Indonesia saw it first great cinematic boom in the 1970’s and 80’s. After the change in power from Sukarno to Suharto in 1966, amongst the upheaval the country also saw a loosening in its strict film censorship rules. This together with heavier taxation on imported films, government subsidies on domestic productions, and later government requirement so that production companies produce at least one domestic feature for every three they imported, helped to flood the market with new home-grown talent. The first wave of these productions were mainly made as cheaply and quickly as possible and, as a result, were not taken overly seriously by audiences. However, by the 1970’s many talented filmmakers had started to put more effort in creating something with actual cinematic value. Inspiration was drawn from the Indonesia’s booming comic book industry as well as local legends and folklore, creating projects with a distinctly local flavour to them.
But while the censorship rules had been loosened, that did not mean that just anything could fly under the censor’s watchful eye. The subtle political criticism hidden in fantasy films like The Warrior (Jaka Sembung, 1981) was seen as potentially dangerous and after gently suggesting that production companies should be focusing more on contemporary themes like friendly police force fighting organised crime, and then eventually banning one of the film industries main sources of inspiration, comic books, fantasy and historical action was slowly replaced with more modern content. Around the same time the government also woke up to the financial opportunities that getting Indonesian cinema to the foreign market could bring and thus started to push for productions that could be taken to festivals like Cannes and sold to foreign distributors.
To make these plans happen, there was a relatively small pool of local talent whose skills could be utilised. One of them just so happened to be H. Tjut Djalil. Before entering the world of horror, Djalil had already gained 20 years of experience in the industry, working on documentary productions, as well as a scriptwriter, and also as an actor. With his horror productions, mixing local folklore with modern horror tropes and using mixture of Western and local cast, he became somewhat of an aficionado in Western style horror. Unlike productions aimed purely to the domestic market, Djalil’s films would not include comedy sequences or seemingly random musical numbers in the middle of all the action but followed story arcs much more like those of their Western counterparts.
From the perspective of a modern audience member, all of this might sound slightly absurd. Not least the fact that at least two of his six horror productions were shameless copies of Western films, jam packed with material that could more than easily trigger a cease and desist order from the creators of the original projects. Furthermore, Djalil is well known for using non actors, such as the German tourist Ilona Agathe Bastian in Mystics in Bali, who was simply picked for the role for her looks, with understandably predictable results, making it hard to believe that these film were ever thought of as viable candidates for the foreign market.
Nevertheless, Djalil’s films do possess a certain magic to which it is hard to find comparison. His often-outrageous take on the exploitation genre is a true gem amongst Indonesian exploitation cinema and something to be celebrated. While Djalil dabbled in other genres throughout his career, his sojourns in the horror genre are those most known to us here in the West. Thanks to the efforts of companies like Mondo Macabro, some of these films have in past few years gotten a bit more of the attention they so well and truly deserve, but as many of them still seem to pass under the radar for many horror and exploitation fans, it seemed prudent to have a slightly closer look of these films and the fantastically ludicrous world they have to offer.
Djalil tackled the horror genre early in his directing career, with the 1981 black magic romp Mystics in Bali (Leák) being just his second feature film. While most of his horror works incorporate Indonesian and South East Asian folklore and culture into the story arcs, Mystics in Bali is perhaps the most Asia centric of all of them. It is not the strongest film in Djalil’s horror cannon, but still a very worthwhile little lark to get acquainted with. In it, young woman called Catherine Kean, or Cathy (Ilona Agathe Bastian) is conducting research for her book on black magic. Her journey has already introduced her to the likes of voodoo, but now she wants something darker, something more powerful. The answer to this quest of knowledge is found in the Balinese Leák magic, which is said to be the most dangerous of them all. Reading about these traditions is one thing, but to really get to know the secrets of the Leák is to learn it herself. Lucky for Cathy her lover Mahendra (Yos Santo) just happens to know how to get in contact with a local Leák practitioner and in no time at all Cathy finds herself in a midnight rendezvous with said witch. As we all know, dealing with the dark arts is dangerous at best of times, but signing yourself up as apprentice for a black magic master is particularly dicey. If nothing else, you should definitely read the fine print and make sure there are no hidden clauses that might come and haunt you in the long run. Unfortunately, young Cathy is not aware of this basic common-sense safety measure and jumps at the chance of apprenticing with a Leák witch quicker than you can say “It’s a trap!”. Soon Cathy’s disembodied head is flying around with her entrails dragging behind her, sucking unborn babies out if their mother’s wombs. Not quite what she signed up for. As luck would have it, out of the two lovers, Mahendra sems to have a little more sense and he has already talked to an uncle who knows how to deal with this type of magic and together with him they set out to get Cathy out of her contract and her nightly murder flights.
South-East Asian folklore is full of some weird and wonderful creatures, but the Leák, better known as Penanggaln, is definitely one of the more fantastical ones. As described above, it consists of a floating woman’s head with internal organs attached. It is a vampiric figure, feeding on the blood of women who has just given birth or women who are menstruating, as well as kidnapping the newborn for their own dark purposes. Penanggal are not ghosts or ghouls, but mortal women who practice black magic and have through ritual meditation been able to achieve this form. They are masters of leading a double life and often practice midwifery as their day job, simultaneously paying the bills and helping them find new victims. So convenient! The reasons for these nightly flights are slightly unclear, but as we are talking about black magic here, it is safe to assume that the rewards of this practice are either power, riches or beauty. Be the motivations what they may, there is certainly enough gruesome material for whole series of horror films, which the Indonesian and Malay film community have naturally taken advantage of over the years.
But it is not only the penanggal that makes Mystics in Bali worthwhile viewing. Besides Cathy’s nightly flights, she also learns how to transform into a pig (why, you may ask? I do not know) and a snake, latter of which makes her vomit live mice and makes Mahendra suspect she has a particularly nasty case of food poisoning. We also see her teacher manifest herself as a floating fire ball, very obviously suspended by a string, and fight a white magician with magical lasers. All of this is done using the hokeyest of special effects one can possibly imagine, with the animal transformation scenes making one wonder if the special effects department of this film has ever actually seen a pig or a snake? It is truly fantastic, and will no doubt offer tremendous enjoyment for those who enjoy this level of corniness.
However, Mystics in Bali does have a problem with its storyline. This is not to say that any of Djalil’s later horror escapades have any more of a plotline to them, but it is obvious that with Mystics in Bali, he was still finding his feet in the horror genre. While the film does have all the elements of a perfect trash fest, the rather slow-moving story holds it back. It never quite gathers enough momentum to really grip the viewer and while the cheesy special effects do keep you watching till the end, it lacks the same kind of punch as the films that would follow.
The next film in Djalil’s horror cannon was his first bona fide copycat project Satan’s Bed (Batas Impian Ranjang Setan’, 1986). Those familiar with his other works in this area such as The Lady Terminator, will know that these projects are most certainly not known for their subtlety. While The Lady Terminator is quite a brazen example of this, it still somehow pales in comparison with Satan’s Bed. With a title such as this one might expect a story about possession or perhaps some kind of semi erotic tale about the Prince of Darkness himself, but no. Naturally Satan’s Bed rips off the 1984 Wes Craven classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, with a little bit of Poltergeist (1982) thrown into the mix just for good measure. The film still retains some of the local flavour with shamans and ghosts, but not anywhere near enough to mask where the inspiration for this project stemmed. It stars Didier A. Hamel, Richie Ricardo and Marianne Wolf, but I cannot tell you in which roles, as this information does not seem to be available anywhere, including the film’s opening titles.
The film starts with seemingly completely unrelated scene of a happy family celebrating Christmas. The merrymaking around the tree is rudely interrupted by an intruder that shoots everyone. Why this happens is in no way explained and neither is what happens to the intruder afterwards. Presumably he is the one who becomes the main antagonist of the story, but who knows. And more importantly, who cares? Poking holes in the logic of Djalil’s films is like kicking puppies; way too easy and ultimately, a pastime better left alone. In any case, the viewer is not left much time to ponder on this as the film moves swiftly on an indeterminate amount of time into the future, with a new family living in the same house. Maria, her cousin Nina, and Maria’s strikingly young mother Mrs. Siska (Linda Lolita Hoesin), have a happy existence in their new home. The only thing is that objects are getting movied around the kitchen at night and the television shoots light balls and randomly explodes for no apparent reason. Mysterious. But things are about to get even more mysterious and dangerous as this happy trio and their acquaintances find themselves haunted by a ghostly figure with fingernails made out of knife-like blades. As family members, including young Nina, and people around them start falling victim to this mystical man, Maria and her mother must find a way to get rid of him before it’s too late.
While obviously taking some liberties and shortcuts in the plot department, Satan’s Bed is in parts almost a shot by shot duplicate of Craven’s magnum opus. The first hint of this is a group of little girls dressed in white playing with a jump rope, which in itself would not even be worth a mention, but the film soon amps up the apery with the famous bathtub scene leaving no ambiguity about what the source material might have been. Next up is post coitus death of Nina, subsequent arrest of her boyfriend Rudy, and Nina in a body bag (although, this version more like someone in a cellophane gift wrap) haunting poor Maria. Sound familiar?
There are a few changes to the original material of course, such as the evil knife fingered entity’s identity is never revealed to us and he is simply referred to as a “ghost”, and it is not the actions of plucky teenagers that help to save the day, but a local priest that appears on the scene from out of nowhere. The reason behind this blade handed madman haunting this family in particular is theorised to be the fact that the house was built on top of an old cemetery, which seems to make no earthly sense whatsoever considering the intro of the film, but again, who cares?
Needless to say, Satan’s Bed does not live up to the terror of A Nightmare on Elm Street in any shape or form. It sorely lacks a coherent plotline or any actual build-up of suspense. The special effects, while trying very hard, err more on the side of hilarious than frightening. However, anyone who loves this style of mimicry will surely get a kick out of the unabashed way Djalil has picked all the best parts of his source material and incorporated them in otherwise fairly incoherent plotline. Fantastic stuff all around.
Djalil continued his horror catalogue with another one of his copycat projects, The Lady Terminator (Pembalasan Ratu Pantai Selatan, 1989). Thanks to its occasional appearances in various genre festivals, it has enjoyed a cult following amongst Western film fanatics for a few decades and I dare say alongside Mystics in Bali, is THE film that sparks people’s interest in Djalil’s work. It delivers exactly what the name promises; a female version of The Terminator, with an Indonesian twist of course. Tania (Barbara Anne Constable) is a young anthropologist writing her thesis on one of the most legendary figures of Indonesian folklore; The Queen of the South Sea (a.k.a. Nyai Roro Kidul). While her attitude towards her subject matter and people who believe in the legend is bizarrely condescending, she nevertheless ventures out to the bottom of the sea in hopes of finding the said Queen. And that she indeed does, as Tania quickly find herself possessed by this legendary royalty, making this meek academic turn into leather wearing, machine gun wielding, murder machine. Of course, Tania is not going around killing people without a good reason, the Queen possessing her is on a mission to find and kill her ex-husbands granddaughter as a revenge for him stealing her magical killer eel (that lived in her vagina). Totally reasonable and legitimate motivations. The said granddaughter just happens to be a local semi celebrity Erica (Claudia Angelique Rademaker) who is easily found by simply putting on a local TV channel. Catching her however is not quite as simple, as Erica has the local police force behind her, in the form of detective Max (Christopher J. Hart) and his police buddies. They are proud members of quite possibly the worst police force in the world, but somehow still manage to keep Erica alive long enough for her to receive a magic dagger and eventually face off with the evil Queen and take her on in the film’s action packed final showdown.
The Queen of the South Sea is without a doubt one of the most popular figures in Indonesian horror cinema and her escapades in the world of mortals has been seen in many different formats over the decades. Out of all of them Djalil’s take on the subject has got to be one of the more original ones, with its mix of traditional folklore and shameless cinematic mimicry. The folklore side of the story is however quite quickly forgotten in favour of more action-packed sequences and emulating the 1984 James Cameron action hit is definitely the main goal of the film. This apery does not simply limit itself to the broad strokes of the plot but Djalil has brazenly cherry-picked specific scenes and incorporated them into the film. This includes almost a shot for shot scene of the Lady Terminator emerging from a giant explosion unharmed, as well as her removing and repairing a damaged eye. Let’s just say that subtlety was never Djalil’s strong suits. However, it is that lack of nuance that makes Lady Terminator the fantastic piece of exploitation cinema that it is. Together with terribly executed dubbing, where the dialogue barely makes sense at times, and equally hokey special effects, it truly transcends the genre in the best possible way.
Lady Terminator was followed with two horror titles that seem to have never made their way to the Western market; a rape revenge story Misteri Janda Kembang (1991), once again featuring the much feared Penanggaln, and Skandal Iblis (1992) which is yet another tale of a female scholar (this time an archaeologist) getting possessed by some form of ancient evil. Unfortunately, even 30 years later, neither of these has seen a release anywhere in the West, leaving us in the dark on what kind of horrors they might encompass.
After these Djalil ventured in the horror genre once more and lucky for us, his 1992 American-Indonesian production Dangerous Seductress (Bercinta dengan maut) has not been completely buried by history like its predecessors. At the centre of the story is once again a beautiful young lady. Susan (Tonya Lawson) is fleeing her abusive boyfriend John (Joseph Cassano) and flies from Los Angeles to Jakarta to stay with her sister Linda (Kristin Anin). As luck would have it, an local evil spirit The Queen of Darkness has just been resurrected from her slumber, and Linda just happened to have been given a book of ancient spells and rituals of Sumatra, one of which naturally helps to conjure up the said queen. As Linda heads to Bali for a fashion shoot, Susan picks up the book and reads out loud from it, as you do when you find a book in a language you do not understand, and hey presto, Queen of Darkness (Amy Weber) appears in a mirror and promises her everlasting beauty and irresistible power of seduction as long as she does a bit of killing for her. No biggie. Susan is up for the task and soon she is larking around town seducing and murdering any man dumb enough to fall for her tricks (and trust me, some of them are DUMB). Is Susan forever doomed to roam the earth to do the evil queens bidding or is there someone who can save her and the gullible men of Jakarta? You will have to watch Dangerous Seductress to find out.
Dangerous Seductress follows along familiar lines of an evil female antagonist on a rampage, albeit a slightly more subdued rampage than that of the Lady Terminator. The film is not quite as action packed as the Terminator copy before it as it focuses more on titillating the audiences with softcore eroticism in the style of Andy Sidaris. Plenty of time is taken up by the camera lingering on Lawsons various body parts as she seduces her victims. It has its moments, such as an outfit choosing montage accompanied by the film’s theme song “Dangerous Seductress” as well as some of the so-called seduction sequences, but those waiting for more horror or action might be left ever so slightly disappointed. The story takes so long focusing on proving how unbelievably sexy it is that it seems to almost forget it is supposed to be a horror film, wrapping things up in rather hurried manner in the last 15 minutes of its running time. Nevertheless, if you happen to be a fan of the kind of low-key sleaze that the likes of Andy Sidaris had to offer, Dangerous Seductress will not disappoint. The acting is atrociously bad, it’s dialogue even worse and the sexiness is amped up to 11. What’s not to like?
Like Mystics in Bali and The Lady Terminator before it, Dangerous Seductress was produced with the Western horror market in mind. The talents of the special effects make-up artists Stephen Prouty were imported from the states to give the film an extra bit of edge and instead of simply picking a random tourist for the lead role, actual American actors were hired to make sure the film would eventually make its way out of Indonesia and into the Western market. Unfortunately, none of this was enough to make Dangerous Seductress the break-through film that Djalil had hoped it would be and as the cinematic boom of Indonesia drew to it’s close, so did Djalil’s ventures in the horror genre.
Djalil’s legacy, however, lives on. While his films might have not made their mark in the Western market at the time they were made, it seems that time is finally ripe for these films to be introduced to larger audiences. As mentioned before, thanks to the efforts of Mondo Macabro Mystic in Bali, Lady Terminator and Dangerous Seductress have all seen DVD releases in the West. For those interested, Satan Bed can also be found as a German DVD release including German and English soundtracks. Sadly, like many other Indonesian horror and exploitation titles, Misteri Janda Kembang and Skandal Iblis are yet to find their way in here in any format, but as the Western horror audiences become more aware of the gems that Indonesia has to offer, it will hopefully only be a matter of time before these films, alongside their numerous contemporaries, make their debut in our home entertainment systems.
Hendrix, Grady. “Kaiju Shakedown: Indonesian Exploitation”. Filmcomment.com July 7, 2015. https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/kaiju-shakedown-indonesian-exploitation/
Tombs, Pete. “Mystics in Bali & Indonesian Exploitation Cinema”. DVD. USA. Mondo Macabro.