From the Archives: The Queen of Black Magic review

From the Archives: The Queen of Black Magic review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on MovieJawn.

Over the closing credits of The Queen of Black Magic plays footage from what appears to be a much older film. With a little research I was able to find that The Queen of Black Magic is a remake of a 1981 film of the same name. Both are Indonesian productions (the original is also Japanese and Filipino) and if the screenshots shown in the credits are to be believed, both are goopy, gross, and scary as hell.

The more recent iteration of the story, written by Indonesian horror legend Joko Anwar, and directed by Kimo Stamboel–whose Headshot ranks amongst the best of recent martial arts outings–starts a bit slow, taking pains to set up the pieces for what is a pretty detailed story. While it’s never boring, I did, at the outset, find myself wondering when things were going to get scary. My fears were unfounded, because once the legwork is out of the way, the horror comes hurtling forth at a relentless clip, blurring acts two and three into a singular onslaught of ghouls and carnage. And since so much time was spent up front establishing the characters and their relationships, the horror hits doubly hard. The people tied up in this maelstrom of supernatural evil are people we care about, and when it comes to dishing out trauma, none are too sacred to avoid the sharp end of Anwar’s pen.

The story follows a many named Hanif, his wife Nadya, and their three children as they take a road trip to the orphanage where Hanif was raised. The orphanage is run by a sickly old man named Mr. Bandi. Since Mr. Bandi is bedridden and nearing the end of his life, Hanif, alongside some other former orphanage alums (is that the right word?) have decided to pay their respects to the man who brought them up in the world. When they arrive, what starts as a warm reunion of childhood friends slowly turns into something more sinister. Some roadkill, and abandoned bus, and a wealth of creepily designed sound cues hint that maybe things aren’t as they seem. Secrets are soon exposed, flesh is torn, and more than a few gallons of blood are spilled. Even though a lot of it does feel like a “greatest hits” reel of modern horror convention, the hits come so hard and so fast that it’s pointless to lament that they aren’t as fresh as they could be. The Queen of Black Magic is not a spin-off of The Conjuring, but it’s the wildest, most splattery spin-off of The Conjuring that I’ve ever seen.

That said, there’s a certain old school flair being exhibited, specifically in how the gore gags are handled. While a few do end up leaning a little too heavily on CGI, most are created through practical blood effects and nauseating sound design. A scene where a woman is overrun by centipedes which then proceed to crawl down her throat almost made me lose my lunch despite the fact that the creepy crawlies were clearly digital. The audio did the work here, and I can only surmise how the foley department was able to make a guttural gurgle so gnarly that it turned my typically iron stomach on its side. It was so gross. Easily the grossest thing in the movie, but only by the tiniest fraction. I am sad that COVID has us all stuck inside, because this kind of raucous movie magic would fly sky high at a midnight screening, where horror nerds are gathered to gleefully test the limits of intestinal fortitude through tired eyes. Fingers crossed for an Indonesian horror marathon one day…

I should note that while this is a movie designed to challenge viewers not to look away, this isn’t just some empty torture porn. The gags are all super fun in that special way that a horror gag can be fun, and as I said previously, the character work is strong enough to make it all work on an emotional level as well. Even as the film goes through the more sensually extreme sequences, the plot is never lost. In fact, the way the film finally comes together ties up the plot threads rather elegantly, when so many other movies of its ilk would be content to leave a bunch hanging. Admittedly, leaving some ambiguities is not always a bad thing (and in horror, is frequently a transcendent thing), but when you’ve got such a thoroughly realized plot, with so many wonderful characters, The Queen of Black Magic is not the type of movie that should really be left super ambiguous. It is made that much stronger by its ability to bring it all to a close.

At one point, there is a huge opportunity for the application of my all-time favorite special effect: the stunt performer who is fully engulfed in flames. Unfortunately, this image is captured here using CGI fire, which is the most egregious offense in the world of filmmaking fakery, if you ask me. But given that this is a remake of a film from 1981, back when actual flames were the only way to do it, I can only hope that I will find what I want when I hunt down that version of the story AND I WILL.

No matter. It’s a very small complaint. Minuscule, really. The takeaway here is that the Indonesian film industry is only growing, and a lot of it is reaching our shores in the form of genre cinema. Be it horror, martial arts, science-fiction, whatever—it’s an exciting market that will be sure to influence genre films from all over the world for years to come. I can’t wait to dig into more of it, with the knowledge that as long as it has Joko Anwar’s name attached it’s going to be, at the very least, crazy as all hell.

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