A substantial amount of the Indonesian films that made big waves in “the west” have been their stellar action movies that usually come with extra kicks and blood splatter. Headshot among them, was co-directed by Kimo Stamboel who has come back to direct one of the latest in delicious scary movies out of the country, The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam).
Written by Joko Anwar (Satan’s Slaves), The Queen of Black Magic tells the haunting tale of an orphanage plagued by a witch and its sordid history. When some grown orphans, now married with children, return to their old home to visit their patriarch, they’re plagued by bad omens and the devastating look of their withering parental figure. Leaving their children to explore the spooky home, some of the adults check on the deer one suspects he hit up the road and discover a bus full of dead children. Terrified, they investigate the fright, while the visitors slowly descend into a haunting madness that begins to reveal the dark secrets held within the orphanage’s walls.
The story is a loose remake of a 1979 film by the same name. Anwar’s version takes the elements of a vengeful witch and applies them to the story of youth, exploitation, and a different shade of a woman’s vengeance. Not a direct rehashing of the original nor the familiar tale of a woman being accused of being a witch, The Queen of Black Magic leans on the story of women believing to have been unjustly harmed by men and finding justice through the craft of magic. That’s what adds a deeper layer to this otherwise fun twist on the haunted house and dark witchcraft tale.
Though the story ends up having meat on its bones, the film’s larger successes are in the tone and visuals. The whole stage is drenched in drab colours that both feel like the sunny yellow of the resort the orphanage could turn into or the gross yellow tone of dirt and decrepit walls. Beyond that, the gross out blend of CGI and practical effects create really fun scares that rely just enough on camera tricks and perspective. There are bugs aplenty, which sometimes look a bit too cartoony, but it also lends to a spooky feeling of not being able to keep track of them since they move so freely. The knife cuts and blood are gross and are played in fun ways with changing camera perspectives. The magic makes for the types of scares where characters lose control, something familiar for those who’ve seen, for instance, The Blair Witch Project. The magic isn’t just to make for scary physical entities, but it can mess with your perception, change directions so you feel lost, and make it impossible to communicate with the outside world.
With the slow burning ramp up to the big finale, it comes as a larger surprise than perhaps it should, but it’s still effective. The last hurrah is big, scary, and yelly and has some pretty great gags you’ll want to revisit for any of your year end “best moments” lists. The story falls off a bit, convoluting who is sympathetic and who to root for, but this is done in service of the scares which are effective enough to throw the rug over the mess.
There’s a lot to keep track of in this story of orphans returning to their old home, now with partners and children of their own, sharing space with the new residents, all of whom have their own metaphorical demons. But it’s effectively played so that no singular issue is imperative to follow. Each characters’ tale stands up just enough on its own to make for specific scares, and they all blend together to create the blanketing sense of dread. This culminates in a disgusting display of terror that is mean to everyone who dares stumble into frame.
The Queen of Black Magic is coming soon to AMC’s streaming service, Shudder.