The original The Queen of Black Magic from 1981 is a classic Indonesian horror film that features plenty of gnarly kills and a showcase of some incredible special effects. It’s also a female-centric revenge story where one woman gets ostracized from her village and comes back fluent in the dark arts, ready to unleash Hell on the entire village. It’s a fun, satisfying B-movie that impresses in its execution. Flash forward to Kimo Stamboel’s film of the same name, written by Joko Anwar, which goes-for-broke in being disgusting but loses itself in an adaptation that struggles to find the humanity of a situation before doubling down on the horror. The Queen of Black Magic ultimately finds itself fumbling with similar ideas as the original, sacrificing its potential in the name of unrelenting nihilism and grotesque imagery.
Considering Joko Anwar’s previous adaptation of another Indonesian horror film Satan’s Slave, it’s neat to see him resurrecting another classic even if this feels a bit more loosely connected and modernized. In this film, Hanif (Ario Bayu), Anton (Tanta Ginting), and Jefri (Miller Khan) bring their families together to the orphanage that the three men grew up in, having one final reunion before the owner, Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), passes away. Planning to spend one night, everything immediately starts going awry as each person staying at the orphanage begins to experience hallucinations that prey on their specific fears. As they start suspecting that a person from their past is causing this living nightmare, the bodies begin piling up and the film ratchets up the terror until there’s little hope anything will go well.
In classic Indonesian cinematic fashion, The Queen of Black Magic is bleak and violent. Perhaps bleaker than the original because even that slightly acknowledges how brutal it’s being. There’s almost no rest once the horror starts in Stamboel and Anwar’s vision of Hell. Part of this is contributed by the film’s more unique scares that were often disgusting, rarely holding back from the worst-case scenario. It’s not quite torture porn, but an abundance of suffering that refuses to let up makes this one of the more sinister Indonesian horror films. Little bits of levity early on and an eventual reveal of why this is happening to the guests only heightens the tension.
However, there doesn’t appear to be much thought put beyond the terror of the situation. The ultimate reveal for why the violence and horror is happening is a mixed bag, akin to the original film. There’s all-consuming violence that’s happening which, like the original, seems to want to confront and explore the idea of blanket justice but never goes beyond addressing it. Which is ultimately this film’s downfall as it often feels like everything in service of the scare as opposed to the film itself. Instead, The Queen of Black Magic winds up being an amusement park of grotesque imagery.
There’s so much potential in The Queen of Black Magic, but it just misses the mark in so many regards.
Even in that regard though, there’s a silliness to it all that just can’t be shook. Even in its most terrifying moments, CG often dampens the experience. It’s hardly the film’s worst problem, but the gore and disturbing ideas are cheapened by a digital sheen over it all. The most obvious example of this is the constant use of insects crawling in and out of orifices, never looking realistic when staring directly at the screen but potentially tricking someone just casually glancing at the film. All of the repulsiveness on display is often marred by how it is presented, which was not an issue with the original as it revels in practical effects, often feeling a little silly but always nailing the intended effect. Instead, The Queen of Black Magic forces the imagination to do a little more work.
This is par for the course with Kimo Stamboel whose work with Timo Tjahjanto on movies like Headshot and Killers has always left me wanting and imagining the slightly improved version of their films. The potential is always right there on the screen, but something always feels slightly off. The special effects here are only ever hurt when the film goes digital but it almost always goes digital, lessening the impact of each scare as the seams show. Perhaps it’s for the best though since there is a darkness here that already feels palpable, proving that atmosphere can go a long way to remedy minor issues.
The Queen of Black Magic starts off fairly slow as it establishes its characters and their relationships, but it doesn’t ever pay that off in a substantial way because it’s characters often lack. The major drawback with the film is that the majority of characters are just toys intended to be destroyed in as gruesome a way as possible. By the time things wrap up, The Queen of Black Magic feels hollow and lifeless, almost like it forgets about the weight which the narrative possesses. There’s so much hefty material to unpack from the film’s late-game reveal, but by that point, it has built a tension to itself that can’t be broken for introspection.
There’s so much potential in The Queen of Black Magic, but it just misses the mark in so many regards. Its greatest strength is in its clever collection of scares, seemingly ceaseless in their shock value. Combined with a frequently tense atmosphere and a cast that’s game to be mutilated and forever frightened, there’s still plenty to love for horror fans. It’s a shallow affair though as the rollercoaster ride of terrors fails to leave a lasting impression of more than its most frightening moments.