By Thomas Puhr.
Gorehounds will likely feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth, but some may find a bitter taste – one unrelated to the on-screen viscera – lingering in their mouths.”
Although gross-out horror movies often follow a tried-and-true recipe (an isolated setting, a series of increasingly-complex and nauseating special effects, and – perhaps most importantly – a bevy of thinly-sketched characters to torture), their quality is anything but consistent.
Some skillfully realize their singular goal of revolting the audience and eliciting a palpable, visceral response. Think Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981). Others, like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), transcend convential renditions by disturbing the intellect as much as the stomach. Many are just plain bad; I’m looking at you, The Human Centipede (2009). While it doesn’t show us anything we haven’t seen before, Kimo Stamboel’s The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam, 2019) dutifully (sometimes even skillfully) checks off the subgenre’s requirements. Gorehounds will likely feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth, but some may find a bitter taste – one unrelated to the on-screen viscera – lingering in their mouths.
The film opens with married couple Hanif (Ario Bayu) and Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) driving their three children to the secluded orphanage at which the former spent his childhood. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru, who does little more than stare confusedly into space) – the orphanage’s headmaster – is on his deathbed, and Hanif wants to pay his final respects to the man who raised him and his buddies, Anton (Tanta Ginting) and Jefri (Miller Khan), who are also visiting with their respective wives, Eva (Imelda Therinne) and Lina (Salvita Decorte). Remember, we need a lot of bodies for this kind of film.
Screenwriter Joko Anwar swiftly establishes his setup upon the families’ arrival: the ghost of Ms. Mirah, a suspected witch Bandi and the three boys killed all those years ago, haunts the grounds. Maybe the presence of her bloodthirsty spirit has something to do with her remains being buried underneath the dormitory floorboards. Why Hanif, Anton, and Jefri would bring along their spouses and children, given these circumstances, is beyond me. But what’s the point of nitpicking such inconsistencies? They come with the territory.
Despite its slog of an opening – Anwar jams in some awkward expository dialogue, as when Hanif recaps for his children how “The man who raised me at the orphanage is very ill now. That’s why we planned to visit him” – The Queen of Black Magic finds its rhythm once night falls and the effects crew get to let it rip. Their main objective seems to be to exploit as many phobias as possible, with multiple sequences involving centipedes, demonic figures, rotting corpses, broken bones, vomit, and pus, often in the same scene. Stamboel’s target audience (or victim, depending on how you look at it) is the squeamish, yet he also exhibits a keen visual eye. One particular shot of the witch – hovering in a foggy field, slightly out of focus – unsettles more than any of the pyrotechnics on display.
That many entries in this subgenre demonize women is well-known, and while Anwar attempts to subvert this noxious trope – Ms. Mirah, we learn, was actually a force of good, as she was protecting the children in the orphanage from a pedophile – he succumbs to another, equally-problematic approach to gender: namely, the exploitation of his living female characters. Lina’s eating disorder, for example, is introduced merely to set the stage for an elaborate, cruel death in which she skins herself in front of a mirror. Besides one disturbing exception, the three male leads get off easy, despite being the ones truly responsible for the night’s mayhem.
One could argue that Stamboel and company are illustrating how women often suffer the consequences of men’s selfish actions, but I can’t help but wonder why the death of the one man who unequivocally deserves his comeuppance occurs largely offscreen. If the director intends to critique our bloodlust, then why stylishly linger on the gory details when other characters – including, most questionably, a literal busload of children – are killed off? It would be far too much of a stretch, I think, to reframe the narrative’s datedness as social critique or mere throwback.
Even so, if you’re looking for a passable genre exercise (and want to dust off that Shudder subscription), you can do much worse than The Queen of Black Magic. At a crisp 99 minutes, the film at least doesn’t overstay its welcome. But might I suggest revisiting something like Sam Raimi’s woefully underappreciated Drag Me to Hell (2009)? A Friday night popcorn movie is always best spent in the hands of a master, one who knows how to put you through the wringer and make you come out the other side exhilarated rather than just exhausted.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.