A Beginner’s Guide to Chinese Black Magic Movies

From The Boxer's Omen to the genuine unpleasantness of Calamity Of Snakes, we take a look at a stomach-churning subgenre of cinema...

In 1975, Ho Meng Hua’s Black Magic cast its spell over Chinese audiences and summoned up a subgenre that produced some of the most extreme, esoteric and stomach-churning horror films of all time. Between the late 70s and early 80s, Chinese black magic movies were pumped out en masse, feeding audiences their fill of evil sorcery and twisted moralizing. The formula usually featured some poor schmuck enlisting a dark wizard to help them achieve something (more often than not, something sexual) and finding that the forces they’ve unleashed are more than they can handle. Cue the flamboyant special effects and abundant nudity.

These films took inspiration from authentic folk magic for their various spells and rituals which, sadly, means they frequently feature real animal slaughter. However, the human actors were put through the wringer too, from being set on fire and thrown around to getting their mouths and other orifices stuffed with bugs, snakes and whatever else would fit, ready to be shot out in projectile streams of green goo.

On the upper end of the genre scale, Shaw Brothers Studios produced psychedelic nightmares of bug-eating and Buddhism; the latter because, often, a laser-shooting monk adorned with swastikas and scrolls would rock up to send the evil forces back to the beyond. At the scrappier lower-budget end of the spectrum, black magic films could boast a genuine sense of malevolence and danger that even now makes them feel like they’re operating at the very edges of cinema.

After the mid-80s and the introduction of the Cat III certificate in China, the genre mostly vanished, replaced by a different breed of horror film, some of which carried on the supernatural extremity but many of which abandoned black magic in favor of serial killers. There have been a couple of attempts to revisit the glory days – from the parodic Eternal Evil Of Asia (1995) to the retro-tastic Gong Tau (2007) – but there’s an exoticism and, well, magic to the first wave efforts that make them special.

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More of these films are easier to obtain than they used to be but the genre, outside of Asia, remains a murky fandom nonetheless. That said, the impending UK Blu Ray release of Hex (1980) perhaps signals that the time has come at last for broader reappraisal. This list of films is by no means a comprehensive breakdown of the genre, but is designed to give a fun overview of this oft-neglected, unique chapter of Asian horror history for anyone looking to delve a little deeper…

Black Magic (1975)

As the granddaddy of Chinese black magic, this isn’t as extreme as its salacious offspring, but it still manages to cram in some cannibalism, tongue-slicing, corpse-bothering, centipede-eating, forced lactation and all manner of nasty curses while setting up the tropes that would become genre staples.

Xu Nuo is a construction worker whose boss, Mrs. Zhou, wants to seduce him, but Xu is engaged to be married and isn’t interested. Meanwhile, local layabout Liang likes Mrs. Zhou a lot, or more specifically, he wants to marry her for her money. Spurned and angry because she only has eyes for Xu, Liang calls on a despicable black magician to cast a love spell on Mrs. Zhou. What follows is a tangled web of spells and counter-spells as our main characters find themselves deeper in an occult world where nothing’s what it seems, no one is to be trusted and a deal with darkness could lead to horrible fiery death.

The plot, while soapy, is pretty good in this one and keeps you guessing through its twists to its mildly psychedelic climax (just a teaser for what’s to come in the later films). Still, in exchange for being a little on the tame side, you do get high production values and an A-list ensemble cast at their peak (Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, Tanny Tien and Ku Feng all dazzle). Black Magic is one of the few films of its type that you can watch in company without offending too many of your guests (there’s always one who doesn’t like a bit of corpse-bothering, mind) and it’s a cracking bit of 70s HK cult cinema. Unlike, say…

The Devil (1981)

One of the less technically proficient black magic movies, The Devil is a rare Taiwanese entry that blends farcical melodrama with disgusting gore to brain-damaging effect. A con-man named Chao tries to marry a hotelier’s daughter so he can take ownership of her father’s hotel but various spells get in the way. In classic farce style, much of the action revolves around a little kid called Ding Dong who is the hotel’s child-laborer/porter and knows everything about everyone. Ding Dong dresses like a Sgt Pepper-era Beatle and comes across as abnormally camp for his age because he’s been dubbed by an adult woman trying (and failing) to sound like a child.

The above nonsense is broken up by a creepy floating witch who appears at random and whose curses make people vomit up live bugs and chunky gunk. As is often the case with these films, the unsimulated animal violence is horrible and it’s hard to understand – as a westerner some 30+ years later – why so many actors of the era thought they needed to go through these ordeals. One guy here vomits up mouthfuls of worms, centipedes and even small snakes, not to mention a bucket of mystery gunge, before being tied to a stake and set on fire. Owing to the scarce information available about movies like The Devil, we don’t even get to know the actor’s name.

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Unfortunately, the most extreme elements of these films can be the most compelling; the common-decency-car-crash factor giving them a sense of danger that’s hard to turn away from, even if the rest is pretty bad. The fact that one of the main characters here is a little kid just makes the whole thing more despicable and wrong (even though, you’ll be pleased to hear, Ding Dong lives to flounce another day!). I can’t, in good conscience, recommend this but there’s a certain something that’s still oddly powerful and weird about The Devil’s, uh, Devil-may-care approach. Of course, if The Devil seems too much, there’s always…

Devil Fetus (1983)

Many years ago, I tried to watch an Xth-generation VHS copy of this with no English subtitles. It made no sense at all but looked really cool. Having since watched a DVD version with English subs I’d say my conclusion is much the same. There’s some kind of ancient jade statue that a woman buys at an auction after a small demon resting on it waves to her. Obviously, to everyone except her, the thing’s cursed as all fuck and her entire family fall victim to this elaborate, generation-spanning hex. Only the blood of an eagle can save them.

The pace is glacial with many long periods without dialogue but the action, when it starts, is full-blown nutso. We get a woman casually eating a cake full of real worms (then sicking it back up so the dog can eat it); a blue face mask that, when ripped open, is full of crawling maggots; some senseless animal abuse (they slice open some kind of hawk, which is not cool at all); a dude eating (I hope, fake) dog’s guts fresh from the dog; a guy being crushed into splattery goop between two walls; and a stop-motion psychedelic climax that betrays the film’s unexpected western influences (The Thing and The Evil Dead). The obligatory Battle Buddhist who turns religion into laser power pops up for a few minutes too. We never really find out what becomes of the cursed jade statue, I don’t think, but by then it doesn’t matter because either the Devil or his fetus (it’s never really clear what’s what but all of it is gooey) is already loose…

Seeding Of A Ghost (1983)

An interestingly warped entry into the cycle in which a taxi driver runs over a black magician by accident and gets his life destroyed as a result. His wife is raped and murdered in a prolonged and grueling sequence so the cabbie, not realizing this is all the result of a spell, gets the very magician who cursed him to help wreak vengeance on the rapists. Some of this is deeply creepy (the wife’s inevitably reanimated corpse is a memorable and ghastly special effect) and there is that particularly compelling exoticism that runs through all HK black magic movies but Seeding Of A Ghost does lack resolution to its horrors.

If the last half an hour had escalated what had been built up beforehand, it would’ve been incredible but it switches the narrative to secondary characters and plumps for elaborate Thing-like special FX that, whilst visually impressive, lack the unsettling quality of some of the subtler, earlier ones. Still, there’s tons of worm-vomiting and an exploding toilet gag to keep things gross and it’s worth it for that reanimated corpse effect alone. If its rigid twitchy movements and beady dead eyes don’t haunt your dreams, it’s entirely possible you’re a black wizard yourself.

Black Magic With Buddha (1983)

♪ “When you wish upon a braaaain…” ♪

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Veteran actor Lo Lieh has a rare sit-down in the director’s chair for this hugely entertaining black magic yarn about a man named Ben (Chen Kuan-Tai) who exhumes the wish-granting brain of an ancient mummy. Unfortunately, the rules state that once you’ve made your wish, you need to use special holy water to destroy the brain, but Ben is greedy so doesn’t bother. He just keeps wishing for more money and more things until the brain gets angry and starts killing everybody in the customary splashy fashion.

There’s something joyous about seeing some goofball scrambling around after a sticky red brain on a string screaming “You! Come back, you!” and the outrageousness of the ideas in this, mixed with the sincere religious tone, make for disturbing, wonderful viewing. The story lags a bit in the middle but the finale, featuring a four-headed golden God and a swastika-adorned Buddha Himself fighting against a full-bodied “Brain Devil”, is not something you’re likely to see in any other film, or indeed any other context unless you’ve taken All The Drugs.

The Rape After (1986)

This late-period Chinese black magic film introduces us to the character of Shu Ya, a fashion model with an awful family life. Her dad has disappeared, her brother is hideously deformed and her mum spends her entire time praying and trying to get rid of a mysterious stench… To make matters worse, Shu Ya’s photographer, Mo Hsien Sheng, has a secret of his own. For reasons unfathomable (such things are often chalked down to fate in these films) Mo has stolen a cursed statue from a temple and, as a result, poor Shu Ya gets molested by a hideous demon and gives birth to a gross devil baby. This leads to a whole string of gloopy magical violence. Ears are pulled off, brave stuntmen are flung off balconies and a priest gets dragged through a toilet.

The film plays well, with an intriguing storyline, but once the protagonist switches in a Psycho-esque midpoint twist, it admittedly loses steam, leaves a ton of loose ends and spends its last forty minutes with people wandering around in blue-filtered darkness, occasionally being attacked by ghoulies. Still, despite going on a bit too long, there are a couple of unforgettable sequences (the autopsy scene is heroically gruesome, guaranteed to turn anyone’s stomach), decent production values and far less animal violence than is usual for the genre so it’s probably a good entry point for the curious, if nothing else.

Calamity Of Snakes (1983)

This – however – is one rough, evil picture, difficult to endure even for veteran black magic viewers. After I watched Calamity Of Snakes, I woke up the next morning still feeling a little sick, which I can only attribute to a bout of film poisoning.

The plot involves a block of flats constructed on a site that was previously full of snakes. The opening scenes involve the construction workers smashing up the (real live) snakes with tools and even a JCB digger. The new building is then – of course – cursed, so supernatural snakes wreak vengeance on everyone who lives there or helped to build it. This means scene after scene of people being covered in snakes, bitten by snakes and abused by snakes, interspersed with snakes being destroyed in as many ways as you can possibly imagine and a few more besides. At one point, the residents fight back and find a snake sorcerer (played by some anonymous lunatic) who covers himself in snakes, regurgitates one from out of his throat and then allows it hang off his tongue by its teeth. Later on, he bites one in half while it’s still alive. In another scene, a guy chops up an endless procession of live snakes with a samurai sword while off-screen crew members fling them at him. The whole thing ends with some poor stuntman rolling around on fire for what seems like forever. How much were they paying these people? Probably nothing.

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Honestly, I couldn’t tell you how many animals were harmed in the making of this film but it makes all the Italian cannibal stuff look like a conservationist fun camp by comparison. It’s a cavalcade of suffering for all concerned. I usually enjoy the ‘anything goes’ factor but this one is strictly for those who want their minds broken in a hurry. Calamity of Snakes is as nasty as it comes.

Hex (1980)

Far more palatable is Hex. For quite a while, it seems like a reasonably restrained period drama. It’s a Shaw Brothers production with a sizeable budget and a plot about an abusive husband, his long-suffering wife and their attractive new servant. As events unfold, there’s some shocking murders, nocturnal hauntings, high melodrama and a couple of great twists (although they are derivative of a more well-known French film I won’t name, for fear of spoiling it!) but the pace is measured and it’s got much more story than usual. The second reel plays a little too heavy on the comedy with Ma Chao as a cross-eyed furniture removal man, an inexplicable turtle infestation and a whole bunch of cringe-inducing farce but don’t panic because it all comes back to black magic with a wailing vengeance in the final act.

For the last 20 minutes or so, we get a maniacal haunting with dripping ghosts and bonkers stunts, then a psychedelic exorcism that mixes admirably uninhibited nude dancing and body paint with a blistering score and one last, rubber-eared act of glorious violence. The shock of the tonal shift and the eye-popping awesomeness of the climax is just pure joy for lovers of black magic. It may not be the very best of the genre (although its success across Asia ensured it spawned two sequels, Hex After Hex and Hex Vs Witchcraft) but you won’t have seen anything else quite like it.

Hell Has No Boundary (1982)

In this far more bizarre Shaw Brothers production, a policewoman named Wong Lai Fen who visits an island for a romantic camping weekend with her boyfriend but gets possessed by the vengeful spirit of a long-dead girl with a mortifying history of abuse. Plot-wise, this is one of most inventive and original entries into the cycle, loaded with ideas, but the all-over-the-place tone may alienate some viewers. It’s blasphemy to suggest it but this could actually benefit from a sympathetic remake.

Still, a couple of scenes are brilliantly bonkers, including a scene where a “spectacled pervert” gets his penis bitten off by a giant crab then mummified by ghostly toilet paper, but the nuttiness does jar sometimes with the eerie other-worldly scenes and the pervading grimness. As the film goes on, it becomes darker and darker, culminating with some bleak flashbacks and a graphic rape scene, but that still doesn’t stop director Chuan Yang throwing in broad, puerile comic relief throughout (here, a pair of inept cops called Lady Killer and Dumb Sis who – admittedly – out of context are pretty funny). All of the messiness may mean missed potential for classic status but it still stacks up to a brain cell-popping experience, and the climax features the best woolly jumper I have ever seen.

The Boxer’s Omen (1983)

Often considered the “definitive” film of the genre, The Boxer’s Omen is technically a sequel to Bewitched (1981), which introduced the Buddhist monk and black magician whose eternal conflict lies at the heart of this film. The main plot here though involves a boxer who gets paralyzed in a fight as a result of a curse put on his family. His brother, swearing vengeance, travels to Thailand where he studies Buddhism and pits himself against the ancient evil.

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This film is played fast and loose. The Boxer’s Omen invokes the nightmarish surrealism of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond to project a series of horrifying, lurid images that will leave most viewers reeling. You get the requisite grotesquery of the black magic spells, including actors stuffing their mouths with alligator entrails, re-regurgitated (yes, you read that right) chicken guts and even a chicken’s anus. There are squishy reanimated corpses, crucified bats, floating neon demons, levitating heads with dangling blood vessels that choke, a nude she-devil emerging from a (real) dead crocodile womb and this only scratches the surface of our hero’s journey as he descends further into black magic Hell.

There’s a deep religiosity to The Boxer’s Omen though. Its depictions of both Buddhism and Thai black magic – although wild – are rooted in knowledge. It’s phenomenally well-shot and, while clearly not likely to be everybody’s cup of (psychedelic) tea, essential viewing for anyone interested in Asian horror.

Centipede Horror (1982)

Suet Ming Chan wrote only two movies; this and the even more reprehensible Red Spell Spells Red. I think I love her but, at the same time, am utterly terrified of her. What kind of mind…!

Centipede Horror is a classic Chinese black magic tale: A woman goes to South East Asia and doesn’t wear the protective amulet her brother gives her. As a result, she ends up being cursed by a sorcerer who puts the horrible “centipede spell” on her. She dies quite quickly but her brother and his girlfriend investigate, only to find themselves trapped in a never-ending cycle of revenge and torture… and centipedes. Oh my God, so many, many centipedes.

This has some pretty nasty animal and human cruelty in it, peaking with an extended scene in which Margaret Li vomits up a battalion of live centipedes. The scene – one of the most iconic yet repulsive of the genre – uses merciless long takes and feels like it goes on forever, making I’m A Celebrity look like Celebrity Squares. Yet, in addition to the sadism, there’s a genuine, deep sense of exotic darkness to this film and the fact that it’s surprisingly well-made only makes it worse. Admittedly, the plot gets tangled up in flashbacks but Centipede Horror has a creepy power that’s hard to deny. I don’t think many could watch this and be totally unaffected.

Red Spell Spells Red (1983)

If you’ve got this far down the list, there’s only really one film left to ensure, once and for all, that your brain is obliterated. Red Spell Spells Red is ultra-dark with a weird, intense atmosphere of evil from the very first scene, in which a Red Dwarf Sorcerer is imprisoned in a barrel by a group of masked wizards. Hundreds of years later, a hapless film crew opens the barrel and are (stupidly) surprised to find that this unleashes a vile ancient curse…

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Oddly, the film takes its main cues from a couple of popular western films that would never knowingly collide elsewhere – Cannibal Holocaust and The Evil Dead – but puts its own eastern spin on both.

There is a perhaps unprecedented level of repellent animal violence in this film and it’s tough to sit through these scenes, especially one where a man eats a live chicken, piece by piece. The red spell of the title involves scorpions crawling out of the body so we get to watch some truly unfortunate actors cover their flesh in live scorpions while being flung around on wires that don’t look at all safe. They even set themselves on fire while, literally, coated in scorpions. None of this is big or clever and but adds an edge of tension to watching the film. It’s very likely that something that will sicken or appal you could show up at any second.

It is, however, very effectively constructed. The photography is fantastic. You’d never place this as 1983 if you didn’t know. It has a fresh, modern visual style that really didn’t come into vogue until the flashier late 80s. The plot is slight but it’s well-paced and the supernatural stuff – not to mention the Dwarf Sorcerer himself – is seriously creepy. Red Spell Spells Red may be a problematic film (which explains why it’s still not really had a wide release in the digital age) but I have to give it credit because few conjure such a sinister, unwholesome atmosphere so successfully. An experience.

[Please note Den Of Geek cannot be held responsible, should you watch these films, for any damage to the mind, the spirit or the vital organs that may occur. If you find insects beneath the skin or gooey members of the recently deceased floating above your bed, Den Of Geek suggests you locate a Buddhist.]