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INTERVIEW: ‘The Queen of Black Magic’ director Kimo Stamboel

Remaking a classic movie has never been an easy job, most especially if said movie is considered as one of the best that the genre has to offer, just like Liliek Sudjio’s 1981 relentless horror The Queen of Black Magic. Yet in the talented hands of director Kimo Stamboel (Headshot, Macabre) and scriptwriter Joko Anwar (Satan’s Slaves, Impetigore), it’s a task that’s accomplished really well. Not only are they able to capture the spirit of the original movie, they also put some new spins to make the story more relevant today.

The story focuses on a big city family consisting of father Hanif (Ario Bayu), mother Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid), and children Sandi (Ari Irham), Dina (Zara JKT48), and Haqi (Muzakki Ramdhan), traveling to the small, isolated orphanage where Hanif was raised. They’re there to visit the orphanage caretaker, Bandi (Yayu Unru), who has mysteriously fallen ill. But upon arriving, strange and life-threatening occurrences created by the titular Black Magic Queen (who seeks revenge for something that happened to her a while before) start terrorizing them.

On paper, this premise sounds straightforward and familiar, and at times, The Queen of Black Magic does feel like a generic survival horror. But what goes on throughout the movie actually runs deeper than what it looks like on the surface. At its core, in fact, the movie paints a harrowing picture of sexual abuse victims; how hard it is for them to seek justice in a patriarchal society, and how sometimes the sin of our father — or in this case, a father figure — gets passed on easily to the next generation. We recently had the pleasure of interviewing director Kimo Stamboel to talk about the movie and his creative process behind remaking a classic Indonesian horror.

Congratulations on the movie being released internationally on Shudder this month! I wanna start at the beginning: what eventually drew you to this project?

Initially, it’s because simply I wanted to work with Rapi Films (the production house of the movie). They reached out to me and asked me whether I was interested in remaking The Queen of Black Magic or not. I honestly didn’t remember much about the original movie when they first called me. But after I rewatched it, I started to remember what’s it about and how much it traumatized me when I was a kid. I remembered watching it on TV, and the scene that involves a severe head really terrified me to my core.

Then I thought, “If we’re to remake this, we can do more fun with it and update the story to be more relevant to our society right now.” I didn’t want it to be a straight remake, so I began to find new angles to tell this story. That’s when Joko Anwar was brought along to the project. Knowing that he’s one of the best genre storytellers working right now, that, of course, excited me even more. He gave plenty of interesting ideas to the story, and as a director, that’s what eventually drew me to the film.

Since this film is a remake of classic horror, what elements are being updated to make the story refreshing?

The main idea of The Queen of Black Magic originally came from Joko. He proposed a story that is quite relatable to this era. Themes such as sexual abuse to personal terror are very close to our society nowadays. Joko found a way to connect these timely topics with the story of the original movie: revenge and black magic. And that’s what makes me feel that this new update on the film will be very interesting. I think this is something that’s not only cool, but also powerful.

Yeah, the movie is quite relatable, especially the sexual abuse and the predator subplot…

That’s correct. In the original film, the story simply focuses on a woman who learns about black magic to seek revenge and about a man who wants to achieve more power. I feel that if we still use the same concept, the film will somehow end up less relatable. We also change the perspective of the story. In the 1981 version, the film is told from the point of view of the black magic queen, who was played brilliantly by Suzzanna. But in this remake, we decide to tell the story from the perspective of her victim because we want the terror to have more profound effects, both on the characters and on the audience.

Speaking about terror, can you tell us a bit more about how, as a director, you build the terror effectively?

When it comes to creating the terror, I build it solely from the performances of the cast. Luckily, all the actors of The Queen of Black Magic are very talented, so it’s not much of a challenge to build the terror and paranoia. Most of them, in fact, did their own research on black magic in Indonesia and what the victims are like. The big challenge here is how to incorporate the traumatic story of the sexual abuse subplot into the story in an organic way. I didn’t want it to feel forced or a little out of place. So to achieve that, I tried to explore this part of the story as subtly as possible. 

This film is a remake, and your previous films are always original projects, is there a different approach when it comes to your directing process?

I don’t think there’s much difference between me directing original films and a remake one. The only difference here is that this is actually the first film where I didn’t get much involved in the script development process. So far in my career, it’s always been either me writing or me deeply involved in the writing process. Luckily, my collaboration with Joko went smoothly. During the shooting process, I always had a discussion with him regarding the script like, “bro, what is it that you want to say on this part?” or “why does this character behave this way?” and all that. I’ve been lucky to be given the freedom by both my producer and Joko himself in translating the script into the film.

When it comes to remake, I did try to be respectful of the spirit of the original film — mostly by implementing some elements that are already there but using my own vision and style. Some sets of scenes in the original movie were recreated too, if it was possible. So in the end, my directing approach is just me trying to be respectful but still finding a way to make this my own film. It’s challenging, of course, but that’s the fun.

I wanna talk a little about the visuals. Can you tell me about the CGI and practical effects percentages that you use in the movie? And what’s the reasoning behind it?

The percentage of the CGI is clearly above 50%. Maybe about 70% of the visual is CGI, while the rest is practical effects. There are so many things in the movie, visual-wise, that cannot be accomplished practically, so I had to use CGI for most parts. For example, a scene where one of the characters tears off their skin, then from the inside of the skin we see centipedes, is one that’s impossible to do if I was only using practical effects. When filming, we actually had real centipedes, we didn’t use it for the actors, obviously. But we used it for some detailing, to make the looks more realistic.

Black magic is very close to our culture, so to capture that element accurately, is there any research? 

Oh yes, I definitely did some research. But what I did is just mostly ask some friends and families and colleagues who had gone through black magic itself, to see and understand what it feels like when someone becomes the victim. From my research, I gathered some very interesting information, like how when you’re sent an egg and/or beheaded Cemani chicken, something bad and dangerous will happen to you, or how when you’re under the spell of black magic, you can’t ever escape a situation, which is like what happens in the movie.

To close our conversation today, I’d like to know, are there any statements or messages that you want to deliver from this movie?

I don’t think there’s something big or profound that I want to say, except that if there’s someone who has a grudge against you, they sometimes will do anything in their power to punish and hurt you. So in the end, just be a good person and never hesitate to reflect on your actions and mistakes because sometimes we don’t know how far someone is willing to go if they want to hurt us. Especially as an Asian, where these things are very close to us, we just have to be careful. Be a good person, man. [laughing]

The Queen of Black Magic is available on Shudder from 28 January 2021.

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