If for any reason you don’t come to the conclusion that director Kimo Stamboel’s latest effort is a horror film, don’t fret. In the vicinity of 30 seconds, The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam) greets you with a genre staple — top-down shots of a lonely car cruising down a road. And because it is a genre staple, your belief that said car is mapping its way toward doom is absolutely validated.
“Destination Doom” in The Queen of Black Magic is a secluded orphanage overseen by Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), who is ailing. The doomed denizens are passengers of the aforementioned lonely car, dad Hanif (Ario Bayu), mum Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) and their three kids Dina (Adhisty Zara), Sandi (Ari Irham) & Haqi (Muzakki Ramdhan), with Hanif revealing that Mr. Bandi’s care granted him a life away from the streets. Also visiting with Nif — names are frequently abbreviated in characters’ speeches — and visibly as well-off as him are former orphans Jefri (Miller Khan) and Anton (Tanta Ginting). Their respective wives and children are along for the ride, too. Each person is their own being here, thanks to specific domestic dynamics and buried anxieties, but to the evil force all are souls waiting to be terrorized when it’s “go time,” are sources of the blood to bathe in when the bloodbath begins. How best to announce that your film is connected, albeit loosely, to the 1981 work from Liliek Sudjio, right?
And with this fact, a warning. Just drink water beforehand. Know where the loo is. Don’t think about food after at least a few hours. The Queen of Black Magic abso-bloody-lutely does not play around or understand the concept of respite when it brings the hurt. Both lunch and dinner that day have a hint of putridness, even when the ingredients are nowhere near their “best by” dates.
Of course, the disgust is the result that Stamboel, sound designer Hiro Ishizaka and makeup artist Ucok Albarisun — perhaps specifically the latter two — are looking for. Pop goes the eye, off goes the skin, all-around-the-shop go the crawlies and, gulp, more, The Queen of Black Magic spares no expense and the majority of its runtime to be one pointedly nasty nightmare. Nobody, and no body, is safe in this damned orphanage. To put it differently, everybody is disposable, including the ensemble’s younger members. Much like the previous version, Joko Anwar (director and writer of box-office hits Satan’s Slave and Impetigore, that have given Indonesian horror incredible visibility) has really put the emphasis on the pain, rendering it less a byproduct of the horror and more the only punishment that fits the crime. Yes, there is a crime at this orphanage, revealed through fleeting flashbacks and even more fleeting exchanges in between the carnage, and the prolonged lack of resolution has morphed it into none other than the titular character.
That said, the film’s means of pursuing extremities to satisfy those seeking it are also the muck in the magic. The horror in The Queen of Black Magic is the kind that is more aware of the viewers than the characters; whatever discomfort conjured is delivered from the frame to us, no need for the people in the frame to be its carriers. That aforementioned disposability? It also means you don’t have to care about anyone. All are horror fodder, instead of, say, a haunted father. Anwar does integrate a more humanistic element into the story — the foundation of the film seems to be the sins of the father affecting all those who come after, namely mothers and children — but Stamboel can’t communicate this with the same impact and wellness in design as the horror bits. Even if he doesn’t actively seek it, the unpleasantries always show up first, paving the way for diminishing returns as the next person gets sliced, and the next gets shot, and the next can’t hold their crimson in.
But going by its title, all that The Queen of Black Magic wants to do is for us to ultimately respect that power. Quaking in fear at her power. If so, consider the spell cast, and it will be a while before the effect wears off.
Was that a pen or a centipede?