If you were given access to black magic—let alone the ability to become The Queen of Black Magic, as does the title character in director Kimo Stamboel’s loose remake of the 1981 film of the same name—you might be tempted to enact revenges great and small, in increasingly macabre and creative ways, upon those who’ve wronged you. It’s so relatable in its mystical malevolence that the multifaceted ghost story, which follows three men bringing their families to the orphanage in which they were raised, is never a surprising affair. They’re coming back to a creepy orphanage, after all. It’s instead a movie that relies on cleverness and simplicity of execution to make its schlocky scares entertaining, trading in legitimate shock and anticipation for the amusing kind of “get what you pay for” satisfaction that acts as a secondary staple for many a horror diet.
And that sowing/reaping dynamic is a perfectly fitting one for this ultimately serviceable run through a gamut of phobias. From a pair of Indonesian regulars—Stamboel’s been in the game a while as half of The Mo Brothers alongside Timo Tjahjanto, while writer Joko Anwar is a name soon to be on every tongue (his Impetigore was such a potent showcase of his horror talents that it’s Indonesia’s Oscar submission this year)—The Queen of Black Magic is exactly the kind of solid fare you’d expect from such genre journeymen.
As soon as we see Hanif (Ario Bayu) driving his wife Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) and their kids through the tall foliage on the way to see the sick old man that raised him, we know what we’re in for. A few of Hanif’s childhood friends and their wives have also come to pay their respects (we quickly understand that they are additional fodder for the creepiness to come) alongside a pair of orphans currently living there. It might feel a little cluttered at first, but its stuffed frame effectively foreshadows the prioritization of quantity while still being relatively brisk in its set-up.
The main stand-out here, moreso even than the lead couple (both of whom have a lived-in, easy charm, with Al Rashid in particular showing off her freak-out chops), is Hanif and Nadya’s little boy Haqi (Muzakki Ramdhan). He’s sharply written by Anwar as a sweet little guy—the kind of younger brother figure that’s the victim of good-hearted teases and campfire stories rather than a precocious little snot. Ramdhan’s inquisitive, cute-but-not-cloying and frank performance (enhanced by Stamboel’s direction and savvy framing) walks the edge of a razor-sharp scythe between endearing and insightful. This kid actually feel realistic.
That quick-witted character writing is suffused into the dialogue, with its tonal calm established just as well and creatively (through humor and character relationships) as the rumbling avalanche of gore and kills soon to disrupt it. The traditional escalation invokes a fun collage of tropes—including a car accident, a differently colored door that can’t (and shouldn’t!) be opened, a creepy videotape, a place you somehow can’t escape and a bad, bad hand straight out of Evil Dead II—that are like a horror fan’s dollar menu. It might not be five-star dining, but there’s a lot of familiar, tasty bang for your buck.
Linking them all are light themes and jolty plotting, the latter of which slams full-speed from its series of unexplained happenings into a brick wall of explanation that caps the killing spree with a slain pace. Who is this Queen? What happened to her? And more importantly, do we care? Not really—in fact, most of the explanations serve to undermine the film’s most effective and mysterious elements. It’s more than a little disappointing considering the potential hinted at with its nostalgia-steeped setting: Existing mostly in the past for the story’s characters, it’s the perfect place to draw attention to corrupted, conveniently malleable memories and all the terrible problems swept under everyone’s highly presentable rugs. Those ideas still find some traction thanks to some of the scare gags, as those with warped perceptions of reality (one wife is a germaphobe; one’s got body image problems) only see them exacerbated by the orphanage.
But while its larger ideas never fully find their feet, The Queen of Black Magic lights a fire beneath the soles thanks to its continuous flow of gags—eventually developing into an almost Hellraiser-esque carnival of punishment. The scares themselves are often simple and well-executed, though there are a few instances of CG that are a little overambitious (like some pretty cartoony bugs) in comparison to the otherwise hard-hitting elegance of its super gross makeup and solid, crunchy sound work.
The Queen of Black Magic’s uneven plotting, and internal logic that coasts along with the narrative equivalent of saying “MAGIC!” while making jazz hands, makes it all too clear what it’s more interested in. Its rapidfire tricks n’ treats are still plenty entertaining even if they’re not backed up with enough story oomph for them to truly resonate with fear—but that’s the Queen’s decree. Her spells unfold, all the logistical reagents that simply serve to showcase the slight of hand going up in flames, and we still clap. This passable tale of supernatural revenge is still worth the night out, even if it could stand to hone its witchcraft.
Director: Kimo Stamboel
Writer: Joko Anwar
Starring: Ario Bayu, Hannah Al Rashid, Adhisty Zara, Muzakki Ramdhan
Release Date: January 28, 2021 (Shudder)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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