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Far East Extreme: A Celebration of “The Queen of Black Magic”

Tuesday, October 15, 2019 | Far East Extreme

      Ever since my previous encounter with Indonesian Horror (the disappointing Rumah Dara), I was determined to find a more satisfying example of this genre from that country. I had heard of and seen clips of some of Indonesia’s more retro offerings, and thought I might watch one for some so-bad-it’s-good style entertainment. As it turns out, I didn’t give the Indonesian horror scene of the 1980s enough credit; The Queen of Black Magic actually has a bit of meat on its Halloween store skeleton bones, and can be appreciated on its own without the need for MST3K style commentary.

            From the outset, the film is on-point with its pacing: within the first five minutes we see a wedding between local rich brat Kohar and the unfortunate Baedah take a turn for the worse. When the bride begins seeing Kohar and his retinue as demons, and people are found helplessly floating in the air, the locals become convinced that black magic is at play. This leads to Murni (horror icon Suzzanna) being accused of witchcraft and hilariously flung off a cliff, before being revived by an actual practitioner of the dark arts (played by the prolific W.D. Mochtar.) This efficiently sets up a revenge plot which right away provides some pathos for the audience and also allows us to enjoy the director’s rather creative uses of this “Black Magic.”

            The Queen of Black Magic, despite what it may have been in its day, represents a comfortable space for western horror fans: it is basically a Muslim analogue to Christian Horror films like The Exorcist. We also have some great exotic locales: a realistic looking village that can add some realism and immersion even as the acting and effects take away from it somewhat. Make no mistake, the film is quite tonally different from The Exorcist, and the first act is gobs of big dumb fun. First, Murni’s quest to become the titular “Queen of Black Magic” (and this line is actually used, in case you were wondering how goofy this movie can get) seems to involve magical “training,” which is basically the actress doing backflips on a trampoline while naked! Then, once we fast forward to Murni gaining her powers, she continues head-long on her quest for payback to anyone who’s ever wronged her. This includes using her using powers of teleportation, causing people to explode, voodoo dolls, shooting fire and…bees? Yes, bees; Nicholas Cage would be proud! Another significant part of these scenes are the characterizations of your typical Frankenstein-style villager, which in this context begs the question: Are the villagers really stupid and superstitious if black magic is real? Still, it sure is cool to watch them die, aided by some good fog and a kooky soundtrack that alternates between 50s flying saucer flick camp and some actually well-composed ambient tunes.

The Queen of Black Magic, despite what it may have been in its day, represents a comfortable space for western horror fans: it is basically a Muslim analogue to Christian Horror films like The Exorcist.”

        

            However, not all is well in revengeland; this film does exhibit some hallmarks of a developing industry in a developing country: the films editing seems to be literally stitched together. At worst, characters are wearing different clothes in the same scene! (Does anyone remember Kung Pow?) The crappy props and wire-fu on display will also elicit some groans. It isn’t quite Ed Wood level, so we can at least give the stuntmen an A for effort. The same cannot be said for some of the supporting cast, I.E anyone besides the top 4 or 5 actors – these random villagers would have been better off if Murni cut out their tongues rather than simply making their heads fly off. Equally strange is the passage of time in the film: scenes showing the kidnapping and return of a baby seemingly happen in short sequence, but within the story itself we are led to believe that years may have gone by! The plot also seems humdrum for much of the movie’s runtime. Notice I said seems: for the first half of the movie it’s good vs. evil without an actual good guy. Handsome ol’ Kohar, rather than being redeemed, is unceremoniously killed. Luckily for us, this is when the film actually gets interesting.

            Finally, we find our hero: a traveling pious man who claims, unlike the village head who spurns superstition, that the way to defeat the superstition in black magic is with faith, and to do so the villagers must rebuild their mosque. This film, in many ways a Muslim morality play, criticizes the villagers not for their superstitious ways but their superficial materialism. The devil, you see, poisons your mind as well as your body, and it is the fear of black magic which is making people so crazy. It’s an interesting take, but not completely logical. Granted, humans can be capricious and weak, and perhaps do need the guidance of a higher power; however, in a world where black magic is shown to exist, isn’t the fear of it entirely justified? Thus, wouldn’t people be equally well served by getting rid of both magic and religion from their lives? Better yet, why not learn black magic themselves to fight the demons off for good?  Rather, let’s take notice of the consistent flaw of the villains: their all-encompassing desire for revenge. The true path to enlightenment, it would seem, would be to let go of vengeance and forgive one another. To that end, we get a twist ending from the film that was actually pretty well done, and incorporated parts of the backstory I had completely forgotten about and thought would have no significance. This film, it must be said, does have some ideas, and surprising depth for what is commonly thought of as shlock. If the acting and editing had been more consistent across the board this could have been a real classic. As it stands, The Queen of Black Magic is simply a fun horror movie to watch when you have nothing better to do.

Alex Ehrenreich
I'm a writer and horror-lover currently living in Tokyo. Be sure to check out my column "Far-East Extreme" where I write about the best in Asian horror cinema every month.