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-[Film Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema

‘The Queen of Black Magic’ (2019): Villains Always Want Revenge

Directed by: Kimo Stamboel || Produced by: Gope T. Samtani

Screenplay by: Joko Anwar || Starring: Ario Bayu, Hannah Al Rashid, Adhisty Zara, Muzakki Ramdhan, Ari Irham, Ade Firman Hakim

Music by: Fajar Yuskemal, Yudhi Arfani || Cinematography: Patrick Tashadian || Edited by: Arifin Cu’unk || Country: Indonesia || Language: Indonesian

Running Time: 99 minutes

The angry, partially sympathetic villain motivated by revenge against their film’s main character, the latter’s family or friends, or the world in general is so common in all types of film that the trope has become a cliché. Popular Hollywood comic book movies use it ad nauseum much like the tiresome Fast and Furious (2001-) films, but so do the likes of Robert Eggers’ The Northman (2022) and Park Chan-wook’s entire Vengeance (2002, 2003, 2005) trilogy; and don’t even get me started on Quentin Tarantino’s filmography (e.g. Kill Bill [2003-2004], Inglourious Basterds [2009], Django Unchained [2012])!

Antagonistic vengeance is furthermore common in horror filmmaking, whether in the form of serial killers (e.g. several of Dario Argento’s Giallo movies) who give in to their baser instincts or the spirits of once living beings who were somehow wronged when alive (e.g. various Japanese [J-horror] classics); the latter type seem commonplace in Indonesian scary movies as well, including the likes of Joko Anwar’s Impetigore (2019) and Kimo Stamboel’s The Queen of Black Magic.

Top: The quaint, yet of course isolated orphanage serves as QBM’s primary setting, along with some nearby sugar cane fields I wish were utilized more. Bottom: The orphanage’s backstory plays an important role in the movie’s narrative pace.

Stamboel, one half of “the Mo Brothers (the other is longtime collaborator Timo  Tjahjanto)” has reconcentrated on the horror genre following his multiple successful, more action-oriented ventures (e.g. Killers [2014], Headshot [2016], The Night Comes for Us [2018]) with Tjahjanto, both of whom began their filmmaking careers with gory, blood-soaked works like Bunian (2004), Macabre (2009), and contributions to anthology films like The ABCs of Death (2012) and V/H/S/2 (2013). His most significant solo feature directorial effort since his Mo Bros. efforts may be The Queen of Black Magic (henceforth, QBM; Indonesian = “Ratu Ilmu Hitam”), a loose remake of the 1981 Indonesian film of the same name that concentrates its thematic supernatural horror on — you guessed it — vengeance by its titular villain (Putri Ayudya).

QBM recalls vague elements of both Qorin (20022) and The Invisible Man (2020) for its dissection of sexual abuse as a major root cause of evil. Its setup is simple enough: Family members Ario Bayu (husband/father), Hannah Al Rashid (wife/mother), Adhisty Zara (daughter), Ari Irham (older son), and Muzakki Ramdhan (younger son) travel to Bayu’s childhood orphanage to meet several of Bayu’s now grown childhood friends (Tanta Ginting, Miller Khan), their respective wives (Imelda Therinne, Salvita Decorte), and pay their collective respect to the aging patriarchal caretaker (Yayu A.W. Unru) of said orphanage. Not long after their arrival, various inexplicable accidents occur and the adults stumble upon a busload of massacred orphans. Their situation further devolves from there before Bayu and Al Rashid begin to suspect something or someone is behind all these increasingly horrific, dangerous events, which may be connected to the orphanage’s past when Bayu was a resident there.

This ain’t a bad premise for a traditional horror movie, and what’s nice about the overarching story is how the main characters discover little pieces of information here and there that explain the eponymous villain’s backstory. This slow yet consistent delivery of new information paces the film well and adds meaning to its various creative set-pieces. My biggest complaint on the writing front is how the exact manner in which Ayudya wields her fearsome black magic is never explained; the characters never learn clever ways to outwit their tormenter or sidestep her spellcasting, which leaves the ending, epilogue, and somewhat low body count despite such a large ensemble cast feeling arbitrary, incredulous even.

On the directing front, I appreciate the characteristic Mo Bros.-level of gore, as well as the plethora of creative horror sequences that use that gore to heighten narrative tension instead of as a torture device. Stamboel’s use of Patrick Tashadian’s cinematography is solid save for a few sequences with unnecessary unstabilized handheld camerawork and cartoony digital FX of various invertebrates, while the nighttime sequences that constitute the bulk of the film’s latter two acts capture the dread of a foreboding, low-lit haunted house. Most distracting about Stamboel’s direction, however, is the variety of bizarre, over-the-top performances and the clunky dialogue delivery from almost the entire ensemble cast. Having seen most of these actors perform well in other movies, I’m left to conclude the Mo Bros.’ acting direction is to blame given the cornball performances in their other films. Maybe Stamboel aimed for a sort of horror melodrama style with QBM, but I doubt it.

QBM’s scares operate best with body horror based on practical FX (left) but falter when using unrefined computer generated imagery (CGI; right).

All in all, The Queen of Black Magic is an inventive if more modest horror picture than its striking title might indicate. I believe it could’ve benefitted from another rewrite to smooth out the ending, rework the stilted dialogue, and better explain how Putri Ayudya’s Wicked Witch of the Southeast casts her spooky spells (a voodoo doll here, a Book of the Dead there would’ve gone a long way toward helping our protagonists deduce in cleverer, more organic ways how to defeat her). Otherwise, the movie’s use of antagonistic vengeance intertwined with relatable yet nonexploitative social commentary works in the film’s favor instead of becoming just another screenplay cliché. Does that elevate The Queen of Black Magic to a level that viewers uninterested in gory witchcraft can appreciate? The jury’s still out.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Though it bares superficial similarities to numerous Hollywood films about wronged women and J-horror classics about vengeful demonic forces, Kimo Stamboel’s The Queen of Black Magic flaunts the stylish cinematography, glorious blood ‘n guts, bad CGI, and inconsistent writing of contemporary grindhouse homages the world over, from the works of Craig Zahler to Alexandre Aja to, well, other Mo Bros. movies.

—> ON THE FENCE; horror fans will find more than enough good material here to overlook QBM’s faults, while general audiences that prefer mainstream horror in the style of James Wan’s Conjuring (2013, 2016, 2021) or Insidious (2011-2023) will be left scratching their heads.

? Why were there candles in that room at the end?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


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