The Queen of Black Magic

The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam) (2019)

The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam) first published by

Thirty or so years ago, Hanif, Anton, Jefri and Murnah were young friends together at a rural orphanage run by Mr Bandi and his assistant Ms Mirah, in a place so remote that it “doesn’t even exist on a map.”. Now that Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unruh) is lying in his deathbed with little time left, Hanif (Ario Bayu) has traveled cross-country from Jakarta with his wife Nadya (Hannah Al-Rashid) and their own children Dina (Zara JKT48), Haqi (Muzakki Ramdhan) and Sandi (Ari Irham) for a reunion with Anton (Tanta Ginting) and Jefri (Miller Khan) and their respective wives (Imelda Therinne, Salvita Decorte), to see for one last time the man who saved their lives and made them who they are. With most of the current orphans away on a coach trip, these three families have the run of the place for the night. As the ramifications of an accident out on the road earlier that day fill the three men with a furtive guilt that in fact they already shared from long ago, curious young Haqi tries to get to the bottom of the contradictory stories he hears about how the girl Murnah disappeared from the place as a child, and how Ms Mirah went crazy around that time and suffered a horrific death shortly afterwards. Ms Mirah is said still to haunt the building’s halls – and over the course of this one long dark night of the soul, the past will return to make vengeful demands on the present.

‘We’re here again,” says Anton, as he, Hanif and Jefri reenter Mr Bandi’s orphanage for their first time in decades. In a sense all ghost stories are concerned with the revisiting of history, but Kimo Stamboel‘s film is also resurrecting cinema‘s past. For much as Joko Anwar‘s Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan, 2017) loosely remade Sisworo Gautama Putra’s 1982 film of the same name, the very title of The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam)- on which Anwar serves as screenwriter – points to Liliek Sudjio’s homonymous film from 1981. In reimagining these two Indonesian genre films from the Eighties, Anwar (b. 1976) is revisiting the national horror features of his own childhood which shaped who he is and what he does today – and so there is a metacinematic, even an autobiographical, aspect to Hanif, Anton and Jefri’s nightmarish trip down memory lane. 

In fact this film has little connection to Sudjio’s The Queen of Black Magic beyond its title, a significant character named Murnah, supernatural vengeance, some bizarre gory deaths and a montage of stills from the original that plays over the closing credits (marking difference more than similarity). Here the focus is less on the avenger than on her bewildered victims, while the setting in an orphanage haunted by abuse has nothing to do with Sudjio’s film (which was far more interested in the clash of Muslim faith with secular modernity – themes entirely absent here), and seems a lot closer to the prime location of, say, J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (El orfanato, 2007) or, more locally, of May The Devil Take You Too (Sebelum Iblis Menjemput: Ayat Dua, 2020) – the latter written and directed by Timo Tjahjanto with whom Samboel had previously collaborated (as the ‘Mo brothers’) on the horror films Macabre (2009) and Killers (2014) and the martial arts thriller Headshot (2016). 

Like those films, The Queen of Black Magic slowly, carefully builds its tensions before exploding in grotesque violence, as it transforms the spaces of the orphanage into a living hell. Stamboel is great at creating richly unnerving atmosphere and getting his film – like the bugs and centipedes which feature in it – to creep insidiously under the skin. Meanwhile his story, with its returns to both the Eighties and to childhood, allegorises a middle-aged Indonesian generation still struggling to extricate itself from the complicated, compromising legacy of Dictator and ‘Father of Development’ Suharto –  whose reign of terror went from1968 till 1998 – so that their own children can enjoy a better future. 

Summary: Kimo Stamboel’s ghost story (and sort-of remake) sees three men and their families haunted by a vengeful past at an orphanage. 

Anton Bitel