from the spirit of righteousness usually associated with Shaw Brothers productions as it as possible to get. Without going into too much graphic detail, the film follows a murderer who has a decidedly unhealthy attraction to corpses, and features enough maggots and putrescence to turn even the sternest of stomachs, made all the more shocking by the fact that it sees Kuei at his atmospheric best as a director. The film is certainly the most gruesome ever released by the studio, and represents a high, or low, in bad taste exploitation cinema which has yet to be outdone.

Kuei certainly tried to top it with his next and final genre outing, the equally notorious The Boxer's Omen, which earns the distinction of being one of the most insane films about black magic ever made. The production was a surprisingly ambitious one, being filmed in Hong Kong, Nepal, and of course, the supposed home of black magic itself, Thailand, though most of the budget clearly went on the wild special effects. Although there is a plot of sorts, in which a man turns to sorcery to try and avenge his brother's death, the film is basically a series of crazed, ghastly set pieces and magical duels, featuring flying body parts and ingredients which are probably best not described here. Kuei directs with a lunatic flair, throwing coherence and logic to the wind, and the result is an entertaining slice of lunacy which has deservedly become a trash cinema legend.

Sadly, aside from Kuei's last few films, the Shaw Brothers' horror output dwindled in the 1980s, with only a few efforts of note being produced including the anthology Haunted Tales, the degenerate Seeding of a Ghost (which rivals Corpse Mania for sickening content), and the rather dull Siamese Twins which was inexplicably given a Category III rating despite featuring very little that might be defined as offensive, or indeed exciting.

Unfortunately, these came too little, too late to allow the declining studio to capitalize on the new wave of Hong Kong horror in the 1980s. However, their legacy lives on, and it is not hard to draw a link between the likes of Black Magic and later films such as the Chow Yun Fat starring The Seventh Curse, which features a nasty worm curse and Thai magic, or the likes of The Eternal Evil of Asia which also revolved around unfortunate Hong Kong males visiting Thailand (for the prostitutes, naturally) and falling foul of an evil sorcerer. The tradition lives on in Herman Yau's latest film Gong Tau (which was also the original Cantonese title for Black Magic), which features classic genre staples such as revolting spell ingredients and flying body parts in the finest tradition of The Boxer's Omen. Still, even these newer shockers have a hard time living up to the sheer ghoulishness of the early Shaw Brothers genre trailblazers, films which ensure that the studio's name is by no means solely a brand name for wholesome tales of noble martial artists.

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Published October 2, 2007

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