JUNE 27 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC (1979)
Director: Liliek Sudjio
Indonesia has been a treasure trove of cinematic gold for Mondo Macabro, having released more films from the Southeast Asian country than any other thus far. Rapi films in particular have provided Mondo Macabro with such classic oddities as THE DEVIL’S SWORD, VIRGINS FROM HELL and MYSTICS IN BALI. Their latest, THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC, has a little something to feed everyone’s tastes: Telenovela style melodrama, religious conflict and a distinctive local folklore, all coupled with over the top blood and gore. While it probably shouldn’t be used as an advertisement to boost tourism, THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC will definitely have you seeking out other films from the exotic islands of Indonesia.
A small village is celebrating the marriage of Kohar to the daughter of the village’s wealthy leader, when moments before the wedding ceremony, a string of curses suddenly darkens the festivities. Kohar’s bride is struck with visions of grotesque deformed creatures and walking skeletons just as the two are about to walk down the aisle. Food becomes invested with maggots and sudden strong winds toss both decorations and guest to and fro. Whisked away to safety, the would-be bride’s visions persist, leaving her a crying heap curled in the corner of her room, terrified by apparitions of large snakes. All signs point to black magic and Kohar thinks he knows who’s behind the uproar, placing blame squarely on the shoulders of his former lover, Murni (Suzzanna). Having robbed her of her virtues and broken her heart, Kohar is certain that Murni has resorted to black magic as a means of revenge. After gathering a small posse, Kohar tracks down Murni, and ignoring her repeated claims of innocents, throws her off the side of a cliff. Luckily Murni is caught by an aging hermit (W.D. Mochtar) who takes the lovesick fool home to aid in her recovery. It is there that the mystical loner teaches Murni the dark arts, fueling her anger and thirst for revenge. As Murni's curses lay claim to the men who served as her jury and executioner, the appearance of a young holy man may be the last resort for the small village and the only one who can save Kohar from certain death.
Indonesia’s answer to the scream queen, Suzzanna is a movie staple in her native land, having first appeared in film at the ripe age of eight. At times a controversial figure, due in part to her appearance in numerous bedroom scenes, Suzzanna’s Murni stand’s out as the only female of any strength in a male dominated world. Blending effortlessly into a number of bizarre and often unintentionally hilarious scenes (why she starts sucking on her big toe in the films climatic duel is anyone’s guess) it's easy to get swept up into Suzzanna’s quest for revenge. Portrayed almost as an anti-hero, you find yourself routing for her and eagerly anticipating what wild and random form of torture she will dispense next. W.D. Mochtar was also a regular of Rapi films, featured in many of the same pictures as Indonesia’s most popular cult actor, at least by name, Barry Prima. While W.D. Mochtar lays it on a little thick at times, it all feels justified once his character’s true intentions are finally revealed. Not that you won’t see that coming from a mile away.
One of Mondo Macabro's most requested titles, THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC (Ratu Ilmu Hitam) has finally found its way to a proper DVD release. Originally finding popularity on VHS in the 1980s, as did many other Indonesian horror and action films, through distributor Lettuce Entertain You (I promise I'm not making that name up), BLACK MAGIC subsequently became a hot ticket item on the grey market. With its low budget special effects and steady paced revenge plot, it is easy to see how the film would appeal to a 1980s audience eager to explore though boxes of tapes, hoping to discover the next EVIL DEAD. While there is little doubt that THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC’s cult appeal lies with its numerous scenes of blood and guts, the picture is often surprisingly well framed, with several impressive compositions. One might think that cinematography would not be high on the list of priorities for low budget film makers in a foreign land, but it quickly becomes apparent that those involved took their work seriously. Murni’s training sequence is a particular standout, as one memorable scene begins with the silhouette of an apparently nude Suzzanna, performing summersaults in front of a full moon. Great care and attention was also obviously paid to the film’s numerous and imaginative magic educed deaths. One man is sucked into the ground, only to be spat out lifeless and covered in slugs, while another rips off his own head in shock and awe of his fellow villagers, who are beside themselves once the decapitated head takes flight and begins to bite the town elder. Utterly bizarre, THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC is never predictable and a tremendous amount of fun.
Culled from the original negative, THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC is presented in a brand new anamorphic transfer that maintains the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. There are some very minor issues with colors fading and there are several night scenes that are more grey than black, but otherwise the print is clean and clear with sharp detail. Considering the rarity of such a print you really have to start nick picking to find any flaws that would even begin to distract from such an odd film. In relationship to the film’s original trailer, found in the disc’s special features and apparently taken from a video source, Mondo Macabro should be praised for the giant step up in regards to the film’s overall presentation. Comparing the two is like night and day, you would swear they where two different films entirely. English dubbed audio is clear and easy to follow, making this release on par with Mondo Macabro’s recent superb releases of SILIP and MYSTIC IN BALI.
Extras include the film’s original trailer, mentioned earlier, as well as a 10 minute interview with special FX creator El Badrun. It’s a fascinating look at the effects man at home in his open air studio. When you consider the large facilities that must be available to the likes of Rick Baker or Stan Winston, it's amazing that El Badrun is able to be weaving magic in, what is essentially a hut. A brief essay by Pete Tombs provides extensive background information on the film and points out a number of interesting tidbits about its original release stateside, such as when exploitation producer Dick Randall promoted the film in the U.S. as being an entry in the Shaw Brothers’ BLACK MAGIC series. The ever-popular Mondo Macabro preview reel, alluding to a future release of SNAKE SISTERS, rounds out an impressive package. For fans of Mondo Macabro’s previous releases, this is no brainier, but if you’ve been hesitant in the past to venture into the cinematic worlds of far off and mysterious lands, Indonesia’s QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC is a great place to get your feet wet. (Jason McElreath)