NIGHSTREAM: The Queen of Black Magic Fails To Cast An Enthralling Spell

Indonesian horror film The Queen of Black Magic (originally Ratu Ilmu Hitam) from writer Joko Anwar and director Kimo Stamboel is an intriguing concept with so-so execution. It may also have the new record for the most number of red herrings and plot twists outside of the Giallo genre, and sadly ranks as the one disappointment I had during Nightstream.

“Childhood friends Hanif, Jefri, and Anton take their families on a trip to the orphanage where they grew up to pay their final respects to the man who raised them. But they’ll soon discover that the secrets from their past refuse to stay buried.”

In my review of Bloody Hell, I made mention of the fact that I’d seen a film which was mostly plot twists, and it “pretty much ruined the experience for me.” The Queen of Black Magic is that movie. Now, it starts out really well, with Hanif and his family driving through the countryside as they head to the orphanage. The interaction between the five family members seems really true to life and natural, and it bodes well for the rest of the picture.

Then Hanif hits something, the car stops, they get out, and discover a dead deer by the side of the road. Shades of Get Out, right? As they drive off, the camera moves to the other side of the road, and we see the body of a young girl. From here on out, the name of the game for for Stamboel’s film – and especially Anwar’s script – is “nothing is as it first appears.”

At all.

Ever.

Seriously – don’t get attached to the possibilities offered up by any of the plots or explanations offered up as to why things start going awry. As things start happening, you’re first led to believe that it’s the two orphans who stayed on at the orphanage and married each other, Maman (Ade Firman Hakim) and Siti (Sheila Dara Aisha), because they’re awkward, nervous and really standoffish. Maman offers up the explanation that the reason he and Siti aren’t eating with everyone else when dinner is served, is because they’ve already eaten.  It comes across as massively disconcerting. Is the food poisoned? Are they eating children? Who knows?!

As the plot progresses, Hanif discovers that he hit the young woman, and they discover a bus with all of the orphanage’s current children in it. Then shit starts to go sideways, as people begin going mad and get covered in millipedes. CGI millipedes, but whatever. It’s creepy. And sticky. And squirmy. Sadly, it’s only when The Queen of Black Magic leans into these body-horror aspects that it really works, because the plot keeps offering up all of these possibilities as to what’s causing the madness and violence, only to drop them and offer up another idea when the previous one gets disproved. After a couple times, even though there’s literally a floating witch explaining exactly how this all came to be, you’re disinclined to actually believe her at all.

Part of it is due to the fact that the cast is just massive. Hanif has his wife and three kids, Jefri and Anton both bring their wives, plus there’s Maman and Siti–a couple of kids staying at the orphanage. It’s a lot of people to keep track of. Even though Hanif’s family is kind of the focus, the focus shifts constantly from one interaction to the next, to the point where it becomes difficult to determine just what’s going on, with whom, and when. The acting is also really broad, with a lot of frantic yelling and screaming, to the point where I wondered if they’d taken acting pointers from Passions.

Muzakki Ramdhan as Hanif’s youngest, Haqi, is the best actor in the film, bar none. This kid manages to be clever, interesting, funny, and absolutely guileless in the way that only kids under the age of 10 can be, and he gets to set in motion some of the film’s best and most memorable moments simply by asking questions and being curious. All of the other characters basically stumble around and bang into things – quite literally, in the case of the opening scene – and the constant flips from one truth to another only gets more and more tiresome.

I don’t want to be awful, here, but compared to his directing partner in the Mo Brothers, Timo Tjahjanto, Stamboel’s solo work has been rather lacking. Tjahjanto has done both of the May the Devil Take You films, The Night Comes for Us, and the “Safe Haven” segment of V/H/S 2 with Gareth Evans. Despite the ambition on display here with a plot that manages to deal with deeply-hidden secrets, black magic (obvs), and family dynamics, it all just feels like this is an attempt to craft a film that’s so mondo, you have no choice but to keep watching. Unfortunately, The Queen of Black Magic is a struggle and a slog.

Nick Spacek
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