She Wants Revenge: The Horror of The Queen of Black Magic
How director Kimo Stamboel summons up an Indonesian classic
By Richard Whittaker,
8:29PM, Thu. Feb. 11, 2021
It was seemingly destiny that Kimo Stamboel was going to remake classic Indonesian horror film The Queen of Black Magic. After all, it was the movie that scared him so much as a kid that (inevitably) he fell in love with the genre.
It was 1987, and Stamboel was a little kid, at home with his parents. He woke up one night, and heard the TV was on. He thought his dad must have left it on by accident, so he walked into the room, just to see what was playing. He recalled, "There is this one scene, where this head was flying around. Man, that was pretty traumatizing as a seven year-old kid."
Stamboel first made a gory mess in U.S. cinemas in 2009 when his feature debut, Macabre (codirected with Timo Tjahjanto as the Mo Brothers cut a bloody swathe through Fantastic Fest. Since then, he's added a hyperviolent to twist to action (Headshot), thrillers (Killers), and chillers (Dreadout), but he returns to hardvore horror with his remake of the 1981 Indonesian horror classic.
Yet he took a circuitous route to the production. He was looking for project, and was offered what he called "a fresh title from a fresh new writer." However, the studio had recently had a big success with another remake, 2016's Satan's Slaves, so he told the producers that he was interested in digging into their archive. "The producer said, 'Oh, I have this title called The Queen of Black Magic."
As impactful as the flying head scene was, Stamboel had never actually seen the full original version until that day, so that was a first. Another was that he now had the opportunity to finally work with his old friend and fellow filmmaker Joko Anwar, who had written and directed (guess what?) the Satan's Slaves remake. He, the producers, and Anwar all sat down to hash out a treatment, "and Joko says, 'OK, let me write the outline, and I'll get back to you guys.' When he returns, it turns out very different from what we actually talked about but it's even better. It had intrigues in it, and we were very excited. Next thing you know, it's day one on the set."
But Stamboel wasn't just remaking any old title. The original Queen held the throne for a reason, and was a massive success in Indonesia when it was released, so any remake was treading on (un)holy ground. Plus, the team didn't want to do a straight remake, but develop a fresh new take, much as Satan's Slaves revamped the original while adding new elements. During that first meeting, they looked closely at the elements of the 1981 version, "and we tried to apply it to a nowadays situation."
However, they quickly discovered a straight translation wasn't going to work. The original is a supernatural revenge thriller told from the viewpoint of a woman falsely accused of being a witch, who then learns black magic to wreak her revenge. Part of the appeal was that the witch was played by Suzzanna, one of the true superstars of Asian cinema (imagine an Indonesian Jamie Lee Curtis, and you're in the right area). "People wanted to see her doing a lot of magic and some terror," Stamboel said, but they couldn't find a modern equivalent with the same kind of persona.
So they had to shift protagonists. For a modern audience, Stamboel said, "It could be very relatable if the point of view is from that of the victim."
However, the feeling of fear is not the only point of connection for audiences. Black magic is a common part of Indonesian cinema, and there are many people who still believe that it's a real phenomenon. There are celebrity sorcerers and warlocks: many people will consult healers, known as dukun, for illnesses; and as recently as 2013 the Indonesian government moved to make claiming to have mystical powers illegal. "It's really embedded in our culture," said Stamboel. "If somebody doesn't like you, you suddenly get sick and the doctor cannot say what it was. You go this local shaman, and they go, 'Oh, you've got this and that, someone doesn't like you.'"
In the new version, the witch's vengeance is enacted against three friends who grew up in an orphanage: Both versions contain elements that are common in Indonesian horror: black magic, folklore, female ghosts, and vengeance from beyond the grave. In older horror films, Stamboel said, "The females were always the victim, and there was revenge. They created this fear that, if you hurt someone it can haunt you back."
Oh, and bugs. Indonesia's infamous crawling wildlife was a mainstay of scary cinema for decades, and caterpillars and centipedes are responsible for much mayhem in Stamboel and Anwar's story. That's a throwback reference, the director admitted: "They're rarely used [in films] right now. Queen of Black Magic is one that really, really uses it."
Yet even while he was pulling together so many strands from Indonesian horror, Stamboel managed to insert a little nod to that accidental childhood viewing that evokes. "It's a bit of personal experience for me, waking up in the middle of the night, and the TV's still on."
The Queen of Black Magic is available now via streaming horror site Shudder. Read our review here.