What do you do when your lover leaves you for another woman, marries her, accuses you of using black magic, and incites an angry mob to kill you? You become the motherfucking queen of black magic of course, and take revenge on those who wronged you. This is pretty much the long and the short of the 1981 Indonesian horror classic Ratu Ilmu Hitam (The Queen of Black Magic) directed by Liliek Sudjio. While somewhat simplistic in modern horror terms, this absolute gem of South East Asian horror is something that deserves way more recognition than it gets. Not only is it a fairly gruesome tale of black magic, but it’s also a satisfying little revenge romp with a fantastically radiant leading lady that is sure to conquer the hearts and minds of many horror fans.
In the centre of all the action we have Suzanna, also known as Suzzanna Martha Frederika van Osch. She plays Murni, a woman seduced by a local playboy Kohar (Alan Nuary), who after having his fun, decides to shack up with another woman with better prospects. However, on their day of the wedding, Kohar’s new bride suffers a slight case of possession, leaving the wedding celebrations in a state of disarray. Being the charmer that he is, Kohar naturally blames this on Murni and riles up the villagers to go after her, and poor Murni is subsequently cruelly thrown off a cliff. Unlucky for the villagers though, Murni has some luck on her side, and is saved by a reclusive black magic practitioner, who not only saves her life but also promises to train her in the ways of the dark arts so she can take revenge.
Being a good, god fearing girl, Murni is not too sure about this plan at first, but with some gentle persuasion she comes around to see that it is the only viable option (it’s most definitely not, but who am I to judge). Murni gets a crash course in the art of black magic and by all accounts turns out to be a very skilled student, as in no time at all, the villagers are getting killed by swarms of angry bees and covered in horrendous bleedings boils. But as it often is, meddling with the darker side of magic only leads to misery and as soon as Murni has started her journey of revenge, she also realises that her knight in shining armour has an ulterior motive for helping her. Not satisfied by being used yet by another man, Murni turns the tables on her teacher and directs her righteous anger towards him. Unhappy outcomes follow for all.
As stated, the story of The Queen of Black Magic is a simple one. It is the most basic of revenge plots, with a somewhat unsatisfying ending. Murni’s revenge is left unfinished and instead of fully owning her new power, she wavers at the last minute and decides veer off the dark path she is on. Taking on her two-faced mentor is an absolutely understandable move; after all he showed himself to be nothing but another user, but not finishing her revenge on the awful villagers is just deeply frustrating. They definitely deserved what was coming their way, and Murni certainly deserved to have her vengeance. However, those who do meet their end in the hands of the black magic queen, do so in the ghastliest ways. Being killed by bees is never a pleasant way to go, but having your veins and arteries blow up and explode must be even worse, not to mention your head exploding because of psychic pressure. Fantastic stuff all around.
The special effects are great quality, and it is lovely to see the film remastered to it’s old splendour, so they can be enjoyed in their full gory glory. With bursting veins and exploding heads, there is definitely a slightly Cronenbergian vibe to these scenes, but as Scanners came out on the same year as The Queen of Black Magic, it is unlikely that it acted as an inspiration for them. It is more likely to be just a happy accident that 1981 saw not one, but two brilliant films with well-crafted exploding head scenes. What luck! But, it’s not really the script writing or even the special effects that makes the film the undeniable joy ride that it is, but the wonderful, soulful Suzzanna. Her portrayal of the woman scorned is powerful, and while most horror from 30 years ago comes with a certain amount of cheese (The Queen of Black Magic not being an exception), Suzzanna’s performance does not. She is vulnerable and tragic yet powerful and strong: a force to be reckoned with. The film’s cinematography takes full advantage of her hauntingly beautiful and wonderfully expressive face, showing the audience the pure glee in her eyes as her enemies meet their gruesome deaths.
At the same time, she never fully lets go of her true self. Underneath the goddess of revenge, the same sensitive, gentle young woman is still there, fighting an inner battle with her newfound identity. In the end it is that inner conflict that end up being her downfall and her saviour. Murni’s path takes her to her death, but not before deciding to stand for what’s right and more importantly, for herself. While many modern viewers (myself included) would probably have liked to see Murni take her revenge to its full extent and would have been more satisfied with a darker ending, it is also kind of nice to see that neither the hateful villagers, deceitful lovers, or a two-faced mentor can bring this queen down. Murni stands strong and chooses compassion over hate, even if it means she must sacrifice herself in the process.
It is for roles such as this that Suzzanna earner her title “Horror Queen of Indonesian Cinema”. She captured the hearts of cinema goers with her powerful depictions of various mythical characters from Indonesian rich folk lore. Queen of Black Magic was not her first horror role, but it was one of the films that really cemented her name in the horror genre. A year later she starred in Sisworo Gautama Putra’s Sundelbolong portraying one of Indonesian folklore’s most famous ghosts; the titular Sundel bolong, sealing her title for good. Over the coming years Suzzanna played not only legendary ghosts, but she was also seen as the powerful snake woman Nyi blorong, as well as the mythical Queen of the South Sea, both of which she played in more than one occasion.
To further add to her reputation as the reigning horror queen, Suzzanna was also well known for leading a life of secrecy and keeping her private life private. Such audacity naturally gave birth to many rumours about her and among other things it was said she dabbled with the mystic (perhaps even dark) forces, consulting shamans and going through spiritual preparations before shooting a role. Jasmine flowers were said to be part of her steady diet and the Queen of the South Sea was in communication with her. Whether these rumours were the result of gossip hungry press, work of a great PR team, or something than Suzzanna herself started in order to enhance her own image, remains a mystery, but whatever the reason, it certainly has only worked in the horror queens favour.
Suzzanna’s legacy still lives on. In 2018 Rocky Soraya and Anggy Umbara brought out a remake of Sundelbologn titled Suzzanna: Bernapas dalam Kubur, or Suzzanna: Buried Alive, and in 2019 Kimo Stamboel together with Joko Anwar reimagined The Queen of Black Magic for the modern audiences. These remakes do admittedly take a fair few liberties with the original plots, but they are nevertheless a testament to the love that Indonesian audiences and filmmakers have for these films, and for Suzzanna. Hopefully the rest of the world will also start to wake up to their brilliance and in the coming years we will see some of these classics become more easily available here in the west. Until then, I live in hope. Both original Ratu Hilmu Itam and the remake are available to stream on Shudder.