Indonesian horror The Queen of Black Magic allows for a great slow burn to wreak chaos on its characters in the final act, setting a great benchmark for the genre for the rest of 2021.
Three friends take their wives and families to return to their former orphanage to pay respects to the patron who took care of them, due to his impending death. Upon their arrival, old memories begin to rise back up among the three men. Their worlds are soon turned upside down as an inescapable memory of their past comes for them once again.
The slow burn nature of horror can either be the death knell or a fabulous precursor for that is to come. For The Queen of Black Magic, it is the latter and happily so. We are presented with an awful lot of characters and the 40 minutes or so we have with them allows us to learn and enjoy the characters. They have their narratives and quirks that we can appreciate and known get to the point of annoyance. Which is a common theme in some horrors recently.
This slow burn helps us realise that not everything is all right with the three returning men as their unease with being back is apparent from the start. As the opening hour progresses we learn the true tales of events that happened there and the cause of the ominous tone that has been building. It is excellent work from Stamboel and Anwar as a solid foundation is made for the audience.
This does slowly dissipate as we get to the latter half of the film and that could be due to the sheer number of characters still left in it. With over 13 characters, it can feel as if we are just witnessing scenes of deaths rather than following a full story take place. However, there have been attempts to link the characters fates or how the black magic abuses them to their personalities. If the groundwork had not been built in the opening third then this would be lost to us. That said there are twists further into the film that reveal more and more of the history the characters share and it does become a more layered piece. Certainly far more layered than you would imagine.
There is no getting away from the fact that this is a gorgeous looking film that allows a sense of reality to break in. Director Kimo Stamboel is well known for his violent work. Perhaps what is forgotten is how good his films look. This is no exception in The Queen of Black Magic, as he firmly puts his visual stamp on the film. But allows for growth as a director in that opening half. By having next to no scares there, we can settle more into the story. He aptly keeps a level of tension going with the characters and the story. Lingering a tad too long on some static shots to lead us into a false sense of security for example. Yet he has an end game here, which is accomplished far better than expected.
The tone is firmly set when the torture and gore begin as from there on it, it rarely ever lets up other to have some forms of breaks to give more exposition. Which at times is greatly appreciated. The slow burn start allows for the utter madness that ensues in the final third as body horror, blood and insects take over the film. Scenes of forced self-mutilation will shake you more than you would expect as instead of just CGI to enhance the gore. Stamboel has used practical effects and makeup as well, which helps step up the film a lot more.
As the skin-crawling visuals continue, those who were not facts of insects (certainly centipedes) at the start of the film. Will surely hate them by the time the credits roll. Perhaps what makes The Queen of Black Magic work so well is that instead of naive teenagers or just one family. These are grown, normal people, families. By turning the attention to a different set of victims, the film allows the audience to feel more the characters. For fans of the genre, hang around for a minute or so during the credits for a little homage treat.
Stamboel and Anwar have produced another solid and visually bold entry to the ever remarkable Indonesian horror world. A slow burner that rewards you in the final act.
The Queen of Black Magic is on Shudder from January 28th.
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