Q: The Queen of Black Magic (1983)


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Well, well, Indonesian horror, here we are again.

Back on the other end of the alphabet we visited Dangerous Seductress, a 1995 effort to break into the lucrative Western horror market. We’re going back a decade and more for a more homegrown horror, starring Indonesia’s answer to Barbara Steele, the lovely Suzzanna, who was a genuine star in her country from the early 70s up through the 90s.

The movie starts with a wedding, the village head man’s daughter marrying a man named Mohar, with much ceremony. Judging by the muttering in the crowd, Mohar is not a very well-regarded fellow. Somebody else agrees with that opinion, because there are signs of black magic afoot: maggots in the wedding feast, and the bride starts hallucinating monsters.



A “witch doctor” (hey, blame the dub, not me) is called in, and whoever the villain is bounces the guy up and down like a superball. He lives long enough to reveal “The demon comes from the West!” and Mohar, being a scumbag, deduces that it must be Murni (Suzzanna), the girl he seduced and then left for his current sugar momma.

Mohar whips the village into a mob (even when the head man appeals to their reason) and they descend upon the innocent Murni, burn her house, and throw her into a ravine, which is apparently how you deal with witches in Indonesia. Fortunately for her, she is caught by an old man, who nurses her back to health, then tells her that she needs to learn black magic to get her revenge on the villagers.

Now reasonable people would be asking who this old man might be, who conveniently knows so much about black magic, but as we will see, we are dealing with A Village Full of Idiots (my suggested alternate title), so Suzzanna agrees, and begins her training, which involves nude trampoline jumping, for some reason (I shouldn’t complain, it’s a truly lovely shot)

vlcsnap-2014-09-09-19h42m00s23Soon, Murni is appearing to her would-be assassins, and assassining them right back in a number of interesting ways, including flesh-eating bees and animated scarves that double as nooses. During these days, a city feller wanders through the town, and stops at the village mosque to pray, only to find it abandoned and falling apart. In fact, whenever he mentions prayer, a part of the building tries to fall on him, because our old pal, the Suspicious Old Man, is muttering over his paraphernalia. The holy man defiantly sets up his prayer mat in the mosque and prays despite the falling debris, resulting in the Old Man getting punched by a holy mule miles away.

vlcsnap-2014-09-09-19h43m46s65The new Holy Guy observes what has become a normal night for the village: Mohar and his minions marching out into the night to find Murni (like I said, Village Full of Idiots), and opines that really, all the village needs to do is start praying again. Well, the mob of idiots does find Murni, and she disperses them easily with a big offscreen fan, and lays a curse on Mohar, who, in the best scene in the movie, literally pulls his own head off.

It turns out that I had been waiting all my life to see that in a movie.

vlcsnap-2014-09-09-19h44m55s254After Mohar’s head goes all penanggalan on us, flying around and biting people, the Holy Man crops up to stop it. and everybody agrees it would be a good idea to rebuild the mosque and start praying again. Murni is reluctant to continue killing, now that she’s had her revenge on Mohar, much to the Old Man’s disgust. It gets worse when there’s a meet cute between the Holy Man and Murni, and she decides to move to the big city and marry him. Which the Old Man just can’t have.

Queen of Black Magic isn’t going to win any points for originality, but it has some impressively weird and gory death scenes, and I have to say, after years and years of Western horror movies where the villains sneer at ineffectual religion, it’s quite novel to see a movie where simple prayer actually packs a (literal) punch. Entertaining and worth the watch, If you can get past constantly groaning, “You idiots!

vlcsnap-2014-09-09-19h45m37s124I’m feeling nice tonight. Here, have a Best Of:

The Queen of Black Magic on Amazon

Indonesian Double Feature

It seems that most of this year I’ve had two movies relentlessly hyped to me, and surprisingly, one of them wasn’t The Avengers. Well, Avengers has been relentlessly hyped, but honestly,  something that high-profile hardly even registers on my admittedly off-kilter radar these days. I’m sure I’ll see it, but… well, it’s odd for me to think of a comic book movie as mainstream, y’know? What strange world is this?

No, there were two movies that were pretty much marketed straight to me, that just burrowed under my skin and stayed there until I could see them. One was The Cabin in The Woods, which I wrote and squeed about earlier this week, and the other was the movie that finally came to be known as The Raid: Redemption.

The setup here, as you can see, is very simple: It’s Die Hard with a SWAT team instead of Bruce Willis and a building full of coked-up crackheads and gangsters instead of a crew of mercenaries.  That’s an efficient delivery system for some of the most brutal, intense hand-to-hand fighting scenes I have seen in any movie. The end credits list something like twelve doctors and paramedics and at least half that many massage therapists. They earned their money on this movie, and so did those stuntmen.

The camera work is frequently stunning, but several times, it’s just as annoying. In the fight scenes it follows the frenetic action perfectly – there’s even a time or two that the camera looks around quickly after an opponent is felled, just as any character in the fight would.  Unfortunately, that carries over into the still scenes, as the shaky cam seems to take over arbitrarily, like a prize fighter bouncing on his heels to keep warmed up. Still, frantic as the violence becomes, the viewer is never in doubt as to what is happening, never puzzled about the geography in which all this is taking place, MICHAEL BAY AND EVERYBODY IN HOLLYWOOD WHO FANCIES THEMSELVES AN ACTION FILMMAKER PLEASE TAKE FUCKING NOTE.

Generally, every time I see a movie that proclaims itself to be wall-to-wall action, it becomes wearisome by the final half-hour. The Raid, however, doesn’t do that. The pacing is skillful, and the fights constantly switch the odds. It never get boring, and at a lean 100 minutes, doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The “Redemption” part of the title was apparently added when it was decided that The Raid would be the first movie of a trilogy. It’s going to be interesting to see where director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais take this from here.

Speaking of Evans and Uwais, I had the evening free and remembered that their first movie together, Merantau (2009) was on Netflix Instant. Fully aware there was no way it could be as frantic as The Raid, I fired it up.

Merantau is a more typical martial arts movie, very firmly in the country-martial-artist-comes-to-the-big-city-and-winds-up-fighting-crime mold, along with The Big Boss and Ong Bak, just a lot grimmer. Uwais is the rural fellow hoping to find a job in Jakarta teaching silat, his martial art of choice, but his country morals and chivalry keep getting him involved in stopping a human trafficking ring led by two white devils. Unlike in Ong Bak, Uwais doesn’t pull out any cutesy Jackie Chan physical stunts, he is too concerned with kicking ass. (This is not to denigrate Chan or Jaa in any way. As I said, this is a fairly humorless movie.)

Relentless or not, things still get pretty intense; it’s rare that Uwais is ever up against only one person – in fact, the movie has the class to let him lose his first major fight. But after that, with a damsel in distress, he gets up and proceeds to lay the field to waste.

The major difference you are going to find between Merantau and The Raid is the camerawork. The handheld shakycam is nowhere to be found here, it’s all smooth dollies and Steadicam. A second major difference is the vibrancy of colors; Jakarta is a very colorful city, even (or perhaps especially) in the lower-income and seedy urban areas where Merantau takes place. That is another major difference from The Raid, where the color scheme is drab, drawn from crushed dreams and urban decay.

A unique thing in Merantau‘s favor is the two main bad guys, the white devils (Mads Koudal and Laurent Buson) can not only fight, they can act as well, and you don’t usually get that combination in Asian film (especially in Chinese movies, my usual flavor). That really adds to the quality of the movie, that this much care is put into its construction; those parts aren’t huge, but they are important.

The best part of seeing Merantau almost immediately after The Raid is seeing the repertory company forming; Doni Alamsyah is still playing Uwais’ brother, and the comparatively small Yayan Ruhian is still playing a badass ready to give the hero a run for his money (as Mad Dog in The Raid he’s absolutely a force of nature).

So that was a day well spent. Indonesian action flicks have come a long way from The Stabilizer and Jaka Sembung and The Devil’s Sword. If there’s a major renaissance in their film industry, I welcome it, and I am definitely looking forward to whatever Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais have for us in the future.