Queen of Black Magic (1979)

Author: Wes R.
Submitted by: Wes R.   Date : 2008-07-17 08:00

Directed by: Liliek Sudjio
Starring: J.P. Suzzanna, W.D. Muchtar, and Teddy Purba

Reviewed by: Wes R.

I know the ancient charms to summon spirits and demons. I can make you skillful and expert in the use of them.
I can make you queen of black magic.

In recent years, Asian horror has taken American audiences by storm. During the 1980s and 1990s, Asian horror output was only seen among die hard horror fans, who looked to the far East for more extreme and graphic output. Most of today's Asian favorites are of the ghost or supernatural variety, including The Eye, Ringu, and One Missed Call (all three of which have also spawned mainstream U.S. remakes). However, long before any of these films were produced, there was a film released in Indonesia that some say is one of the earliest example of the modern Asian horror film: The 1979 gore/revenge opus, Queen of Black Magic.

On his wedding day, a groom's bride-to-be is cursed by black magic... seeing evil, demonic visions, and leaving her in a terrified, hysterical shock. As a witch doctor is killed during an attempted exorcism, his dying words indicate that the person responsible lives to the west. Falsely accusing an old flame for the sorcery, the groom and the nearby townspeople set fire to her house with her mother inside and toss her from the edge of a mountain. After falling and hitting several rocks and trees, her body is recovered by a man near the bottom. He resuscitates her and hides her from the townspeople. Even after all this, her quiet devotion to the groom is evident, and it takes a motivational speech by the man who rescued her for her to understand that revenge must be taken and that those responsible must be punished by means of black magic (that he, of course, will instruct her in). Kind-hearted, she is soon torn between continuing her revenge until the end or stopping it against her teacher's wishes.

Queen of Black Magic not only takes influence from the superstitions of the people of Indonesia, but you can also see how the film may have been influenced by Brian DePalma's Carrie. Both films deal with a supernatural revenge being carried out by a scorned/humiliated female character. Like most of the classic horror film villains, the queen in this film is quite sympathetic. In a way, I viewed her the same way I viewed Camille Keaton's character in I Spit on Your Grave or Mari's parents in Last House on the Left. Because of what we've seen, we almost want her to take her revenge and do harm to those who harmed her. Thus, the film doesn't really have a villain that scares us other than the demons of black magic themselves, although they are never actually seen.

I first became aware of the film while watching the Britain-produced horror documentary, Fear in the Dark. A brief sequence of a man in a blue sweater under some sort of bizarre trance gorily pulling his own head from his body was startling, and enticed me want to track down the film however I could. Of course, with such a limited VHS release here in the states, it would be a near impossible feat that I feared I would never accomplish. Enter Mondo Macabro, who has finally released Queen of Black Magic on DVD with all the care and attention that fans have grown to expect from the company (I will go into all this later, of course). The use of cinematography and set design is very impressive. For a film industry with not nearly the same amount of experience as its Western contemporaries, this film looks much better and slickly produced than a lot of U.S. or even Italian horror films of the same time period.

I will say this also, Queen of Black Magic has one of the better and creepier synth scores of the era. It may be simplistic, but it aims to create an atmosphere of foreboding evil and it succeeds. I would compare it at times to a cross between the scores of some of Fulci's films of the early 80s and Goblin's score to Suspiria... with a little Last House on the Left electronica thrown in for good measure. It is really unique and it really impressed me. The film is pretty well-paced. Right from the start, it wastes no time. The opening half hour features the creation of the "queen of black magic" and the last hour is all about her revenge and struggles at redemption. And revenge she gets. The people killed in this film aren't simply killed. They are dispatched of in particularly gruesome and sinister ways. One man is stung to death by a swarm of bees, another falls into a waterlogged rice field, only to resurface with boils and all sorts of nasty slug-like creatures coming out of his face. Another's arms bubble up Scanners style all over and then explode with blood. Just when you think a death can't be more horrible, the next one outdoes it. This pattern continues until the end of the film. I honestly didn't know what could top the head-ripping scene, but the film's ending does. The special effects in the gore scenes are actually pretty impressive for the time period. The presence of gore period is unique, given that a lot of today's Asian horror relies on what is not seen, rather than what is seen. The effects of falling and flying bodies is pretty laughable (very visibly a dummy), but it's the gore you've come to see and gore you get in buckets.

The script is a mixed bag, but the dialogue is the weakest point. Much of it is often obvious, plain and more exposition like, but in a film like this, you kind of overlook the script and instead pay attention to the palpable tension and dread that comes from the feeling of true evil that permeates every scene. The good aspects of the script is that the plot is genuinely involving. Like the best campfire and bedtime stories, we follow the narrative throughout the film and care about what will happen next and how the story will resolve itself. That's always the sign of a good movie, folks, and this film passes that test with flying colors. It is difficult to tell if the actors are good or not, because the dialogue on the DVD version is completely dubbed. They are very expressive, however, in their actions and facial movements. Suzzanna is especially good as the scorned "queen". Her portrayal ranges from being breathtaking, heartbreaking, and even menacing. I don't make it a point to always mention nudity or the lack thereof in reviews, but I really have to comment on the bizarre, fuzzy blob that dances around the naked body of the lead actress whenever she is on-screen without clothes. It is meant to prevent the audience from seeing the nudity, and it strikes me as strange that in a film where blood and gore flows pretty frequently that the filmmakers would actually go to the trouble to blur out female nudity. Coincidentally, there is one tiny bit of nudity that they either missed or left un-blurred for some reason (a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of a nipple before a moment of breastfeeding). The lack of nudity doesn't take away from the film at all. It just makes you wonder why they did what they did.

The video presentation on Mondo Macabro's disc of Queen of Black Magic is nothing short of beautiful. For such a forgotten and obscure film, it looks simply brilliant. A few frames here and there appear washed out, but the transfer is generally solid. The audio track suffices, although there is an occasional pop and hiss or two present. It's never loud enough to detract from the on-screen action. Given the rarity of the film and that we're lucky enough to have it on DVD at all, I think the audio's shortcomings can be considered a relatively minor complaint. "Indonesian Light and Magic" is a brief featurette on Indonesian FX artist El Badrun, who provided the film's grisly effects. Also on the disc is a trailer and a brief text essay about the history and making of the film. Not a bad round of supplements, in all. Queen of Black Magic is such a fun, wild ride that I can't help but call this a definite purchase. The gore is eye-popping and the story is both engaging and tragic, like all the best Shakespearian plays and fairy tales. If you're into seeking out the truly unsung treasures and rarities of the horror genre, look absolutely no further than this film. Thanks to Mondo Macabro, seeking it out is as easy as heading to your favorite DVD locale or ordering it online. It comes highly recommended from me and I think others who view it will agree that in just one viewing, the Queen of Black Magic will soon have you under her deadly spell. Buy it!

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