The Bad Movie Report

The Magic Serpent

Know this, O Best Beloved: Once there was a Golden Age, when TV on Saturday afternoons was filled, not by reruns of Full House and endless infomercials, but by Kung Fu Theatre. One could tune in each and every Saturday and witness the wonders of Five Deadly Venoms, The Kid With the Golden Arm, Master Killer and many other examples of Chinese mayhem. You also got to see The Magic Serpent, which, while not Chinese, does feature Asians wailing on each other with swords - ergo, by the same logic which dumped the WWII movie Camp on Blood Island in the weekly Horror Movie Slot, Magic Serpent belongs with the kung-fu flicks. Upon watching it, though, what we find is a pretty fair action fantasy.

We begin, as we have so many times before, with an attack on The Castle. Perhaps any castle would do, but this castle belongs to Lord Ogata, and he is besieged by some of the least-sneaky ninjas on record. They attack in full daylight, throwing bombs and other such noisy diversions. The attack is orchestrated by treacherous right-hand man Yukidaijo, who kills the lord and his wife, so he can take the throne. He is aided in this by villainous ninja boss Orukimaru.

*ahem*  Godzilla sound!  Godzilla sound!Fortunately, faithful retainers have slipped away in a boat with the young prince, Ikazuki. Unfortunately, Orukimaru morphs himself into a huge Oriental dragon, complete with elk horns and Godzilla's roar, and sinks the boat, drowning the retainers. The Dragon is just about to have a tasty Prince snack when a hawk puppet plunges from the heavens and flies off with the boy.

Whew. All this is before the opening credits.

After the credits, we find that Ikazuki has grown to manhood under the tutleage of the Old Ninja Master (who sent the hawk). The Master tells Ikazuki he's learned all his ninja magic, it's time Don't worry about the head - it's only a flesh wound.for him to hit the outside world, and he'll explain why after dinner. This, of course, insures that the Master will not outlast the appetizer. While the Prince fends off a ninja attack by having his head cut off (!), the Master is visited by his old student, none other than Orukimaru. Master is still pissed that Orukimaru took off years ago with his dragon-morphing scroll, and Orukimaru does not improve matters by killing the old man.

Ikazuki arrives too late, accompanied by Sonate, a babe who is the forest looking for her long-lost father. The Master fends off death long enough to tell Ikazuki of his royal ancestry, and to set up the rest of the story. He also recognizes Sonate, but dies before he can tell her the identity of her father. Damn!

Ikazuki takes off to go kill all the bad guys. Sonate similarly continues her quest, but not before Orukimaru knows how to make an entrance.she is visited by her Grandmother, another old mystic who travels by sinking into the ground (apparently, in medieval Japan, you could not spit in a forest without hitting several mystics). Grandma warns Sonate that since her father abandoned her mother, chances are very good she will not like the guy when she finally finds him. But Sonate is determined, so Grandma gives her a Magic Hairpin to use in case of emergencies.

You didn't have to predict that Darth was Luke's father to know that Sonate's dad is none other than Orukimaru, and that he will use her friendship with Ikazuki in a fiendish plot to kill the Prince. Or that the plot will fail, because she loves Ikazuki. Suffice to say that after several Ikazuki and friend.swordfights filled with magic, Ikazuki morphs into some sort of giant horned frog and offs Yukidaijo, interrupting the mandatory Dance Number (which has a suspiciously modern cha-cha-cha beat). Orukimaru shows up and turns back into the titular creature, and both monsters set about to destroying the miniature sets. The Frog, incidentally, breathes fire. Luckily for Evil Everywhere, the Dragon breathes water. Sonate crops up and, sick of her father's villainy, uses the Magic Hairpin to summon a giant spider, and then it is time for KAIJU BIG BATTEL!.

As everyone who has seen Godzilla vs. Mothra (or, as we used to refer to it, Godzilla vs. the KAIJU BIG BATTEL!!!!!Thing) knows, big roaring beasties are no match for smaller squealing beasties that shoot webbing, so Orukimaru's dragon gets its skinny butt kicked. Ikazuki and Orukimaru square off for a final dramatic (if not terribly well-staged) surf-side sword fight. Orukimaru winds up dying a bubbling, flashing-light underwater-disco kind of death, Ikazuki renounces his throne and goes off to live in the forest with Sonate, leaving the peasants to their own designs. The End.

AIP-TV brought over this 1966 Toei fantasy for some package deal, and did not serve it too well. The original is in some widescreen Scope format, made very obvious by the constant, almost Dragonball Z, eat your heart out!panic-striken panning-and-scanning - possibly the most I've seen since a Sergio Leone film. The special effects - and there are a lot of them - seem almost charmingly low-tech today. Flying scenes are almost never done with wires, as in Chinese movies, but by (none too good) matte work. One scene, with Ikazuki flying around on a fireball, is a still photo against a moving background.

But then, we're not here to go gosh-oh-wow, we're here to have fun, and The Magic Serpent serves that up aplenty. The various swordfights and attendant magic tricks are plentiful and often surprising, and were probably quite amazing and delightful when originally shown. In short, if you can leave your Industrial Light & Magic expectations behind and get in touch with the kid inside you, The Magic Serpent can lead to the sort of experience that allows you to say "Cool!" and mean it.


Gotta love those low-tech hi-jinx!

- May 10, 1998