“Remake” is a dirty word in horror, to the extent the recent re-imagining of Eli Roth’s execrable Cabin Fever led to much pearl clutching throughout the community (as though the original was any good in the first place?). However, there’s a grand tradition of remakes in horror and, by extension, sci-fi from John Carpenter’s The Thing to Breck Eisner’s The Crazies. Rebooting 1981’s The Queen of Black Magic seems less fraught with difficulties as most of the people who stumble upon it on Shudder won’t have seen, or even be aware of, the original film.
It’s worth noting, though, that the 1981 version is notorious for its gross-out gore, so whoever is attempting to remake it for a modern audience will have to up the ante considerably on that front, if he or she is to compete. In a classy touch, shots from the original movie play over the remake’s closing credits, suggesting the filmmakers were looking to pay homage to rather than outdo their predecessors. Thankfully, the action remains in Indonesia, with an Indonesian cast and crew, rather than being transplanted to the U.S., which tends to strip movies like this of their inherent strangeness.
We join a big, loud family consisting of Hanif (Ario Bayu) and Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) and their adorable three kids, Dina (Adhisty Zara), Sandi (Ari Irham) and Haqi (Muzakki Ramdhan), en route to the orphanage where Dad grew up alongside BFFs Anton (Tanta Ginting) and Jefri (Miller Khan), who similarly arrive with their wives in tow. Along the way, though, Hanif accidentally hits a deer. Then, the camera pans over to let us know there’s a bloodied corpse just out of view. Evidently, something dark is going on around these parts.
The gang has descended on their old stomping ground to pay their respects to old Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), who’s in a bad way. He’s being tended to by fellow grown-up orphans Maman (Ade Firman Hakim) and Siti (Sheila Dara Aisha) while the rest of the orphanage is away on a day trip. The only two remaining kids are surly teens Hasbi (Giulio Parengkuan) and Rani (Shenina Cinnamon) who tell curious little Haqi a creepy ghost story involving former aide Ms. Mirah (Ruth Marini) and her young charge Murni (played by Khayla Maharani as a child and Putri Ayudya as an adult).
A creepy old orphanage is a classic setting for a horror movie, but The Queen of Black Magic injects some proper, spine-chilling scare appeal with the tale of Mirah. There’s a green door that hasn’t been opened for 20 years, behind which the crazy old woman allegedly killed herself by bashing her head against the door. Meanwhile, Murni went missing, never to be found again. It’s a helluva ghost story, super-scary even without any follow-up, and little Ramdhan plays it to perfection, all wide-eyed terror, even though his desire to know more can’t be quenched.
If it seems like there are way too many characters at play here, well, that’s part of the fun. Director Kimo Stamboel (Headshot) sets up plenty of potential victims for his villainess and, impressively, tortures the living hell out of each and every one of them, including the kids. There’s a palpable sense of unease in The Queen of Black Magic that rarely lets up. Just when it appears things couldn’t possibly get any worse, they do – lack of phone signal is practically a non-issue here. Most of the action is relegated to the orphanage, but even when characters venture outside its walls, there’s no respite from the horror.
Discussing the movie without spoiling its many dark delights is difficult but suffice to say creepy-crawlies feature prominently and there’s a truly horrible death by bugs early on, as well as a subsequent moment involving them being torn out of someone’s arm, so sufferers of entomophobia need not apply. The makeup and SFX are truly astounding, particularly during a scene involving a character slicing her own skin off. If CGI has been utilized to cover the joins, it’s completely imperceptible here (a talking severed head is a remarkable achievement, however they did it).
Mirah herself is a terrifying creation, from her gait to her oozing black licorice mouth. There’s an element of Japanese ghost to her look, with a moment involving a TV recalling Ringu’s Sadako. However, The Queen of Black Magic plays with this well-established idea in a clever and completely unexpected way, again to a nerve-shredding extent, ensuring Mirah is 100 percent her own thing.
Stamboel is working from a script by Joko Anwar, who was responsible for last year’s impressive chiller Impetigore (also available to watch on Shudder). That movie boasted many of the same ritualistic stylings of this one, but here the envelope is pushed even further. Accusations of “torture porn” may abound but this is not gore for gore’s sake. The sickening scenarios in which the cast of characters find themselves are punishments conjured up by a scorned woman who’s out for revenge. They’re difficult to watch, but because we feel for the victims, not because we’re grossed out.
Still, The Queen of Black Magic definitely isn’t for the fainthearted, or stomached. Once the setup is out of the way, Stamboel’s film is relentless. The moments of respite are few and far between – even lifelong horror fans will find their mettle tested. Stick with it, though, and your commitment will be rewarded. This is a profoundly frightening movie that grabs a hold of you and doesn’t let go. The performances are strong across the board and the gore is eye-poppingly extreme. If that’s not a glowing recommendation for a remake, I don’t know what is.
Catch The Queen of Black Magic on Shudder from January 28, 2021
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Kimo Stamboel
Writer(s): Joko Anwar
Stars: Ario Bayu, Hannah Al Rashid, Adhisty Zara, Muzakki Ramdhan, Ari Irham
Release date: January 28, 2021 (Shudder)
Studio/Production Company: Rapi Films
Run Time: 99 minutes