The Indonesian horror scene is continuing to reach new audiences thanks in part to streaming services like Shudder, and their latest exclusive is no slouch. The Queen of Black Magic, a loose remake of the 1981 film of the same name, is a combined project from director Kimo Stamboel (Headshot, DreadOut) and writer Joko Anwar (Satan’s Slaves, Impetigore). For those that are squeamish, let me tell you right now that this is probably not something you would want to see. Trust me. For those genre hounds who don’t mind a good amount of gruesome acts of violence and gore (maybe some of you even enjoy that kinda thing), The Queen of Black Magic offers up plenty of terrifying scenes that would certainly elicit groans and screams from a packed theater. If only it had a strong enough story to match it.
The film is the tale of three childhood friends, Hanif (Ario Bayu), Jefri (Miller Khan), and Anton (Tanta Ginting), who are returning to the orphanage where they grew up. They’re here to pay their final respects to the man who took care of them, Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), and they’ve brought their families along with them. But several things make for an unsettling trip: The orphanage is nearly empty, and although the group is informed that the children are on their way back from a day trip, the hours continue to pass and the evening continues to grow darker. Photos are strangely facing backwards. Some family members are behaving a bit oddly. As the children ask questions about their parents’ lives growing up in the orphanage, it becomes obvious that the three men are hiding something. And what they’ve kept secret may have finally caught up with them.
That’s an interesting enough setup, and The Queen of Black Magic is able to mine the creepy location and mystery surrounding it to create slow, creeping tension and a true sense of dread. Scenes are allowed to drag out their spooky atmosphere and work up to gut-churning frenzies; sequences include but are not limited to acts of self-mutilation, insects wriggling their way in and out of orifices, and child murder. The film is an obvious sort of ghost story, but whatever supernatural forces are at play are wisely held back for most of it. The scares are genuinely and successfully terrifying, and their nasty intensity recalls the early works of Western filmmakers like Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson, but frustratingly, much of them ring hollow by the film’s end.
From a storytelling perspective, The Queen of Black Magic suffers from the same issue that Impetigore did. The answers to the mysteries that both films set up are revealed in an extremely uninteresting way: a character eventually just dumps a ton of exposition to explain things, usually accompanied by a silent flashback. There’s some chatter about class disparities and whether kids are better off with or without parents (what if those parents are abusers?), but nothing is able to manifest itself in the story in any meaningful way. There are certainly plenty of elements within the script that hint at deeper ideas, but the film dissolves into a rather bland revenge plot that shirks away from the more intriguing aspects.
By the time the film reaches the Carousel of Torture that is its third act, it’s difficult to find a reason to care. Multiple characters are maimed or killed and howl and scream in pure agony, but the movie never allows for us to really know any of them beforehand. Apart from a couple of the children, no character is able to establish any real kind of personality for themselves, and their ghastly demises aren’t likely to be met with the emotional impact they should have. Everything in the film feels thinly defined, from the men’s relationship to Mr. Bandi to their relationships with their wives and kids, and without that more human side to latch on to, the cruel violence loses depth. The whole brutal affair ends up being nearly emotionless.
I say nearly, because there is still that vital emotion that The Queen of Black Magic is able to produce: Fear. There’s so much technique in the way the film’s scare sequences are put together, and there’s plenty of imagery that will stick in your mind for days after. If this kind of artful sadism was employed in a deeper and more meaningful story, it could create something genuinely powerful.