It’d be hard to top any movie in which a freshly decapitated head flies through the air hellbent on biting its nearest enemy, but the right filmmaking energy can certainly do something like that justice. Indonesian horror The Queen of Black Magic, a homage to the 1981 cult classic of the same name, does its predecessor proud.
You can’t really call The Queen of Black Magic — directed by Kimo Stamboel (Headshot) and written by Joko Anwar (Impetigore), two of the biggest names in Indonesian genre cinema at the moment — a remake. It borrows certain elements from Liliek Sudjio’s 40-year-old witchy revenge tale, an odd blend of grindhouse (that decapitation mentioned above, by the way, is a self-decapitation) and some rather unsubtle religious propaganda. But on the whole, the new Queen of Black Magic is very much its own thing. An incredibly brutal thing at that — though its many creepy-crawly and splattery flourishes help propel a story that lays the groundwork for some excellent twists and turns.
The Queen of Black Magic begins by introducing us to an ordinary family of five on a road trip from Jakarta — the kids wanted to go to Bali, but their father, Hanif (Impetigore’s Ario Bayu), is taking them and his wife, Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid), to see the rural orphanage where he grew up. There’s a sense of urgency to the visit, since the facility’s elderly headmaster is at death’s door and has been asking to see Hanif and his boyhood pals Anton (Tanta Ginting) and Jefri (Miller Khan). But the orphanage holds some very dark secrets — like orphanages in horror movies always do, don’t they? — with a tragic history that everyone remembers differently; the one person who knows the truth has been biding her time until the opportunity for vengeance presents itself.
Aside from the orphanage, a place where psychic wounds lurk very close to the surface, The Queen of Black Magic brings in some other horror tropes (nobody’s cell phone works, there’s no neighbours for miles, there’s a mysterious locked room, someone finds a trove of damning photographs…a sinister VHS tape even gets its moment!) without feeling like it’s falling into a genre rut. And though it has a pretty large ensemble — Anton and Jefri both bring their wives, and besides the ailing old man, the orphanage has a couple of kids still in care, as well as a domestic staff made up of long-term residents who just never left — the movie does a decent job of making sure even the more one-dimensional characters actually feel like real people. But the truth is the characters aren’t the real draw here: it’s the underlying mystery, as well as the brain-mangling horrors foisted upon every single cast member, even the children.
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The special effects look to be mostly CG — an upgrade from the 1981 version, though there’s something undeniably charming about that film’s unabashed embrace of bubbling flesh and exploding body parts. But the creative array of awfulness on display in the new film cannot be emphasised enough. You get gouged-out eyeballs. You get a popped-out eyeball. You get centipedes (so many centipedes) as well as furry caterpillars. You get multiple scenes of self-mutilation. And that’s before you get to the gross-out Grand Guignol situation that takes over most of act three — not long after Hanif delivers the understatement of the year by taking in the carnage and deducing “It seems that someone is trying to get revenge.” Let’s just say The Queen of Black Magic is absolutely not a movie for the faint of heart, but if you have the stomach for it, it achieves some rare heights.
To dig too much into The Queen of Black Magic’s story points would be to spoil its wild ride, but the updates it makes to the original go beyond the quality and quantity of special effects. In the 1981 film, the title character is accused of witchcraft by a former lover who cruelly discarded her. When she’s left for dead by an angry mob, she’s saved by an old man who teaches her black magic so she can make her enemies suffer in return — a plan that seems dandy only until he starts using her as a pawn in his own payback plot.
The new film, meanwhile, lets the title character (whose identity in this context isn’t revealed until late in the story, so we won’t spoil it here) come into her own. There’s no man lurking in the background this time — just a checklist of personal vendettas motivated by white-hot hate. We don’t get to see how she learned her powers, but we get a very clear picture of just how cleverly, revoltingly destructive she is. A true horror queen indeed.
The Queen of Black Magic hits Shudder on January 28.