The Queen of Black Magic (2021)

While he’s only credited as the film’s screenwriter, it’s tempting to frame Joko Anwar as the auteurist voice behind The Queen of Black Magic, given how snugly it falls in line with his recent work. The Queen of Black Magic repeats the returning-to-a-rural-home supernatural folktale horror of Anwar’s recent creep-out Impetigore. It also repeats the reinvention of an 80s Indonesian cult classic that he experimented with in 2017’s Satan’s Slaves. Unfortunately, director Kino Stamboel can’t match the pristine visual artistry or icy tension of either of those recent Joko Anwar knockouts, which holds The Queen of Black Magic back from achieving their must-see horror nerd prestige. Still, Anwar’s storytelling & stylistic influence is blatant throughout, and the two collaborators build to a spectacularly upsetting climax together within the framework of the backseat auteur’s previous triumphs.

The Queen of Black Magic doesn’t have a plot so much as it has a premise. For most of its runtime, it’s a gory ghost story about a haunted orphanage infested with CGI centipedes. Then, it climaxes with the intrusion of the titular black magic queen, who exponentially escalates the scale of the mayhem in a deliberate attempt to create Hell on earth. Adult alumni of the rural orphanage return to their collective home with their Big City wives & children in tow as a kind of unconventional family reunion. Once home, they’re reminded of a supernatural menace that underscored their childhood memories, which they’ve since passed off as the product of their overactive imaginations. Except, the supernatural threat returns to their lives as soon as they return to the orphanage, and it’s explicitly linked to long-buried abuses against the other children there – an evil they unknowingly participated in and must be punished for. Once the supernatural avenger of these abuses shows herself in the third act and her centipede army grows by the ton, it becomes clear that no one will be spared her vengeful chaos, not even the men’s own innocent children.

Story-wise, this film is stubbornly unrushed & conventional. The backstory that provides purpose for its ghostly, centipedal gross-outs is mostly told through purely expositional flashbacks, all shot with the limited scope & unembarrassed cheese of a soap opera broadcast. Meanwhile, the dozen or so characters who’ve gathered at the haunted orphanage more or less just hang around, waiting for something spooky to happen. The atmosphere is effectively eerie, but the events it serves are oddly inert . . . until Hell is fully unleashed. The third-act payoffs to this film’s traditional haunted-house plotting are gloriously fucked up. Its skincrawl moments fearlessly go for the jugular, making it clear that no guilty party nor innocent bystander is safe from centipedal gore or possessed self-mutilation. The inciting child abuse against helpless orphans isn’t avenged with any kind of targeted fury, but rather a burn-it-all-down anger against the entire world for allowing such cruelty to happen. No one is spared; ignorance is complicity; everyone deserves Hell for living in such a callous world.

After the hideous spectacle of its Hell-on-Earth climax, The Queen of Black Magic concludes with stills of the 1981 original it’s supposedly remaking. Just from that slideshow, you can tell the original film was a lot lighter & less traumatizing, presumably with an entirely different premise than this “remake.” Between this film & Satan’s Slaves, Joko Anwar is acting as a kind of cultural ambassador for the merits of cult-classic Indonesian horrors – both reviving the titles of the films that spooked & delighted him as a kid and using them as templates to spook & delight a modern audience in kind. I can’t claim this effort is as satisfying as the previous two films that he directed himself, but it’s still effectively upsetting as a haunted-house genre film, one that’s done a great job of further piquing my curiosity in Indonesian horror classics.

-Brandon Ledet

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