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The Indonesian Resurrection of THE EVIL DEAD: Joko Anwar, The Mo Brothers, and THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC

The Indonesian Resurrection of THE EVIL DEAD: Joko Anwar, The Mo Brothers, and THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC

January 28, 2021
Jenny Nulf

Joko Anwar wears his influences on his sleeve. A veteran filmmaker who got his start in the early 2000s, Anwar’s career took off globally in 2007 when his film Kala, a film noir that pays homage to Fritz Lang’s classic M, was recognized by Sight & Sound. Anwar has a knack for homage, and he’s recently started resurrecting older Indonesian horror titles by repackaging – and folding in a bit of his own – nostalgia.

A decade after Kala, Anwar hit both critical and commercial success with his prequel of the 1982 film Satan’s Slave. His film, simply titled Satan’s Slaves, quickly became the highest-grossing horror film of all time in Indonesia, and received accolades and praise out of genre fests. Satan’s Slaves was an ingenious move for Anwar’s career, fully embracing his love of his country’s cinematic history and mixing in his passion for Hollywood horror, particularly the spirit and jump-scare loving sensibilities of auteur James Wan.

Parallel to Anwar’s career, The Mo Brothers, Timo Tjahanto and Kimo Stamboel, have found a space in the cultural zeitgeist of horror fanatics around the world. Beginning with their cannibal collaboration Macabre (which Anwar has a brief cameo in), the two gained some success with their action-laced projects. Tjahanto in particular struck gold with The Raid’s Gareth Evans, with whom he co-directed one of the best V/H/S segments (“Safe Haven”). While Tjahanto was off working on his May the Devil Take You series, Stamboel teamed up with Anwar to direct yet another nostalgia laced project: a remake of The Queen of Black Magic.

These three Indonesian horror titans have all come out with a new movie this year (all three distributed in North America by Shudder) — Joko Anwar’s Impetigore, Timo Tjahanto’s May the Devil Take You Too, and Kimo Stamboel’s The Queen of Black Magic (the latter also written by Anwar). What makes this wave of Indonesian horror particularly fascinating is that each film is influenced by a worshipped horror legend: Sam Raimi.

The Evil Dead series has influenced horror around the world. It popularized the cabin in the woods model, and many have tried to mimic it for better (The Cabin in the Woods) or worse (2002’s Cabin Fever) over the past four decades. Rami’s knack for schlocky gore and ghostly POV shots has been replicated a dozen times over and it just so happens that, in 2020, these three Indonesian horror films used his techniques to make unique, abandoned haunted house horror vehicles.

Impetigore, May the Devil Take You Too, and The Queen of Black Magic all have the connective tissue of spooky, worn down houses in the middle of small or otherwise abandoned towns. The giant, decrepit homes loom large over mostly unattended and overgrown plots with ominous, deep basements, childhood trauma, and old, dark magic. Lurking in the depths of these houses and their histories lays black magic, the kind that sinks its claws into those who dare to return.

Belief in black magic is fairly strong in Indonesia. The country dealt with its own witch hunts as recently as 1998, where a group of “ninjas” killed over 100 people who were thought to be sorcerers (a number that far exceeds the Salem Witch Trials). Where Raimi was exploring his gross, extreme vision of witchy haunts in the 1980s, the Indonesian film industry was doing the same with the likes of Satan’s Slave and the original The Queen of Black Magic (1981). In these films, powerful, otherworldly women terrorize Muslim families. Both sides of the coin feature sinister, occult-obsessed women who possess the dead with ghostly white features designed to torture and torment.

These figures and tropes run rampant in the trio of new films, especially May the Devil Take You Too, which is such a direct homage to Raimi’s series that could be seen as an Indonesian remake of Evil Dead II. Featuring a POV shot from a hellbent razor, a phallic tongue that’s forced down the final girl’s throat, and a gore-spewing finale where a resurrected dead man claws his way out of a woman’s stomach, there’s no denying that the Evil Dead trilogy is Tjahanto’s roadmap to his epic bloody series.

Anwar once stated to Humans of Film Amsterdam that he tries to pay his respects to the movies that inspired him to become a filmmaker. A film-critic-turned-director, Anwar’s films play out as love letters to the genre he grew up with. With Impetigore, he blends Wan, Raimi, and even Tobe Hooper with an ending that mirrors The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. His script for The Queen of Black Magic is a beautiful marriage of the original material’s soul and the nastiness of the Evil Dead series, with a dash of J-horror’s slow-burn tension (there’s a scare that serves as a beautiful, twisted update on Ring).

The Queen of Black Magic is the perfect amalgamation of Indonesian cinematic nostalgia and Blumhouse-style blockbuster thrills. With a mixture of children, teens, and adults in the cast, Anwar and Stamboel’s collaboration on updating an existing IP is relentless and wild. Where May the Devil Take You Too is more undeviating, The Queen of Black Magic is a more abstract homage, using the framework of Raimi’s films rather than reimagining them. The second act psychologically messes with the three wives who visit their husbands’ childhood home, and one woman’s particular trauma rivals the Evil Dead remake (2013), as she carves away her flesh due to her body dysmorphia. The third act of the film turns into the house of torment, with each room resembling a layer of hell, from acid rain and forced vomiting of abject fluids.

These three horror juggernauts have created comfort food for the scary movie fanatic who squealed with glee when they saw Bruce Campbell chainsaw the limbs of the possessed, raining blood with a guttural yell of triumph. And while it’s not a knock to the horror films that prefer slow-burning frigid fear to lure in their crowd, there’s a particular hole where the sloppy, gory thrill ride used to be. Wan came around with The Conjuring universe and a bloody world he once fueled with the torture porn Saw franchise was wiped out—replaced with Christian-based spooks that fed more into the current fears of your average middle American.

Similar to how Satan’s Slave fed a Muslim-based Indonesian audience in the 1980s, Anwar and The Mo Brothers have given an outlet to those who have a different set of fears. It seems deranged, but there’s a comfort in their kind of comedy of terrors, like an oozing, blood-filled weighted blanket. As the witch cackles her evil plan to her casualties, a wave of familiarity hits: we yearn to see an outlandish version of hell on the screen to escape the very real hell we live in. And in the year 2020, it just so happens that kind of escapism can be found in Indonesian cinema.

“I’m here to create hell. Do you know why? Because I am not sure that there is hell after death.”–   Mrs. Mirah (Ruth Marini), The Queen of Black Magic

Jenny Nulf is a film programmer, distributor, and critic. She’s currently the Director of Programming for the Austin Asian American Film Festival and can be found weekly in the Austin Chronicle.