Directed by Kimo Stamboel (Headshot) and written by Joko Anwar (who previously wrote and directed last year’s Impertigore), The Queen of Black Magic is a loose re-envisioning of the 1981 Indonesian horror of the same name. The original film saw a young woman accused of witchcraft embrace the dark arts after being thrown off of a cliff by her lover. She then used her new abilities to exact revenge on those that harmed her. This time around, the story is placed in a modern day orphanage. The director of the establishment has fallen gravely ill, and a trio of his most loyal ex-residents, accompanied by their wives and children, make the pilgrimage back to check in on the man that gave them a home. As the old friends reacquaint themselves, odd events begin to unfold, events that may be connected to a former nurse that died on the property. As sins from the past are revealed, the group must work together to break free from the curse that they find themselves trapped under.
Horror movies are often expected to be nail-bitingly frightening from the beginning, almost as a way to prove to the audience that what they are about to watch is definitely a horror film. It’s an odd pressure to force upon a genre, and whilst this works for some projects, going in full tilt immediately causes many more to suffer from an inability to maintain the same level of fear. Stamboel decides to side-step this expectation and instead spends time with his characters. He spends the time building up everybody, cleverly crafting their identities and relationship dynamics with one another. Around this character and world building, Stamboel still weaves in plenty of indicators that things are going to go awry. The balancing act working to titillate and tantalize, at the same time as informing us who all our key players are.
After a slow and steady build-up The Queen of Black Magic eventually reaches its tipping point and switches character building to emerging horror, and all Hell breaks loose. This unravelling is formed of a thrilling collection of sequences. Here Stamboel throws everything in his arsenal onto the screen and demonstrates just how uncomfortable Indonesian genre cinema can be. The effects during these scenes are eye-poppingly authentic; they feel so genuine that they make for very uncomfortable viewing. Those with an aversion to creepy crawlies will have an especially tough time as there is a strong leaning to use a few thousand every scene, which gives new meaning to the phrase ‘skin-crawling’. The gore gags appear to have been created from a mixture of practical and visual effects and are a shining example of how using both together can really enhance the experience.
As impressive as the effects are, and as necessary as the world building is, The Queen of Black Magic has a relatively weak narrative. The structure conforms heavily with the framework of a slasher, it has just been displaced from sex-mad teens to groups of families. This composition forces the plot elements, tropes, and twists into some tired pigeon-holes that we’ve seen plenty of times before. By offering little in the way of freshness here, Stamboel makes a mighty stumble that serves to wobble, though thankfully not topple, his otherwise solid work. A gore-filled and chilling tale that, although very familiar, will make your eyes water and your flesh crawl.
The Queen of Black Magic is available on Shudder now.
This review was first published on THN.