The Queen of Black Magic. 2020.
Directed by Kimo Stamboel. Screenplay by Joko Anwar.
Starring Ario Bayu, Hannah Al Rashid, Adhisty Zara, Muzakki Ramdhan, Ari Irham, Ade Firman Hakim, Sheila Dara Aisha, Tanta Ginting, Miller Khan, Imelda Therinne, Salvita Decorte, Giulio Parengkuan, Shenina Cinnamon, Yayu A.W. Unru, Ruth Marini, & Putri Ayudya.
Rapi Films / SkyMedia / Screenplay Films
Not Rated / 99 minutes
Horror / Mystery / Thriller
The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS!
You’ve been warned.
It’d be foolish for me not to write about how much I adore Kimo Stamboel’s work. Just last year at Fantasia I got to see Dreadout, which I personally loved. My love of his work goes right back to 2009’s Macabre, one of his collaborations with another killer director, Timo Tjahjanto. Then there’s Joko Anwar, whose film The Forbidden Door rocked me a decade ago when I first saw it. Most recently his work on Impetigore and Satan’s Slaves properly terrified me. Now, Stamboel and Anwar come together on a remake of Liliek Sudjio’s 1981 film The Queen of Black Magic, and put their own dark stamp on the material.
Anwar’s screenplay focuses on a group of men and their significant others, including Hanif (Ario Bayu) and his wife Nadya (Hanna Al Rashid), who’ve returned to the orphanage where the men grew up. They’ve come to say goodbye to the dying Mr. Pak Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), the man who raised them. A couple of the orphans who grew up never left— Maman (Ade Firman Hakim) and Siti (Sheila Dara Aisha) are now married, still living there to help look after the children. Initially the visit’s awkward but fine. Eventually it takes a turn when Hanif and his friends start to realise there are horrifying things happening at the orphanage. This forces the men to take a hard look at their shared past, revealing disturbing buried secrets that threaten them and their families.
I’ve never seen Sudjio’s original film. All I know is this version of The Queen of Black Magic is a nasty ride to Hell. Some aspects of the plot may feel familiar. And that’s fine with me. The intensity of Stamboel’s horror and the depth of Anwar’s screenplay makes for genuinely affecting terror. The story is a modern Gothic tale in which the past returns to violently haunt the present, touching on the corrosive powers of patriarchy and lasting damage of secrets. A couple scenes are disgusting and powerful enough that they’ll never get far from my mind. It’s the themes and their horrific efficacy which leave the most lasting impression.
You can classify this film as Gothic for a number of reasons. The biggest being the focus on secrets from the past and how they can fester until they rot through to the present. The Queen of Black Magic‘s most prominent Gothic image is the locked green door concealing secrets inside the orphanage. Haqi (Muzakki Ramdhan), like Danny Torrance and Room 237 in Kubrick’s The Shining, is drawn to the door. He’s told the ghostly legend of Ms. Mirah (Ruth Marini), locked away in a room because she’d been possessed by demons, eventually dying. It’s much more elaborate than that, but this Gothic tale whets Haqi’s whistle and he’s entranced by the place.
Another significant aspect of the orphanage’s Gothic are Maman and Siti. They’ve remained there so long they’re like part of the orphanage’s architecture, becoming Gothic keepsakes of an old, hideous secret. They’re complicit with the orphanage’s awful secret history in a sense because they know the place’s dirty secrets but choose not to expose them, instead staying there all those years in an effort to protect the children.
The entire film I kept thinking about William Faulkner’s oft-repeated, overused, yet eternally relevant quote from his novel Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It‘s not even past.” The rural orphanage comes to be literally caught in the past because of its Gothic secrets. We see this strongest in the use of technology, or rather lack of technology. There’s no wi-fi at the orphanage, no smartphones. They don’t have a DVD player, and Haqi doesn’t recognise what a VHS tape is, whereas Rani (Shenina Cinnamon) doesn’t even recognise the names of the technology he describes. She exists in a world mired in the past, so much so the technology and the orphanage itself lag behind the present, a world of VHS tapes and rotary phones. The patriarchal sins of the past have left the orphanage physically caught in time, incapable of moving forward. A Gothic image that so succinctly epitomises this entire idea is the scene where Haqi sees Ms. Mirah on the video, right before she steps out into the real world à la Samara in The Ring.
We come to discover the men who grew up in the orphanage actually played a part in a vicious crime that only gets worse the more we learn. When Bandi’s secrets are revealed it casts the plot in a totally different light than where it began. His manipulation of the boys works as an allegory for how patriarchy’s ingrained in the psyche of boys and young men by older generations. He spun a lie to them about Ms. Mirah which led to her ghastly fate. He goes traditionally misogynistic by using the witchcraft excuse, accusing Ms. Mirah of using black magic to kill girls. Bandi is like all those fathers, brothers, friends, and uncles who whisper misogyny into the ears of boys at a young age, convincing them of things that, in reality, are many times the exact opposite; such is the case when we find out Ms. Mirah’s full story. One particularly nasty image of the wounds patriarchy leaves on girls/women is the wound Siti inflicts upon herself. Siti intentionally disfigures herself to render her face undesirable to a potential abuser. The patriarchal power of Bandi was so strong Siti had no other choice but to ruin herself physically as an orphan with nowhere else to go.
The punishments the men and their wives suffer seem somewhat reflective of the original crimes committed at the orphanage. First, we see a number of people eaten inside out by insects. Their bodies get invaded by insects as if they’re the living dead, still alive while the process of decomposition starts to happen, recreating the horror a half dead and buried Ms. Mirah might’ve experienced underneath the floorboards of that locked room as she clung to life and bugs were already eating her.
Later, Lina cuts off pieces of herself. This plays into the overall theme of patriarchal destruction. We earlier hear Lina talk about trying to lose weight, mentioning she’s been skipping dinners. Her wanting to be skinnier is already indicative of society’s patriarchal male gaze. Her friends try, albeit not all that successfully or sensitively, to tell her she doesn’t need to lose weight. The punishment inflicted on Lina when she’s influenced to cut herself up is an awesomely horrific, hyperbolic image of the way patriarchy forces women to destroy themselves. It also works grimly as revenge for misogyny against one of the wives of Ms. Mirah’s oppressors.
There are few films, no matter how much they linger with me after the fact, that make me drop my jaw. This one belongs on this short list. Something about the visuals truly unnerved me, combined with the great performances from a talented cast. Once the horror gets going the film never lets up until the final credits. Stamboel and Anwar have made a legitimately scary horror that works on the psyche as much as it does on the weak and leaden stomachs of fans alike.
The Queen of Black Magic is fantastic Gothic horror. I can’t help feeling its themes concerning the ravages of patriarchy are pressingly relevant. So many people want to deny the social and political power of horror. Fact is, the genre’s been bound up in social, sexual, and political issues since Horace Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel in 1764, The Castle of Otranto. I’m of the mind that horror, especially the Gothic, acts as a time capsule for every generation, embodying the anxieties of various groups in our society. Stamboel and Anwar, whether they tried to, offer up a horror film that takes on the abuses of powerful men while we’re in the midst of a few years of finally trying to hold powerful abusers accountable for their actions. To me, this isn’t coincidence. The Queen of Black Magic is powerful, and it bloodily depicts so many byproducts of patriarchal oppression with a full set of mighty sharp teeth.