Over the decades, Western filmmakers, in the US and Europe alike, have made sure that almost any cinematic genre has had its tropes exploited in some form or another. Fully exploring even one exploitation sub-genre would be a mammoth task, making it easy to get lost in western cinema alone and never even consider what the great filmmakers of Asia have brought to the table over the years. And what a huge mistake that would be! Just Hong Kong alone has produced some the finest horror exploitation of all time and if you wish to take a tour through some truly bonkers and gory black magic exploitation, Hong Kong is definitely the place to start. However, even when talking specifically about Asian horror exploitation, we tend to focus on Hong Kong and Japan and overlook some incredible gems amongst the genre; More specifically those stemming from Indonesia.
What might surprise many is the fact that Indonesia does have quite a lengthy history when it comes to exploiting cinematic genres and popular films. Copycat versions of popular Hollywood productions were made as early as the 1940s and ’50s but the country’s film production only really took off after the relaxation of censorship laws in the late 1960s. The new boom was aided by new, heavier taxation of imported films, government subsidies on local productions, and eventually a law that required production companies to produce one homegrown project to every three they imported. The number of domestic productions skyrocketed, and Indonesia entered a new golden age of cinema, drawing heavily from its own, rich cultural heritage.
Many of the popular subjects borrowed elements from Indonesian mythology, mixing local legends with martial arts and black magic and creating a completely unique flavor of exploitation. One of the more popular subjects for these films was Nyai Roro Kidul or Queen of the South Sea: a mythical sea-dwelling beauty (sometimes portrayed as a mermaid) that is known for her insatiable sexual appetite, luring fishermen and beachgoers to their doom (with a particular penchant for young men). While she has been depicted in numerous films over the years and gone through various incarnations, none is quite as memorable as H. Tjut Djalil’s absolutely bat-shit-crazy Lady Terminator (Pembalasan Ratu Pantai Selatan, 1989), transforming the ravenous queen into a leather-clad, machine gun-wielding, unstoppable killing machine. It is not only a great example of how Indonesian filmmakers of the time did their very best in drawing inspiration from traditional mythology while simultaneously trying to please the modern audiences with contemporary themes, but it is also without a question, one of the best exploitation films of its era. It shamelessly mimics its US namesake from five years earlier and does it with all the style and panache that only the 1980’s Indonesia could possibly offer.
We begin with the Queen of the South Sea (Fortunella) claiming the life of yet another young man. After her deadly vagina does its evil deed and her trusty servants carry the body away, she laments “Is there any man who can satisfy me?”. Well, that man might be just around the corner: enter husband number one hundred. From a cloud of mist, this vison in white appears in her chambers, ready to fulfill his husbandly duties. But as is often the case, you have to be careful what you wish for. The new bridegroom might be satisfying in the sack, but along with her heart he also promptly steals the Queen’s magical vagina eel and refuses to give it back (“You’re my wife now! I want you to stop the killings!” he proclaims). Naturally, this does not go down well and before disappearing in a cloud of smoke, the Queen swears to come back in hundred years to take revenge on her husband’s granddaughter. She then retires to the bottom of the sea to join the forces of evil, as any rational woman would.
Hundred years later we encounter a young anthropologist Tania (Barbara Anne Constable), writing her thesis on the Queen of the South Sea. For an anthropology student, she is incredibly dismissive of locals who believe in the legend, but still not too proud to take their help in trying to track her down. This of course leads Tania in the bottom of the sea and, you guessed it, getting possessed by the Queen herself.
From here we move on from local legends and enter the Terminator territory. After returning from her subaquatic swimming trip, Tania is in full throttles of possession and vigorously looking for the aforementioned granddaughter. Luckily this takes no time at all, as she just happens to be a semi-famous pop star named Erica (Claudia Angelique Rademaker ) and thus easy to find by simply flicking through the local TV channels. While Erica goes about her daily life without knowing the danger she is in, we are introduced to some of the most unprofessional detectives in the city, possibly the country: Max (Christopher J. Hart) is a former New York detective grieving for the sudden death of his wife, Tom (Ikang Fawzi) his eager, happy-go-lucky partner and Jack, the mustachioed, hot dog-loving, homophobe sidekick. As they arrive at the morgue to have a look at the three latest victims of the Sea Queen and her lethal genitalia, they contemplate that the culprit could be a small animal, perhaps an eel. Some bad blowjob jokes are made, and Jack starts to form a theory about what could have possibly happened to these poor, undeserving individuals, only to be quickly cut off by Tom. He doesn’t want to hear the details of these crimes! Leave that to the police….oh.
Details, schmeetails, it’s time to call it a night and head to a local nightclub for a good time. Drinks are cold, women are hot and not being fully over your wife’s death might mean you’re gay. You know, the usual 1980’s nightclub scene. It just happens that young Erica is performing in the same club and soon the vengeful Tania makes an appearance, in all her leather clad glory. After an intense shootout, during which Tania takes several shots but keeps on getting back up, Mac and Jack manage to get Erica out by uttering the somewhat familiar words “Come with me if you want to live!” (told you, shameless). Jack ends dead, leaving Max and Erica to flee the scene in high speed chase where road safety, like the bullets, flies freely out of the window.
The pair try to hide out in the local police station, but like the original Terminator, Lady Terminator does not give a hoot about the police force and simply forces her way in with the aid of a rusty old car and a machine gun with unlimited bullets. Most of the staff on duty die while Max and Erica once again escape unharmed, but not before Erica is given a magical dagger by her foster father. Max and Erica head to the countryside and bond over dead loved ones and a moonlit lovemaking session. As you do in such a situation.
This newfound happiness is not to last, as the very next day the deadly Tania is after them again and more ferocious than ever. After a brief shootout at a shopping mall the pair head to a local airport where the backup is waiting in a form of Tom and other police buddies. An intense final showdown ensues, during which Tania is attacked with bullets, missiles, rocket launchers, and a tank, with very unsatisfying results. Finally, when nothing seems to work and Tania kicks up the terror level by shooting people with her laser eyes (why was she using guns in the first place, is a mystery), Erica thinks to use her magic dagger and solves the situation in seconds by simply stabbing Tania in the chest; an act of bravery that could have come handy the previous day, preventing countless deaths, but better late than never I suppose… The film ends with the cryptic words of an unknown narrator: “The struggle within our souls is never-ending. The life of men, short and brutal. Torn between good and evil, and of the eternity around us, we know nothing. The stars look on. They have been here long before mankind appeared on our small planet and will be here long after we are no more.”, leaving one suitably perplexed.
The history of exploitation cinema is of course packed with copycat projects of all descriptions and in that sense, Lady Terminator is not unique. However, even some of the most blatant rip-offs, such as Enzo G. Castellari’s infamous Jaws (1975) copy, The Last Shark (L’ultimo squalo, 1981)pale in comparison with Lady Terminator and the brazen manner it copies its source material. If you consider all the similarities between the 1984 James Cameron megahit and this gem of Indonesian cinema, it is in fact slightly baffling how Mr. Djalil never received a cease and desist letter from Cameron’s people. Just quickly examining the larger story arc reveals exactly the same story, albeit in ever so slightly different packages. We have an antagonist from a different era, we have an encounter in a bar and in a police station, we have a romantic relationship developing between the target and the hero and a final showdown filled with explosions. Of course, those things alone do not a copycat project make, and I could have just as easily just described any generic 1980’s action film. But, as I stated before, the level of mimicry in Lady Terminator is truly audacious and does not limit itself into broad strokes. No. Mr. Djalil has boldly stolen numerous little details from the Cameron action romp and simply slotted them into this supernatural facsimile. These include (but are not limited to) Tania cutting her damaged eye out and fixing it (although using magic, not technology), Tania emerging from a massive explosion unharmed (more than once) and finally, getting badly damaged and melting down into a gloopy mess for the end finale, just for that extra bit of excitement. The apery is truly remarkable.
However, it is precisely this and the completely lunatic take on the whole story that makes Lady Terminator the fun-filled caper it is. The acting is questionable at best by all parties involved (incidentally Lady Terminator was the one and the only film for Constable, Hart, and Rademaker, respectively) with the characters continuously acting and reacting in ways that no semi-normal human ever would. What makes the whole thing even better is the shockingly bad dubbing, where the dialogue borders on nonsensical, with intonations to match. Some of the best lines come from the mouth of pre-possession Tania, who on more than one occasion loudly declares her chosen field of study with statements like “I’m not a lady! I’m an anthropologist!”. With statements like that it is almost a shame to see her possessed and thus turn nearly mute as a result. Luckily the worst police department in the universe is on the ball and offers some real conversational gems, as well as the most incredible mullets in the universe. The special effects are hokey, the plot is filled with holes, and the continuity errors too numerous to count. Sincerely fantastic stuff all around.
It makes my heart glad that the world has filmmakers like H. Tjut Djalil. Without his and his colleague’s efforts, the vista of exploitation cinema would surely be a much more one dimensional and boring place. My only wish is that these films would in years to come be made more freely available for us poor Westerners, so we can fully enjoy all the gory, nonsensical glory that Indonesia has to offer. In the meanwhile, I highly recommend getting intimately acquainted with Lady Terminator and perhaps some other Djalil titles, such as Mystics in Bali (Leák, 1981). You will not be disappointed.