Shudder UK film review: The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam)
A bit too much CGI6
Subtle subtext (in an otherwise OTT film)8
Anton Bitel | On 29, Jan 2021
Director: Kimo Stamboel
Cast: Ario Bayu, Hannah Al Rashid, Zara JKT48, Muzakki Ramdhan, Ari Irham, Ade Firman Hakim, Sheila Dara Aisha, Tanta Ginting, Miller Khan, Imelda Therinne, Slavita Decorte, Giulio Parengkuan, Shenina Cinnamon
Watch The Queen of Black Magic online in the UK: Shudder UK
Thirty or so years ago, Hanif (Ario Bayu), Anton (Tanta Ginting), Jefri (Miller Khan) and Murnah were young friends together at a rural orphanage run by Mr Bandi and his assistant, Ms Mirah, in a place so remote that it “doesn’t even exist on a map”. Now, Bandi (Yayu AW Unruh) is lying in his deathbed with little time left, so Hanif travels cross-country from Jakarta with his wife Nadya (Hannah Al-Rashid) and their own children, Dina (Zara JKT48), Haqi (Muzakki Ramdhan) and Sandi (Ari Irham), for a reunion with Anton and Jefri and their respective wives (Imelda Therinne, Salvita Decorte) – and to see for one last time the man who saved their lives and made them who they are.
With most of the current orphans away on a coach trip, these three families have the run of the place for the night. As the ramifications of a road accident earlier that day fill the three men with a furtive guilt that they already shared from long ago, curious young Haqi tries to get to the bottom of the contradictory stories he hears about how the girl Murnah disappeared from the place as a child, and how Ms Mirah went crazy and suffered a horrific death shortly afterwards. Ms Mirah is said still to haunt the building’s halls – and over the course of this long, dark night of the soul, the past will return to make vengeful demands on the present.
“We’re here again,” says Anton, as he, Hanif and Jefri re-enter Mr Bandi’s orphanage for the first time in decades. In a sense, all ghost stories are concerned with the revisiting of history, but Kimo Stamboel’s film is also resurrecting cinema’s past. For much as Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves (2017) loosely remade Sisworo Gautama Putra’s 1982 film of the same name, the very title of The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam) – on which Anwar serves as screenwriter – points to Liliek Sudjio’s homonymous film from 1981. In reimagining these two Indonesian genre films from the 1980s, Anwar (born in 1976) is revisiting the national horror features of his own childhood, which shaped who he is and what he does today – and so there is a meta-cinematic, even an autobiographical, aspect to Hanif, Anton and Jefri’s nightmarish trip down memory lane.
In fact, this film has little connection to Sudjio’s The Queen of Black Magic beyond its title, a significant character named Murnah, supernatural vengeance, some bizarre, gory deaths and a montage of stills from the original that plays over the closing credits (marking differences more than similarities). Here, the focus is less on the avenger than on her bewildered victims, while the setting in an orphanage haunted by abuse has nothing to do with Sudjio’s film (which was far more interested in the clash of Muslim faith with secular modernity – themes entirely absent here), and seems a lot closer to the prime location of, say, JA Bayona’s The Orphanage or, more locally, of May The Devil Take You Too – the latter written and directed by Timo Tjahjanto, with whom Stamboel had previously collaborated on the horror films Macabre (2009) and Killers (2014) and the martial arts thriller Headshot (2016).
Like those films, The Queen of Black Magic slowly, carefully builds its tensions before exploding in grotesque violence, as its transforms the spaces of the orphanage into a living hell. Stamboel is great at creating richly unnerving atmosphere and getting his film – like the bugs and centipedes which feature in it – to creep insidiously under the skin. Meanwhile, his story, with its returns to the 1980s and childhood, allegorises a middle-aged Indonesian generation still struggling to extricate itself from the complicated, compromising legacy of Dictator and “Father of Development” Suharto – whose reign of terror ran from 1968 till 1998 – so that their own children can enjoy a better future.
The Queen of Black Magic is available to stream online on Shudder UK, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, or £49.99 yearly membership.