The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
Screenwriter Joko Anwar, writer-director of the surprisingly terrifying “Impetigore,” underachieves in “The Queen of Black Magic,” a horror film more in love playing with gore and making the audience squirm than establishing a fascinating mythos we can sink our teeth into. Notice that when violence and blood are not front and center, there is an occasional flatness to the dialogue, the listlessness of the camerawork is palpable, and the setting feels like a set rather than a place of foreboding. What results is parade of horror elements without substance behind them.
The picture is directed by Kimo Stamboel, and perhaps it might have been a terrific idea for him to have revisited Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” prior to shooting a single frame. Because the orphanage in this story, at least in terms of aesthetics, has a real personality to it. During its dull expository sequences, I caught my eyes noticing patterns on the floor (triangles are prevalent), old photographs hung on walls, wallpapers and how the light hits them, and various knickknacks sitting on shelves. It really does look like an established orphanage, one with a history worth exploring. It is a sizable place; the game room, for example, is so far from, say, the main living room, that children are unable to hear their parents yelling and screaming during a time of calamity. I craved for a tour of this place. Is it built on an ancient burial ground?
Hanif (Ario Bayu) spent a significant part of his childhood in this orphanage. Having received news that Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), the ophans’ father-figure, is dying, Hanif decides to take his wife (Hannah Al Rashid) and three children (Adhisty Zara, Ari Irham, Muzakki Ramdhan) for a visit. Hanif’s best friends from the orphanage and their wives arrive, too. There are a few attempts at comedy, particularly the guests’ air of privilege (especially their kids) compared to the simpler lives of the current residents, but these come across contrived. Something about the Wi-Fi being weak, the landlines not working, and the food on the table not being enough. In terms of visuals, there is already a clear divide between rich and poor characters, so these are low hanging fruit.
It is expected that this place is full of secrets and so what matters is how they are excavated to create a truly horrifying experience. It fails to deliver on this level because the material spends more effort delivering shock than suspense. However, this isn’t to suggest that it is not capable of the latter. It is. A wonderful scene involves a boy watching a VHS tape—alone and he knows he isn’t supposed to—and in the recording is a woman attempting to walk about with broken feet. We know precisely where it is heading—but it unfolds so slowly (compounded with quick shots of the room from every angle) to the point where we can feel our pulse racing. According to Alfred Hitchcock, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
But such instances of eye-popping moments prove evanescent. When all else fails, CGI centipedes and caterpillars are employed and the actors must pretend these bugs are crawling on their skins, into their mouths, and the like. It is unconvincing on two levels: the CGI is not first rate and the performers tend to exaggerate by jumping about as if their hairs were on fire. However, when actual centipedes are used and a clump of them wriggles about in blood, the actors’ reactions are spot-on. It’s because they’re responding to something tangible.
We learn next to nothing about the titular character outside of her motivations. The way she looks is uninspired, as if the work were stuck in the late ‘80s, maybe early 90s. For instance, she must dress in black, her hair must be a mess, she must look grimy, and she must have more weight than her female screen counterparts. There is nothing progressive or modern about this movie or its style storytelling. If you’re simply going to repeat what had worked before, at least actively work to create an impression, a mere semblance, that what is being shown on screen is innovative.