Indonesian witches are uniquely brutal, vengeful creatures. Not content with merely cursing their enemies, sorcerers from the Indonesian Archipelago are infamously cruel and bloodthirsty. They often deploy the black arts to violently rupture the bodies of their victims, occasionally manipulating them so that they inflict gruesome harm upon themselves. Calon Arang is a mythical Indonesian witch who was initiated into the art of black magic and turned her wicked powers against an entire kingdom. Another folkloric witch, Rangda, has been described as the “mistress of black magic” and queen of the leyaks (cannibalistic practitioners of black magic). In one infamous act of revenge, she caused an army to commit mass suicide by stabbing themselves with poisoned daggers. Moreover, not only are Indonesian witches especially cruel in their dealings with enemies, but they still today pose a seemingly real and tangible threat. Although Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, Islam’s general disinclination towards the supernatural has not prevented a significant number of Indonesians from believing wholeheartedly in the power of black magic. In 1998, approximately 100 suspected sorcerers were killed in the East Javan district of Banyuwangi. The next year, 150 more died in West Java, and killings of supposed dukun santet (shamans who practise black magic) continue up to the present day.
The ostensible reality of witchcraft, its prominence within the Indonesian imagination, has ensured that cinematic representations of witches in that part of the world are often violent, bloody and distinctly menacing. In early eighties Indonesian horror films like Satan’s Slaves (1980) and Mystics in Bali (1981), the supernatural is portrayed not only in decidedly visceral terms, but as a threat that remains ubiquitous even in the modern world. The Queen of Black Magic, written by Joko Anwar and directed by Kimo Stamboel, is a remake of another eighties Indonesian classic. Like its source material, a 1981 film of the same name, The Queen of Black Magic (2019) explores themes of vengeance and haunting through a startling iconography of bodily violence and disintegration. The film opens with Hanif (Ario Bayu) driving his wife (Hannah Al Rashid) and three children to the orphanage in which he was raised. Having learned that the owner of the orphanage, Mr Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), has fallen ill, Hanif travels to the remote institution to see his former guardian one last time. There, he meets with his childhood friends Jefri (Miller Khan) and Anton (Tanta Ginting), as well as their wives, the anorexic Lina (Salvita Decorte) and the germophobic Eva (Imelda Therinne). The opening sequences, in which Hanif and his family drive on long, jungle-bordered roads to arrive at the orphanage, are particularly unnerving, using the vast, dense Indonesian landscape to conjure a profound sense of isolation. Indeed, space – both interior and exterior – is used effectively throughout, with the rambling orphanage evoking unease as the camera pans across its empty rooms and corridors.
The Queen of Black Magic builds its tension slowly. The first hour of the film is largely given over to establishing the relationships between characters while simultaneously hinting that something more sinister might linger beneath the happy childhood memories shared between Hanif, Jefri and Anton. However, the pace begins to accelerate when Hanif begins to suspect that a creature he hit with his car on the way to the orphanage may not have been a deer after all. The Queen of Black Magic offers some truly disturbing and gruesome imagery. The characters stumble upon a crashed bus filled with dead children, and the evil entity that takes hold of the orphanage forces many of its hostages to engage in agonising acts of self-mutilation. There is certainly an argument to be made that The Queen of Black Magic is an example of body horror cinema. The central thematic concern of the film seems to be with that which is hidden, both literally and metaphorically, beneath the skin.
Indeed, The Queen of Black Magic pivots around notions of concealment and revelation. As the film progresses, the characters become increasingly concerned with the past and its buried horrors. As in many tales of haunting, the plot gradually unveils a dark history concealed within the walls of the orphanage. However, the narrative also plays with ideas of truth, history and mythologisation. The first time we hear about the sinister events that transformed the orphanage into a site of horror, we are told that a crazed employee named Ms Mirah (Ruth Marini) abducted a young girl and was locked in a room, alone, as punishment for her crime. In the end, she banged her head against the sealed door of the room until her skull cracked open. Later, however, the same story is retold, only now Ms Mirah is recast as a witch who sacrificed children to the dark forces she worshipped. Before the film concludes, the story of Ms Mirah and her supposed haunting of the orphanage is again recast, this time as a tale of abuse and revenge.
The Queen of Black Magic suggests that we conceal the horrors of the past not only behind walls or by burying them in the ground, but through the lies we tell ourselves and each other. The narrative exposes the cycles of violence that are passed down from one generation to the next, endlessly repeating themselves in evermore horrifying ways. Numerous intriguing visual parallels hint at this theme of repetition. Ms Mirah’s alleged fate, cracking her skull against a lock door, is repeated ad infinitum throughout the film, reflected in the horrifying acts of self-harm carried out by a group of possessed children and in the image of eggs being smashed under foot. Although the eponymous Queen of Black Magic (Putri Ayudya) does not make a physical appearance until the film’s hellish climax, her presence can be felt throughout. Her anger and desire for vengeance permeate the film, as she brings to light the injustices of the past. Like many western tales of haunted structures, The Queen of Black Magic is a story of the uncanny, of those dark, hidden horrors that we repress within ourselves. Where Anwar and Stamboel’s film deviates from more familiar stories of past wrongs resurfacing is in the spectacular violence that attends the return of the repressed. The director creates numerous stylistically innovative set pieces in which corporeal violation is inflicted as recompense for historical abuse.
Screenwriter Joko Anwar is probably best known for his innovative 2017 of the 1980 film Satan’s Slaves. The Queen of Black Magic, while not reaching the tense artistry of the earlier film, is nevertheless a creative and deeply uncomfortable film. Both the writer and director make effective use of the film’s isolated location, as well as delivering some extremely memorable gore. The performances from the main cast, especially the large number of child actors involved, are all convincing, building a great deal of dramatic tension even before the film veers towards the supernatural.
The Queen of Black Magic is available on Shudder from January 28th
“Black magic in Indonesia”, https://theaseanpost.com/article/black-magic-indonesia
“Calon Arang”, sydney.edu.au/heurist/balipaintings/9919.html
“The Rangda and the Barong”, https://web.archive.org/web/20021113031441/http://www.geocities.com/bali_info_4u/rangad_barong.htm