Director: Kimo Stamboel
Notable Cast: Hannah Al Rashid, Ario Bayu, Adhisty Zara, Muzakki Ramdhan, Ari Irham, Ade Firman Hakim, Sheila Dara Aisha, Tanta Ginting, Miller Khan, Imelda Therinne, Salvita Decorte, Giulio Parengkuan, Shenina Cinnamon, Yayu A.W. Unru, Ruth Marini
When they announced that Kimo Stamboel’s solo directorial effort, Queen of Black Magic, would be one of the films I had the opportunity to watch at the virtual Fantastic Fest this year, my heart skipped a beat. Quite frankly, it was probably the film I was most eager to see. A loose remake of the 1981 bonkers horror classic, the combination of one of the Mo Brothers and writer (and fantastic director in his own right) Joko Anwar was easily a lethal combination that warrants excitement. To put it bluntly, Queen of Black Magic lives up to the expectations. It’s a raucous cinematic experience, powered by a potent balance of atmospheric tension, gag worthy gore, and effective bent narrative storytelling. For fans of either Kimo’s work, solo or with the Mo Brothers, or Joko Anwar, then Queen of Black Magic cannot be recommended enough.
When Nif’s family, wife and three kids, go back to the orphanage to visit the dying man that raised him, it’s meant to be a long-awaited reunion and a way to show the family how far he has come. When they arrive though, along with the families of his ‘brothers,’ they discover not everything is as it seems. As the night passes, people start to succumb to strange and supernatural events and the deeper that they dig, the more the past seems intent on destroying them with the truth.
Following in the steps of other fantastic Indonesian horror films that have made it across to the Pacific in the last couple of years, there is a thematic sense where tradition meets modernity in Queen of Black Magic that translates well. Not only as a film that remakes a horror classic from decades passed, but in its narrative and plotting. The manner that the past haunts the present is one that exists in other Indonesian horror modern classics like May the Devil Take You, Satan’s Slaves, and another Joko Anwar piece from earlier this year, Impetigore. At this point, one might be able to classify the movement as something of its own subgenre. For Queen of Black Magic, the lies and hidden truths of years prior never go away and instead become empowered by the darkness they are buried in. For this film, it’s in the form of the titular Queen, who proceeds to exact revenge and more on those who wronged her. Even when one character asks for mercy on those who were not there or were ignorant, her claim is that ignorance is its own sin and still worth the punishment.
It is this weirdly thoughtful critique that rings true throughout Queen of Black Magic. There are more elements to certainly dig into that are toyed with in the script, including the innocence of childhood, how the film slyly shifts its protagonist to Nif’s wife, and the strong feminist undertone where women end up reclaiming power from a system meant to punish, disbelieve, and exploit them, but that’s often the brilliance of Joko Anwar in writing for horror. While on the surface the film tends to read like a blend of influences in ‘rural horror,’ there is such a strangely effective thematic weight to the material that it sticks around long after the credits.
Naturally, the success of Queen of Black Magic in telling its story falls into the hands of Kimo Staboel. At this point, his other solo directorial effort Dread Out, has not seen a US release, but if this is any indicator, the split of the Mo Brothers has proven to give audiences twice as many awesome genre efforts. He handles the concept of the film well here. Although it is essentially an ensemble cast, the manner that he takes the time to develop their characters in the first half, only teasing at the horrors to come, is sharp. The performances are on the mark, particularly as shit hits the proverbial fan, and the atmospheric build of its exposition to set up the groundwork is, while formulaic, well executed.
Of course, this leads to the latter half of Queen of Black Magic which lives up to the bonkers original film. Heavily inspired by the likes of Sam Raimi, something that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Kimo’s back catalog, the second half is a gory roundhouse kick to the gag reflex. Bugs, blood, bonkers. The film refuses to hold back in delivering on its horrifying terrors as the Queen starts toying with her victims and the larger ensemble cast makes for plenty of slaughter fodder. Occasionally the CGI can feel disconnected from the moments, particularly in the use of the bugs, but when the film kicks into practical effects – it soars to roar.
Queen of Black Magic is a visceral and vibrant horror experience. Kimo proves his worth as a director, Anwar continues to find fascinating cultural stories that translate well to international audiences, and the thematic slap of its ideas slither into the psyche in surprising ways. For fans of the recent boom of Indonesian horror, this is a must-see. For fans of horror in general, it’s also a must-see. Now if only Kimo’s other film would get a release, we could truly celebrate.