Shudder’s remake of the 1981 cult horror focuses more on the titular queen’s victims, but is still a gory good time.
In horror films, the evil inflicted upon characters rarely happens without reason. Rather, it is meted out by the movie’s villain as some sort of retribution for past trauma. Granted, this retribution is often disproportionate to the original crime and is often enacted upon victims who haven’t done anything wrong. Still, no matter how gruesome, the events in most scary movies follow a sense of perverse justice.
The protagonists of The Queen of Black Magic (directed by Kimo Stamboel) find themselves on the receiving end of the eponymous queen’s quest for vengeance when they visit an orphanage in a remote Javanese town. Hanif (Ario Bayu), Anton (Tanta Ginting), and Jefri (Miller Khan) are former residences of said orphanage, making a return trip with their families to visit its dying owner Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru). But their happy reunion is soured by a series of sinister happenings that only get worse as the orphanage’s dark secrets come to life.
The Queen of Black Magic is a remake of the 1981 film of the same name with a screenplay by Joko Anwar. Anwar is a natural choice for screenwriter given his success with adapting another Indonesian horror classic: Satan’s Slaves. Like his previous retelling, Queen is less a remake and more a reimagining using the basic premise. While the original has the titular queen as an anti-hero protagonist, this new version focuses instead on her victims.
This isn’t the only change- virtually none of the plot points or characters from the original are in this version. The 1981 Queen was basically a supernatural version of Lady Snowblood: a tale about a wronged woman on a quest for revenge. In the 2021 version, Anwar and Stamboel cloak the motivations of the witch in mystery, turning the story into a more typical monster movie. They also remove the more upfront references to Islam that were featured so heavily in the original.
These changes make this version more palatable to a global audience. Since the original is so enmeshed with Indonesian culture, many of its elements may seem odd to nonlocals. Here you don’t need to be knowledgable of the folklore to be scared. I’m not sure if this is an intentional shift to capitalize on a globalized market or if it’s just an inevitable changes after 40 years, but it makes this film an excellent entry point into Indonesian horror.
But it’s not just a more accessible story that makes this an enjoyable film. The Queen of Black Magic is a masterclass of mounting dread, with the situation becoming worse and worse for the characters until it builds into a climax that is literally hellish. All throughout, the titular witch remains a near unseen presence until the end, casting an evil influence upon the characters and forcing them to be instrumental in their own demise.
While the premise is a terrifying one, it lacks a clear protagonist. Ostensibly Hanif and his wife Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) are the heroes of the story, but outside of the opening and climax, the movie doesn’t really focus on them. With the exception of Nadya making a key discovery, they don’t affect the plot much until the climax and their characterization can be boiled down to caring about their kids.
Ironically, it is the side characters who feel more fleshed out. While Anton and Jefri are blank slates, their wives Eva (Imelda Therinne) and Lina (Salvita Decorte) respectively, are more dynamic. Eva is a hypochondriac and Lina has issues with body image, and while that may not be the most original of characterizations, their fears are used against them in interesting ways.
And it’s a shame that the male leads are so bland, as it lessens the impact of the mystery of their childhood. The reason they are being attacked by the Queen is a compelling one, with a backstory as horrific as the current events. However, we never really get to see Hanif, Anton, and Jefri as children, nor are some of the connections between them and other characters made clear. As such, it leaves the otherwise great mystery a bit muddled.
The Queen of Black Magic is a masterclass of mounting dread, with the situation becoming worse and worse for the characters until it builds into a climax that is literally hellish.
While the above points may seem damning, they aren’t really. A horror movie can have flat characters and a middling plot and still be good- or even great- if it can deliver on the scares. While it has its flaws, The Queen of Black Magic more than makes up for them by making its audience scream and squirm all throughout its runtime.
With a name like The Queen of Black Magic, you don’t expect a subtle movie. And fortunately, this isn’t one. Skin is flayed, eyeballs are popped out of their sockets, people vomit bugs, and lips are stapled shut. Stamboel rarely points the camera away, instead he forces us to watch the horrors unfold. He also doesn’t spare younger characters from awful fates, which makes this one of the few films where it feels like anyone could die.
This isn’t to say that the film feels nasty or mean- there is a sense of fun to be had here. While the film can get scary and gruesome, the tone never becomes too bleak or hopeless. While this version lacks the camp of the original, its supernatural elements keep this version a step removed from reality, thus keeping even the goriest setpiece from feeling like “too much”.
Much like there is a perverse sense of justice in a horror villain’s quest for revenge, there’s also a perverse sense of comfort in watching horror movies. I’m an anxious person by nature, and the last year has given me a lot to be nervous about. But when I watch a group of people face against a seemingly insurmountable evil, it lets me forget my own worries for a while. While The Queen of Black Magic isn’t breaking new ground in the horror genre, it struts down the genre’s well worn path with style.
The Queen of Black Magic premieres on Shudder January 28th.