Indonesian writer/director Joko Anwar has tried his hand at romantic comedies (2005’s Joni’s Promise), thrillers (2009’s The Forbidden Door) and superhero stories (2019’s Gundala), but it’s in the horror sphere – mostly thanks to last year’s superior, folkloric Impetigore – that he found international acclaim.
Now, with Anwar being spoken of as the whiz-kid of the cultishly admired Indonesian horror scene, he’s tipping the cap to those who came before. The Queen Of Black Magic, scripted by Anwar and directed by Kimo Stamboel, known for 2017’s ultra-violent Headshot, is a remake of a cheap but well-loved 1981 movie little known outside of its country of origin.
Drawing only sparingly from its source material, Anwar’s story finds childhood friends Hanif, Jefri and Anton meeting at the remote orphanage they once called home, where the man who raised them, Mr Bandi, lays dying. Those with a working knowledge of the genre know that orphanages in horror movies are rarely happy or wholesome places and this one – seemingly besieged by a vengeful (and dead) former employee – proves to be a particularly poor choice for an overnight stay.
As a history of long-hidden atrocities are revealed, the visitors turn on themselves thanks to the titular ‘black magic’ – a clearly very potent but largely unexplained entity in the film. Once a staple of Western horror cinema, black magic and voodoo has been wisely taking a break lately, given it’s a genre that too often relies on gross cultural stereotyping and exploitation. In The Queen Of Black Magic’s exotic setting, it’s a device used to pleasingly horrible effect, particularly in a scene in which one character slices chunks off herself like doner kebab meat. When we say there’s a one particularly eye-popping scene, we literally mean there’s a scene in which someone’s eye pops out.
The mutilation, supernatural menace, isolated house and dense forest beyond will remind fans of Evil Dead, itself released in 1981 and spawning a very watchable latter-day remake. But the specifics of the location add a special something too: you can almost feel the stickiness of the air and closeness of atmosphere, and the forest setting provides its own horrors in beetles burrowing into flesh, millipedes emerging from mouths and a person guzzling down fistfuls of big, hairy caterpillars. Hiro Ishizaka’s sound design, meanwhile, seems full of the menace of unknown creatures in the distance.
Unlike the likes of Evil Dead, there’s a pleasing attempt to drive the plot forward, too, the focus on whodunnit – and what they did – shifting as we learn more about the horrors in the orphanage, and as the horror builds to a frenzied crescendo. It’s not as clever as Impetigore, for sure – but it’s a hell of a ride.
Director: Kimo Stamboel
Starring: Ario Bayu, Hannah Al Rashid, Adhisty Zara, Muzakki Ramdhan, Ari Irham
Release date: January 29 (Shudder)