“Family terror” seems to be the new kid on the block in the world of horror...
...Ari Aster’s 2018 sleeper hit, Hereditary, his follow-up film, Midsommar (2019), and Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) all contain family members undergoing traumatic moments. At this point it deserves its subgenre status, as it’s becoming an inspiring vehicle for inflicting terror on the audience. Director Kimo Stamboel and writer Joko Anwar have (knowingly or not) further progressed the family terror horror genre in the Indonesian horror film, The Queen of Black Magic.
Our story follows Hanif (Ario Bayu) and his wife Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) as they are driving their children to the boy’s adoption home where Hanif grew up. The patriarchal leader of the home has fallen ill, so several of his former wards and their families are making a visit. The trip is supposed to be about catching up with old friends and having a few laughs, but in true bad luck horror fashion, the reunion is instead laced with dark secrets and old grievances that never left the home. Hanif must protect his family, as his past is set to feast on them.
So, let’s get one thing out of the way: The Queen of Black Magic has some truly terrifying imagery. It has the same kind of vibe as something you would see in a James Wan film. Insidious (2010) is my favorite horror film of the last 20 years, so that may give you a good indication of how much I adore that kind of horror. This film, in its crudest definition, is a “best of” compilation of the best scenes from Insidious and The Conjuring (2013). That’s a really awesome thing in that it provides some fantastic scares, but beyond that, The Queen of Black Magic really doesn’t do anything special. A lot of really awful things happen to these characters, many of which are tied to the scares, but the characters themselves just aren’t very interesting. I think there are too many of them with not enough screen time given to any single one to allow them to develop. We learn the most about Hanif and Nadya, who actually have great chemistry together. Their supportive relationship comes off as organic and above all, authentic.
While the film doesn’t have the most memorable characters, it has a striking look. With a low lit, subdued yellow color palette, every scene is moody. Lighting and color aren’t often brought up because they’re somewhat difficult areas to make truly unique. When I see something like this being done so well it becomes synonymous with the film. That same kind of identity lighting is going on here in The Queen of Black Magic. On top of the lighting and color grading, the film is shot beautifully, but not in a way that’s trying to draw attention to itself. It isn’t flashy in the way an up-and-coming filmmaker may try to shove a bunch of cool techniques in. Instead, there is a slow grace to how the camera moves. There are a lot of hovering panning shots and they feel hauntingly watchful. It’s all very subtle, but it works dramatically in how it creates atmosphere and tension.
For most of the film, I was appreciating the suffering these poor family members were having to endure. At a certain point in the third act, however, the shocking, visceral type of violence and misfortune we’d been shown turned into Quentin Tarantino, over-the-top goofiness. It really undermines the tone and seriousness of the first half. That’s kind of the real problem with this film; it doesn’t know what it wants to be. At times it’s serious and giving us some truly terrifying moments, but other times it’s winking at the camera. It’s as if Tarantino and Sam Rami came in to direct the last act of the film. When a film starts winking and nodding at you, it’s impossible for me to continue taking it seriously. Some films shouldn’t be taken seriously, but The Queen of Black Magic has been set up since the beginning to be a very potent, drama-filled horror film. It’s a shame too, because there are some really good ideas in this, and genuine, memorable scares, but it’s ultimately a tonal mess.
The Queen of Black Magic may be a flawed film, but there is value here for horror fans; the imagery alone is worth making time for. Just don’t go in expecting a cohesive experience. This is one you’ll want to turn all the lights out for, too, so make sure you prime yourself for the scares!
The Queen of Black Magic comes to Shudder January 28th.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth