Wild Women With Steak Knives: BLACK MAGIC WOMAN (Deryn Warren, 1991)

Humping its way through soft focus, BLACK MAGIC WOMAN may take you by surprise.

By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas · @suspirialex · July 15, 2022, 3:03 PM EDT
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Editor's Note: In each Wild Women with Steak Knives entry, author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas examines a woman-directed horror film that's been largely overlooked or forgotten. Read them all here!

Surely the only thing better than a good, solid '90s erotic thriller is a good, solid '90s erotic thriller with witches. Throw in a horny Luke Skywalker rutting in an art gallery with Prince's girlfriend from Purple Rain while a Santana song plays in the background, and surely this is the exact kind of movie that makes life worth living. Welcome to the world of Deryn Warren's 1991 hidden treasure, Black Magic Woman.

The film follows what in retrospect seems like an almost parodically constructed late' 80s/early '90s power couple; Mark Hamill plays gallerist Brad, a smooth-talking art world darling with a wandering eye, while the always-fabulous Amanda Wyss is Diane, his wealthy business associate and long-suffering girlfriend who yearns for him to settle down and get his matrimony on. Enter the deliriously sensual Cassandra - played by the iconic Apollonia Kotero - and it becomes almost instantly apparent that Diane's dreams of Brad reigning in his wandering peen are still some ways from fruition.

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Humping their way through a soft focus, Fatal Attraction-flavored one-night stand, Brad is ready to return to his otherwise stable life. Afterward, he grows increasingly concerned that Cassandra has other ideas. Evidence of what he believes is stalking, rapidly garners a body count as shit goes from weird to weirder, with Brad seeking protective spells to stave off the black magic the film's titular woman has seemingly cast on him. But are things as straightforward as they seem?

Black Magic Woman is so very much the exact kind of movie I live for that I do have to wonder if director Deryn Warren somehow got a sample of my DNA and made it specifically for me. Every now and then, when I write about women-directed horror, I am hit with that tiresome old chestnut - usually from men, sadly - that "not everything has to be political." On the surface, at least, Black Magic Woman would surely be a more than perfect example of a movie that is fun on the surface but doesn't have much else going on underneath.

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Sure, if that's how you wish to engage with the film - knock yourself out, I am not going to stop you. But for those who like using nouns and verbs in sentences and sometimes having thoughts about stuff, Black Magic Woman is a masterclass in a seemingly fluffy, disposable genre film, the spoonful of sugar that helps the ideological medicine go down. Because at the heart of this film lies some extraordinary twists and turns that pivot on assumptions about ethnicity, gender and sexuality; the exoticized, almost fetishized way that the Mexican Apollonia is presented in the film as being so distinct from WASP Diane, the links between both black and white magic to people of color, and the implicit ethical neutrality of whiteness all play really active roles in what makes this film tick.

Nothing about this movie at first glance suggests it has much to say about, well, really anything at all. And by the end of the movie, if you just wanted to see Luke Skywalker and Prince's girlfriend from Purple Rain get their fuck on, well, congratulations - it's your lucky day. But - without revealing any spoilers - if you are looking for an intriguing little film that genuinely has something quite profound to say about our own biases about race and gender politics, Black Magic Woman might take you by surprise. And probably from behind, in soft focus.

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