THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC is directed by Fantastic Fest alum Kimo Stamboel and written by Joko Anwar, who has made himself the authority on brutality with films like Satan’s Slaves and Impetigore. The film stars Ario Bayu, Hannah Al Rashid, and Adhisty Zara.
In THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC, three young men bring their wives and children back to the orphanage where they all grew up in order to pay respects to the old man that raised them. The orphanage is haunted by terrible secrets and the presence of something dark and terrifying. Tragic truths are revealed and this visit to a dying man is much more significant than any of them could have realized. There is a vengeful spirit that has called these men back for a reason and nobody in the house is safe.
It’s safe to say that nobody does vengeance better than Joko Anwar. Anwar has single-handedly made me a devotee of Indonesian horror and it’s amazing to see him back with another Shudder original after Impetigore. Anwar’s work has this ancient, inevitable quality. The films carry a distinct heaviness that weighs on the viewer like the curses that are usually at the center of his stories. THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC takes Anwar’s trademark brutality and applies it to the traditional format of a haunting. If one good thing comes out of 2020, let it be the fact that Joko Anwar is doing the absolute most within the genre. Well done.
Another fitting name for THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC could be “Phobia: The Movie.” The imagery of THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC is some of the most deeply upsetting in contemporary horror. Beyond the gore and ghostly apparitions that we’re used to in horror, THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC takes the concept of body horror to its greatest extreme. This film absolutely mutilates its characters, in full stomach-turning glory. Viewers with trypophobia (fear of holes) and entomophobia (fear of insects) can prepare for some especially mean-spirited kills. THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC is not a horror for the faint of heart, which makes it all the more impressive for its ability to grip seasoned (some may say jaded) horror fans.
The greatest strength of THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC is also its greatest weakness: its villains. The narrative of THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC is built on a foundation of tragedy and deception, which means the viewer is in for a lot of twists and turns and reveals. Which makes the film’s villain an equally complicated matter.
At first blush, THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC seems a traditional tale of a vengeful haunting. A witch practices black magic to the immense harm of the children in her care and she becomes a hateful ghost that stalks the house. While the story provides some tragic context to this spirit and her demise, there is no redemption and instead, a new villain is added. It is revealed that the old caregiver was a predator to the young girls in the house and that the three men were an accessory to covering up these crimes when they were children. Yet another villain comes in the form of a woman seeking revenge for the wrongful death of the woman who haunts the house. You see the pattern forming here?
Judging this story choice comes with its own pros and cons. On the one hand, the film uses these villains to highlight how complicated it is to grapple with past trauma. It shows how we can be manipulated, how victims of patriarchy go unavenged, and that injustice breeds anger. Each of the villains of the film are tools to peel back the layers of a complex meditation on society, especially the damage that patriarchy can inflict on women. However, at the heart of it all is cold darkness. At no point do we grieve the villains that have been wronged. It’s just a cycle of hate and harm. Maybe that’s the point?
The way in which THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC builds upon and folds back and forth onto itself can sometimes cause confusion that does not work to the film’s credit. The lore of the film wraps around itself and chokes the viewer and the result is something heavy and powerful, but unfocused. This is not necessarily a negative, for a film with such a grand scope, but a ripple in the viewing experience.
THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC is a gut-turning, heart-wrenching, and breathless horror. An absolutely horrifying display built on a foundation of immense sadness. Watching this film feels like falling under an ancient curse. Horror fans beware, THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC is bent on casting a spell.
THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC held its North American Premiere on September 30 at the 2020 Celebration of Fantastic Fest.