Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves, both a prequel and update to the 1981 Indonesian horror film, made international waves thanks to its potent chills and atmosphere. Anwar tackles the modernization of another Indonesian cult horror film, 1981’s The Queen of Black Magic, this time penning the script with filmmaker Kimo Stamboel (Headshot, Macabre) helming. Stamboel, no stranger to extreme bloodletting, delivers a slice of occult horror that takes its time building a gruesome tale of revenge.
Hanif (Ario Bayu), his wife Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid), and their three children are road tripping to the middle of nowhere to pay final respects to the ailing Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), the caretaker of the orphanage that raised Hanif. The family is joined by the families of childhood friends Anton (Tanta Ginting) and Jefri (Miller Khan), who also grew up in the orphanage. Between an incident on the journey there, a pair of troubled orphans currently living at the orphanage, and a dark past, it’s clear that this happy reunion won’t stay that way for long. Someone or something wants them dead.
The Queen of Black Magic assembles a large group of potential victims. The film gets a sluggish start as it spends a lengthy amount of time establishing the characters and their interpersonal dynamics: three families, two orphans, and a small staff’s worth of divergent plot threads. There’s not much depth for many of them, and the equal time given to all players makes it a little trickier to find rooting interest with Hanif and Nadya, the leads. Part of that is intentional; the narrative holds out on revealing its secrets for as long as possible, rendering some of its characters a little less engaging. It eventually becomes clear that it’s more about setting these characters up for the horrors to come rather than conventional character arcs. The children fare much better; their innocence makes them genuinely endearing as well as perfect audience proxies.
While Stamboel establishes a sinister tone straightaway, layering in a few moments of terror, things take a turn once Hanif begins to realize that the deer he hit on the drive over might not have been an animal at all. From there, the horror ramps up at a gleefully gnarly and steady clip. The precise type of gruesome, black magic carnage feels akin to retro Hong Kong Category III films, but with a more modern lens. Flesh gets carved, centipedes weave in and out of bodily orifices, and blood paints the neutral beige orphanage red. This vengeful ghost finds sadistic means of comeuppance and isn’t interested in sparing a soul.
Much like Satan’s Slaves, this reimagining of an ‘80s cult horror movie was crafted to be far more accessible, both generationally and globally. It succeeds, offering an excellent gateway to Indonesian horror thanks to conventional narrative tropes. Heavy style aside, the film offers a familiar story of supernatural revenge.
Stamboel builds toward an unforgettable, gory finish that won’t stop, but the film does require some patience in getting there. The eponymous queen waits a long while to make her grand entrance, but it’s easy to forgive when she’s doling out such sadistic vengeance. The cast fully commits to every bizarre or grisly act asked of them, too. The Queen of Black Magic may not reinvent the wheel, but it does offer a ton of squeamish fun. Indonesian horror is having a major moment right now, and Stamboel’s latest leaves you clamoring for more.
The Queen of Black Magic releases on Shudder on January 28, 2021.