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

The Dark Lady of Kung Fu (1983)

After watching Pearl Chang direct herself in two traditional, psychedelic wuxia revenge tales, it was nice to see her totally cut loose in her third feature. That’s not to say Wolf Devil Woman or Matching Escort are humorless slogs, but more that The Dark Lady of Kung Fu just out-goofs them both by a large margin. The Dark Lady of Kung Fu feels more like a condensed season of a children’s Saturday Morning TV comedy than it does a wuxia epic; it’s just one that happens to feature occasional outbursts of martial arts wirework, gore, and gender ambiguity. It’s decidedly inessential when compared to Chang’s previous accomplishments, but it’s wildly, endearingly playful in a way that rewards completionists.

Pearl Chang stars in dual roles as The Butterfly Bandit & The Monkey King, two separate heroes to local street orphans. The Monkey King provides a makeshift home for the orphans as their figurehead, teaching them how to survive as Dickensian pickpockets. The Butterfly Bandit is a Robin Hood type superhero who showers the orphans & other impoverished citizens with stolen gold, costumed in a winged Zorro costume with a purple Mardi Gras mask. Both characters are referred to by “he/him” pronouns despite identifying as women, and a third character in their orbit is eventually revealed to be intersex in a major, clumsy plot twist. Despite both being played by Chang, the movie never confirms that The Butterfly Bandit & The Monkey King are indeed the same person. The masked superhero’s true identity is instead allowed to remain an ambiguous secret, so they can continue to live on as a mysterious hero to poor children everywhere.

The Dark Lady of Kung Fu is missing some of the Peal Chang touchstones that made Wolf Devil Woman & Matching Escort so fun as low-budget wuxia novelties. Mainly, her rapidfire psychedelic editing style & lengthy martial arts battles are greatly minimized here, allowing more room for the day-to-day hijinks of the street orphans instead of the superheroics of their idols. Still, the film is incredibly playful in its intensely colorful imagery, including shots of Chang enjoying a bubble bath in a giant clamshell, performing as a human Whack-a-Mole for busking tips, and allowing her flock to play Hungry Hungry Hippos with her stolen loot. The usual ultraviolence is also present throughout, featuring chopped limbs, rivers of stage blood, and flashes of horrific self-surgery. Besides its laid-back pacing, the only thing that really holds The Dark Lady of Kung Fu back from greatness is the cloying Comedy Hijinks of its English language dub. It’s yet another argument for Pearl Chang’s work being rescued & properly restored for modern audiences; they’d all make excellent Midnight Movies with a proper clean-up, and this one is no exception.

-Brandon Ledet

We Are Little Zombies (2020)

I remember watching Edgar Wright’s video game breakup comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in the theater and finding it charmingly cute, certainly better than its box office & immediate critical reception implied. As its then-teenage cast has grown into mid-level fame and its then-teenage audience has grown to become the critical establishment in the decade since, Scott Pilgrim‘s underdog status has long faded away. If anything, praise for its 8-bit video game nostalgia and self-critical, anti-romantic twee sentiments is absurdly overstated by now, and what was once a low-key charmer has become overloaded with unsustainably hyperbolic accolades as a modern classic – at least in online Film Nerd circles. Nothing has made that gradual canonization more absurd to me than catching up with the recent coming-of-age comedy We Are Little Zombies, which pushes the same twee video game nostalgia aesthetics everyone drools over in Scott Pilgrim to much more consistently exciting, surprising extremes at every turn. We Are Little Zombies is one of those over-achieving stylistic showcases where every single in-the-moment comedic gag & tangential flight of whimsy makes you shout, “That’s so cool!” at the screen; it’s just absolutely overflowing with creativity. I now understand where the Scott Pilgrim die-hards are coming from, because I’ve seen that movie’s stylistic flourishes exploded into a vibrant, over-the-top spectacle much more suited to my own maximalist tastes.

Like most twee fantasy pieces and whimsical coming-of-age stories, We Are Little Zombies’s flashy sense of style mostly just functions to obscure the deep well of pain flowing just below its manicured surface. The plot is simple; four freshly orphaned children meet at their parents’ simultaneous funerals and run away to form a surprisingly successful (but ultimately doomed) pop punk band. The pint-sized lineup of Little Zombies are all emotionally numb to their grief, so they write vibrant pop songs about their apathy as a form of art therapy. Most of the structural conflict in the film is typical to a rise-to-fame rock band narrative, deriving from evil record company executives converting their art into capital. However, from scene to scene their journey is guided strictly by video game logic, wherein their instruments must be acquired like digital armor and the record execs are level bosses who must be defeated. The vibrant colors, rapid cuts, 8-bit score, and continually surprising shot choices that power-boost this video game surface aesthetic feel like they belong to a kinetic live-action cartoon populated by hyperactive kids in constant search of their next sugar rush. Instead, the Little Zombies are decidedly anti-emotional as a band, despondently stumbling through their shitty little lives in the exact way their collective name implies. The only time they appear to be having as much fun as first-time director Makoto Nagahisa is having behind the camera is when they’re playing their candy-coated pop punk tunes, and there’s a genuine tragedy to how easily that collective art therapy is corrupted for a one-hit-wonder cash-in.

In terms of its mind-melting, genre-defying maximalism, there are a ton of psychedelic Japanese freak-outs I’d compare We Are Little Zombies to before citing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Suicide Club, Hausu, Funeral Parade of Roses, Wild Zero, etc. Still, the two films’ overlap of pop punk soundtrack cues, twee heartbreak, and video game surface aesthetics make the comparison unignorable. We Are Little Zombies amplifies the little touches that make Scott Pilgrim charming into an explosively entertaining video game dreamscape that much more clearly, consistently registers as Something Special to my eyes. It’s apparently now my turn to overhype an underseen, underloved video game fantasy piece until people are sick of hearing about how great it is. Hopefully, I’ve got at least a decade until the tides turn against it.

-Brandon Ledet

My Life as a Zucchini (2017)

This stop motion animation gem was nominated for a Best Animated Feature award last Oscars season, but is still making its way through rounds of slow trickle American distribution. Don’t it let slip by you. A French language black comedy written by Céline Sciamma, director of Girlhood & Tomboy, My Life as a Zucchini is more spiritually aligned with the quiet comedic gloom of Mary and Max than the kid-friendly antics of more traditional stop motion works like Shaun the Sheep & A Town Called Panic. Its plot is quietly simple. Its animation style is similarly unambitious. However, its empathetic portrait of young, lonely kids in search of a family to call their own is rawly authentic and had me crying like an idiot baby throughout. The good news is that even in its lowest moments of real world gloom and heart-heavy reflections on the lingering effects of abuse and abandonment, My Life as a Zucchini knows how to make a good joke land just when it’s needed most and there are just as many opportunities for a laugh as there are to reach for a handkerchief.

The titular Zucchini in the film is actually a human boy whose mother happened to nickname after the vegetable. With the sunken eyes & oversized head of Anna and the Moods, Zucchini looks like what would happen if Tim Burton attempted to draw Milhouse Van Houten without the glasses. Newly orphaned after a freak accident, Zucchini arrives at a group home where other children await adoptions that are likely never to come. These kids have been through Hell: physical abuse, neglect by way of addiction or mental illness, being left stranded by an uncaring immigration system. My Life as a Zucchini will coldly let their naked pain sink in with a quiet patience too. The kids will complain, “There’s nobody left to love us,” or openly gawk at other kids who do have traditional families while the movie chooses to linger on the raw nerve of the moment, allowing its brutal honesty to sink in. Even when they’re joking around or staving off boredom in the group home’s playground, these haunting moments find their way to the surface, openly daring any eyes focused on the screen to remain dry. It’s not easy.

My Life as a Zucchini isn’t overly maudlin or emotionally manipulative. It’s just honest. One of my favorite aspects of the film is that (with very few exceptions) there are no real enemies driving its central conflicts. Life is just difficult. The foster system cares about ​these kids dearly, but they’re a little older than whom most families would be looking to adopt (Zucchini starts the film at age 9). There’s an older, would-be bully at the home who would serve as the antagonist in most versions of this story, but his transgressions don’t amount to much more than light ribbing (he calls Zucchini “Potato”) and he actually has more empathetic wisdom than most of the kids about how the system works & how they can best look after each other. Even when Zucchini looks back at living alone with his alcoholic, possibly violent mother, he reflects, “She drank a lot of beer, but she made good mashed potatoes and sometimes we had a lot of fun.” As dark as some of these kids’ backstories can be, My Life as a Zucchini often focuses on the “sometimes we had a lot of fun” end of that recollection and the movie balances out its real life gloom by celebrating the small victories and moments of levity that cut through its pint-sized characters’ emotional pain.

All things considered, this is a fairly traditional coming of age story, one that’s stop motion medium has a sort of twee sweetness to it that recalls things like the animated sequences of Taika Waititi’s debut Eagle vs. Shark. The orphans who populate the film indulge in small acts of vandalism, frequently erupt into juvenile sexual humor, cut loose at adorably safe-feeling late night dance parties, and navigate their first experiences with things like romantic crushes & hand holding. The movie itself can be adorable in the same way, whether depicting precious carnival ride miniatures & tiny crayon drawings or piles of empty beer cans complete with their own generic labels. For all of My Life as a Zucchini‘s instant appeal as an adorable object and a sweetly empathetic coming of age narrative, though, the movie often distinguishes itself in how it builds these charms on a foundation of real life emotional pain. When the inevitable sadness & boredom of life at this stop motion animated orphanage disrupts the playtime fantasy of the kids who populate it, the movie always chooses to slow down and let the ugly truth of that moment linger. It’s not always a pleasant experience, but it is a deeply rewarding one.

-Brandon Ledet