There’s something about The Queen of Black Magic that feels vaguely celebratory. Indonesian horror is currently ascendant, giving us films like The Night Comes For Us, Satan’s Slaves and of course Impetigore (which will be Indonesia’s offering for best foreign language film at the upcoming Oscars). By remaking the classic 1981 cult hit of the same name, it pays homage to the roots of Indonesian genre cinema while showcasing the best of the country’s contemporary talents. It’s a well-earned victory lap, but does it successfully move things forward or instead rest on its laurels?
The movie opens with Hanif (Ario Bayu) making a return visit, with family in tow, to the orphanage where he grew up. Mr. Bandi, the elderly patriarch of the orphanage, is unwell, and for Hanif and his childhood friends the trip represents their chance to pay their last respects. However, all is not well with the orphanage, and deadly supernatural goings-on point to dark secrets from the past that are now clawing their way to the surface.
The film’s script was penned by Joko Anwar, director of instant classic Impetigore. As they will both be available on Shudder, it’s inevitable that the two films will be compared to each other by western audiences. The stories share some similarities, with the focus on urban characters returning to their familial roots in rural settings, and on supernatural revenges for past sins. Where Impetigore was rich and atmospheric throughout, this feels stagier, with more static shots and staple characters. The performances are all strong, but it’s a large ensemble cast, so characterisation can be a touch shallow as a result, with less time to spend on crafting each player as a unique personality. Director Kimo Stamboel (one half of directing duo the Mo Brothers who brought us Macabre and Killers), however, really comes into his own when the film descends into chaos.
In an early scene set on a school bus, we get our first taste of what is to come. It’s a tight and well executed scene, and one that deftly interweaves ghostly suspense with visceral body horror. As the story progresses, the violence becomes more bloody and unhinged, and even some slightly ropey CG doesn’t detract from the overall sense of chaotic barbarity. The entity that wreaks its vengeance is rage-filled and indiscriminate. Some of the punishments it metes out have a sense of grim irony to them, such as a woman with an eating disorder who is possessed and acts on her very darkest impulses, while others are more random and unpredictable. The body horror is stomach-churning and arrives in relentless barrages in the film’s final third.
The film is one of two halves, with a slow-burn intro full of intrigue and mystery that devolves into recrimination and shocking violence in the second half. In some ways, this is a shame. The revenge plotline has some interesting things to say about the complicity of bystanders and those who ignore evil or repress their memories of guilt. In one scene, a character pleads “We didn’t know!”, only to be met with the chilling response: “That is also a sin”. Unfortunately, the twists, revelations and subtleties of the revenge plot tend to be overshadowed by the merciless horror on show.
All in all, The Queen of Black Magic more than lives up to the sterling reputation of contemporary Indonesian horror cinema. Its flaws tend to be compensated for by an infectious energy, and it has a gritty, grindhouse sensibility that is sure to endear it to hardened horror fans worldwide.