Gross Value

Nick Pinkerton on “Shaw Brothers Horror” at Metrograph

Chih-Hung, Kuei, The Boxer’s Omen, 1983, 35 mm, color, sound, 99 minutes.

BOXER’S OMEN (1983) MAY NOT BE THE BEST of the hex-hectored horror films turned out by the Shaw Brothers Studio beginning in the mid-1970s, but it does exemplify the qualities that make these movies prized by a small but dedicated cadre of sickies: the anything-goes spirit of excess, the air of the lurid and the lunatic, and, above all, the sheer viscous nastiness. They are movies that leave you ready to scour your pupils with a Brillo pad, their approach something like the funny-smelling kid on the playground who’d sidle up to you and go, “Hey, wanna see something gross?”

Directed with garish verve by Kuei Chih-Hung––an exploitation expert and the house freak at Shaw Studio, who, in addition to supernatural splatter movies, turned out low comedies, women-in-prison pictures, and crime thrillers including the SM-tinged The Killer Snakes (1974)—Boxer’s Omen has something for everyone. A man vomiting an eel? Absolutely. Crocodile vivisections and the eating of raw entrails in the service of arcane rituals? Check and check. Some kind of frizzy-haired miniature Brontosaurus-looking critters that shoot optically printed lasers from their neck stumps? Uh-huh. Putrefied corpses? Only the most maggot-ridden you’ve ever seen! Much of this is featured over the course of the movie’s trio of mano-a-mano magician battles. Kuei had set the bar very high for this sort of thing with the grand finale of Bewitched (1981), to which Boxer’s Omen is a sequel of sorts, and which goes vaulting way over the top. In the floorshow-style face-offs, one can enjoy spellcasting performances of guttural delivery and constipated concentration as well as venom-slurping tarantulas and a self-decapitation before one of two end-on-end floating head attacks, which involves something that looks like a cousin of the Mac and Me (1988) extraterrestrial.

Bewitched and Boxer’s Omen are two of the rarities playing at Metrograph’s seven-film Halloween season series of Shaw horror films. This is part of a banner October for the venerable Hong Kong studio in New York City, as IFC Center’s Waverly Midnights program highlights a series of productions shot in the studio’s anamorphic Shaw-Scope format. These include their 1975 knock-off of the then-popular Japanese tokusatsu, The Super Inframan. Though for sheer rarity, nothing at IFC touches the Metrograph series, which includes several films, such as the Kuei twosome, that are currently out of print on domestic home video.

Men Hua Ho, Black Magic 2, 1976, DCP, color, sound, 89 minutes.

The rise of the black-magic movie at Shaw Brothers Studio followed a pattern that had long been at place at the company: on the back of innovation, imitation, exploitation, and popular success, expanding into new genre territory, and then ramping up production into overkill. Founded in 1958 in Hong Kong by Run Run Shaw and his older brother Runme, who had already helped to build a film-distribution empire in Shanghai and Singapore in the 1920s, the Shaw Brothers Studio became the primary force in local film production after opening a studio complex, Movietown, in Clearwater Bay in 1961, running the rival Cathay Organisation out of business and facing a fresh challenge only with the appearance of former Shaw lieutenant Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho’s upstart Golden Harvest, which broke through on the back of the Bruce Lee phenomenon at the beginning of the 1970s. The Shaws’ earlier rise to power was accomplished through several successful genre cycles, including the Huangmei opera musical (huangmei diao), the wenyi melodrama, the James Bond–influenced spy film, and, most famously, the wuxia, which depicted the martial feats of mythic heroes in a fantastic ancient China.

The Shaw horror movie arrived later, during a period when the studio was looking to recapture market dominance by delving into new possibilities thanks to shifting permissible standards regarding explicit sex and violence, or some combination of the two, as in Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972), forthcoming at IFC. Their black-magic cycle was, appropriately enough, launched in earnest by Ho Meng Hua’s Black Magic (1975). This was not the Shaws’ first foray into horror—they dabbled as far back as 1960’s Enchanting Shadow—but it was the one that established the model for what was to come, ushering in a new wave of ichor-oozing disreputability to slime screens across the Chinese-speaking world. Metrograph’s program includes the film’s 1976 semi-sequel, Black Magic 2, which has Lo Lieh replacing the previous movie’s Feng Ku as the nasty necromancer causing trouble, sending out corpses revivified by a nine-inch nail to the skull to do his bidding, while remaining forever young courtesy of a breast-milk diet.

In the Shaw horror film, the observation of obscure and obscene rites tends to take place of pride over tending to finer points of exposition, and narrative operates primarily as a vehicle to get from one atrocity to the next. And so, the “good guys” in Black Magic 2 are doctors, presumably only because their profession gives them a front-row seat to witness a procession of awful cases—squirming worms visible under the skin and what have you—connected to the activity of a sorcerer run amok, the rationalist skepticism only shaken after their absolutely idiotic undercover investigation backfires. In Chung Sun’s Human Lanterns (1982), a combination of wuxia and horror elements, Tony Liu’s kung fu master is baffled by the disappearance of his preferred courtesan and his wife. The character is as wealthy and powerful as he is dull-witted, and the movie reaches feature length only because he doesn’t immediately direct his investigation toward the most obvious suspect, his humiliated former romantic rival (Lo Lieh, again), fixed with an uglifying scar after their last duel, who now lives in a workshop shanty on the edge of town, where he makes lanterns of peerless beauty. (I will leave you to, with the title of the film in mind, deduce what has happened to the missing women.)

Chung Sun, Human Lanterns, 1982, 35 mm, color, sound, 95 minutes.

The morals of these movies, if one descries any, are simple: “Pride comes before a fall,” or “Don’t leave Hong Kong for other destinations in Southeast Asia”—in particular, Thailand, the setting of much of Black Magic and Boxer’s Omen. In Keith Li’s Centipede Horror (1982), a young Hong Konger fails to heed a family legend’s warning against travel and, disregarding her protective amulet for purposes of fashion, winds up dying horribly, patterned with pustules, cursed by a particularly savage spell for a generations-old crime. There is little moral justice to the distribution of death in these films––violation of the code of filial piety aside. She is but one of many perfectly sweet and sympathetic characters in these movies to meet miserable ends, victims of a cruel and indifferent fate.

These are not, in short, works that recommend themselves to admirers of a recent run of festival-touted genre movies that have in some sectors been tagged as “elevated horror,” which implies a connection to real-world social consciousness by way of easily comprehensible metaphor, tony cinematography, eggheaded self-seriousness, and a total incomprehension of the atavistic, reptilian brain qualities of the horror movie. The black-magic movie doesn’t even fit the requirements of the well-made film, but what it lacks in harmonious balance and pretty proportion it more than makes up for with piquancy and with the proliferation of images custom-made to brand the brain, which wriggle into the subconscious just as scads of creepy-crawlies in Centipede Horror wriggle out of the open mouth of Margaret Lee Tin-long, who deserves every acting accolade in existence for her work here.

To watch the skittering army of arthropods in Li’s film—their rampages set to excerpts from Tangerine Dream’s score for Sorcerer (1977), I might add—is to sorely test the strength of one’s stomach. This is only one of the many glimpses that these films provide into the mouth of hell, including Lo in Human Lanterns wrenching sheets of skin from his flayed captives, or his stunt double bounding into frame in his masked shaggy-booted kidnapper’s costume, his eerie flight rendered stranger still as suspended in slow-motion, and the birthing of inhuman abominations in both Black Magic 2 and Seeding of a Ghost (1983), in which the gelatinous mass breaks up a mah-jongg game with tendrils a-twirling.

What the Shaw Brothers Studio dealt in was not elevated, but degraded, horror—superstitious, sleazy, salacious, utterly degenerate, with the occasional sophistication of technique offset by an absolute primitivity of subject matter, their leering and lascivious elements often curiously cut with a heavy dose of Buddhist mysticism, as in Boxer’s Omen. The films aim for nothing higher than to repulse, and such terrible simplicity is nigh irresistible.

“Shaw Brothers Horror” runs from October 19 to October 24 at Metrograph in New York.