The director chats about The Queen of Black Magic and the popularity of Indonesian folk horror…
Also known as one half of the Mo Brothers, Indonesian writer, director and producer Kimo Stamboel has been a key figure in the country’s recent wave of dark black magic horror. Having worked with filmmaking partner Timo Tjahjanto on genre hits and international festival favourites including Macabre, Killers and Headshot, Kimo has won a number of awards around the world, and has also gone solo on the likes of videogame adaptation DreadOut. Released back in 2019 in Indonesia and recently arriving in the west on streaming platform Shudder, his latest film is The Queen of Black Magic, a remake, or perhaps reimagining, of a 1981 Indonesian cult classic of the same name, written by Indonesian horror lynchpin Joko Anwar, whose Impetigore was recently chosen as the country’s Academy Awards representative.
Just to start with The Queen of Black Magic, which is a 2019 production…
Yes, a 2019 production, actually the beginning of 2019.
It’s only just now come out internationally on Shudder, and is a very cool film, which I enjoyed very much.
Thank you very much, I appreciate that.
It’s interesting, as it’s based on a 1981 film of the same name, which is also on Shudder?
Would you call it a remake, or a reimagining, or is there any kind of link between the films?
A reimaging, I think. When me and Joko sat down with the producer, we thought that we don’t want to disturb the old classics in a way, but that it’s good to reimagine it, and we took some of the elements in the original film, and hopefully we can make it more relatable to the modern audience, and I think it’s more like this.
Mainly, Joko as the writer thinks that we can’t disturb the old classic, being a cult film itself, and for that we are very respectful, and we told the producers that we don’t want to disturb it, and so why don’t we reimagine and repackage, and keep those elements in it.
One of the things I think was different between your version and the original version was that in the 1981 version there’s much more focus on the queen of black magic herself, and she’s in it from the start, whereas in your film, it sticks to similar themes, but the tragedy of the story is differently focused?
Yeah, that’s right.
It’s got a lot more modern gore effects in there, and I was wondering how you approached that side of the film. The original has some very cool scenes in there…
I’m a huge fan of black magic and gong tau films, and so seeing the flying head in the original, that’s fantastic…
It’s not a spoiler really, for anyone who hasn’t seen the new film, but the last half hour gets crazier and crazier, with a different approach to the gore and scares?
Yeah, I think that the idea comes from Joko writing the script, though we both talked about the treatment, and from the producer as well, wanting to make it more realistic in a way, because if we did it with the practical stuff, it could feel a bit classic. Nowadays it’s more a combination of the practical and digital effects. But in the treatment itself we wanted to be more terrorising. If you remember the last part, we see the hellish environment where the queen has set up this whole thing, and that’s sort of new in a way, because the original, I don’t remember if she set up another world, I don’t recall, but it’s something new we want to push.
Me and Joko both have these influences from back in the day. I don’t know if you have the same thing in your area, comic books that always discuss hell and stuff, and when you are kids, there’s a lot of this floating around with these comics, usually to scare you and tell the story about hell. We have this cool idea, like how do we make this into a reality, and about how to bring it to the screen.
So we wrote this cool stuff, and tried to reimagine it, and to get the reference from the comics as well – I forget the name of the comics, but I think you guys also have a version of this, because I think it’s a classic, just to talk about what is hell, that kind of thing, sort of a cheap comic, only two pages or something.
But we tried to push that concept, because in the old film, I feel that the goriness is out there, and it becomes classic in a way. And it’s sort of tough in a way to balance it out, because I think back then the filmmakers didn’t have any kind of boundaries. But now we do have boundaries, as we’ve already established the state’s censorship department, and also the producers already have a strategy to not push it into a 21+ movie, and we want it to be a 17+ film. And in that way we have to be smart in how we present the goriness. And me and Joko we want to push it, but there’s always some boundaries.
In the end of the original film, we have the flying head, which is the kind of stuff I think is harder for modern audiences, though it works well in the original. I think what you guys do still has the revenge narrative, though it gets a lot more intense. One thing which will shock western viewers is seeing the involvement of the younger people and the children getting caught up in it, which is quite rare to see.
OK, that’s cool though. I think the same thing happens here. We are pretty lucky to have it in the theatres, as sometimes back in the early 2000s, there a bit of a movement because the censorship body was still forming at that time, so there was uncertainty. But today, they have established the rules and the dos and don’ts. Issues of things like paedophilia, rape and violence towards children, we can open up a little bit, and so its lucky for us that we can do that. But for people here, there aren’t many films which show this, and I think we are one of the first. Because we are in a fantasy kind of thing, this also lets us do this stuff – if this was a very serious film it would be different, but we have the black magic, and that kind of thing. It’s the horror genre, so it’s sort of OK in a way. But yeah, we have to say that we were very excited, and Joko wrote it with having a family in there as something people can relate to, as Indonesia as a country is very close to family.
I saw the films very close together because of when they arrived on Shudder – I saw your one first and then the original. Why did you guys choose this film in particular, as I guess there’s a lot of other films from the period?
The thing is, it came from the producers handing it to me – before, they came to be with a very different project, an original story, not a remake, but I thought we could do a remake, as Joko had done Satan’s Slaves, and it was pretty successful, so I wanted to do the same thing. Rapi Films had been established since the 1970s, and they have a lot of titles that we can remake, and the producers handed me this this, and it’s you know, black magic.
At first I didn’t recognise it, but I re-watched it and then I remembered that when I was little I saw some of it, the flying head, and I realised this was the film that had been stuck in my brain, and I thought OK man, I got to do this film. It was pretty exciting, and the producers then said Joko wanted to write it.
Joko and me had been friends for such a long time, but we never had a chance to collaborate together, and I think this was the perfect time. So yeah, just like that, because I think the producers also saw our reels, me and Timo’s reels with the gory stuff like Macabre, Killers, and that we did some headshots. This all had the edge of violence, and so I think the producers then say that I perfectly fit Queen of Black Magic, which was awesome. But it was really fun making it, I really enjoyed every minute of it.
There’s the influence from these early films, but is there also maybe a bit of Evil Dead in there?
Oh yeah, definitely. Sam Rami, me and Timo love Sam Rami a lot. Maybe not just Sam, but a lot of US films that we watch a lot, and somehow unconsciously get a reference from them. Definitely Evil Dead, and I want to make films that brings up these classics.
I’m interested to know more about Rapi Films – they were making exploitation films in the 70s and 80s?
70s, 80s and 90s, man! They’ve been active for such a long time until today.
Are there any other key films from the studio that I might be able to track down?
I think there’s several. let me check. I don’t have any in mind, though there’s some. There are several, but I don’t have the list right now.
I think there’s a list on Wikipedia…there’s a lot of drama. They made everything. There’s one from 1981 called Sundel Bolong, that’s a classic Indonesian horror. Some of us wanted to remake that. There’s another version of it, which is on Netflix, though it was done by another company. There’s a lot of weird stuff, but its very interesting. If you can try to get it, maybe from Mondo Macabro.
There’s a film called Mystics in Bali, did they do that one?
Oh yeah, its about Le-ak, Indonesian folklore. It’s really crazy, definitely. That’s really, really cool.
In the west we see a lot more of the Shaw Brothers films of that time which had black magic, like Hex, Boxer’s Omen and films like that, and then some of the Category III films from the 1990s like The Eternal Evil of Asia, which kind of update the black magic Shaw Brothers films – I’d love to see more of these Indonesian ones from the 1980s.
I think they’ll be available soon on Netflix, maybe. I spoke to the Rapi Films guys and said to them that they have a lot of titles, but the thing is on our side is that the archive off the masters is not so great. Maybe they have the reels, but they have to clean them and re-digitise, and that costs a lot, and I don’t know if they’ll do it, but they have a lot of titles, which are really interesting to watch.
It’d be great for horror fans, and also for film history. But I guess when they make these films, they made them low budget, they didn’t think that somebody wants to watch them 40 years later…
Definitely. They just make it for continuing the day!
That’s one of the great things about platforms like Netflix and Shudder, for films that are available in the west, and about Queen of Black Magic, as it’s like a gateway for Indonesian horror. A lot of people who watch Shudder maybe aren’t the same audience who watch Asian or Indonesian horrors, so it’s a good introduction for them. This is one of the things I’m really interested in, as we have films like Queen and Joko’s Impetigore, which are based around folklore and black magic, and are quite local, but are still very popular with audiences – I was wondering why you think this is, and why they’re popular around the world?
I think for local audiences, they can easily relate to what’s going on and the culture. There’s a lot of films which tried to do some folklore, and it still works, even the bad ones still work here. For our local audience, they just love it, they love he culture. We’re islands, right? So each island has a different culture, and seeing this on the big screen nationally, is something they’re proud of. So for our local audience, when something talks about our folklore, that’s something they’re going to be interested in.
For international, there’s the diversity we have here, there’s a lot of stories and folklore that need to be broken down. Even I don’t know it all, there’s so many of them, and all so interesting. We tried to make it universal so that people understand, and that’s the black magic thing, I think there’s black magic around the world as well. We tried to give the audience a taste of our side of the black magic and to show the process of it. In this version, we don’t see the process of the queen becoming the queen, but in the original, we actually see it trying to depict this in a certain way, she does a lot of training. The difficult part is to make that something that’s really in and now, as there’s lot of dark movies, and we need to be more authentic, since this actual process isn’t something which has been explored yet. Hopefully, if we get a chance to make a sequel or prequel or anything like that we can actually show how we do it. But I think why we choose the folklore is as simple as that, the local audiences still love it and are close to the story, and maybe for the world, it’s an introduction.
Shudder is new for us, and hasn’t come to Indonesia yet. We do have Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime, and we do have a lot of stuff, but not Shudder yet. Hopefully we can get it though,
as one of the most popular genres in Indonesia is horror, so I think its great if Shudder can get there before someone else does.
That’s maybe one of the only good effects of COVID, with people having to watch online rather than in cinema. I’m seeing a lot more diversity now, more interest in different kinds of horror films, maybe not so scared of subtitles now. When you put a horror film in the cinemas in the UK, if there’s subtitles then that’s a big problem and people automatically think it’s an arthouse film. But by putting it out on Shudder or Netflix, hopefully that’ll get people more gradually into other kinds of horror films, rather than just Hollywood slasher films.
Do you get other kinds of horror in Indonesia or is it mainly folklore? Like slashers or creature features?
Not yet, though there is Impetigore, which is still folklore, but…there’s Timo’s May the Devil Take You, which is something not folklore, though there is some elements in it. He made it very differently, and it’s not an Indonesian folklore, but he tried to combine other stuff, and witchery with the Indonesian stuff, and that’s a little bit different. But not recently, and I think most films do have folklore elements in them, with producers trying to be safe, and seeing what they can do. But hopefully, I want to do some creature stuff, and gradually I hope we can start to enter other horror areas, maybe aliens or creatures. And our stuff like Macabre, is non-folklore horror.
Macabre’s a great film, really love it. Is that a film you guys ever think about do a sequel to? That was a very cool film, and I think that’s one that should get picked up for more people to see.
Of course, yeah, I want to do something like that again, we just have to find the right time and the right people to do the right project so that we can be a bit more out there. Right now in Indonesia the trend and what’s safe for the producers is the folklore, and they’re pretty excited if we tell them that ‘oh from this area there’s a story and blah blah blah’ and they started to get the hype. And it’s a folklore, its usually based on one area, and involves the people around there, pretty ancient. But yeah, I really want to make other stuff and horror, maybe like another Macabre or aliens or creatures and stuff, and that’s worth exploring.
Indonesian cinema is always one that people in the west are talking about…
Oh cool, that’s nice!
Maybe compared to like say Thai horror cinema, Indonesian cinema seems to be talked about here over the last decade, so I think there’s a lot of interest, and though I love the black magic films, it’d be great to see other types of horror films. You’ve done other kinds of films yourself, like action, but is horror where you like to work more, or other genres?
Horror probably the most, as my comfort zone when doing projects. But definitely I love the genres of action and thriller, and maybe in the future if I get a chance to make other genres, definitely I want to do it. But still in the line of genre, action, thriller, horror, maybe a little bit of drama. I don’t know, maybe when I’m getting older, maybe some other types of story that’s pretty much drama, maybe we get bored sitting in the comfort zone and have to explore a bit, you know?
Are you working on anything at the moment now?
Right now, last month I just finished a shoot, another horror, it’s based on a book. Actually that one isn’t folklore, as it’s based on a fictional book, though it still has a ghostly element in it. But it’s not a folklore. So that’s what I’m working on now in post.
Right now, our theatres are not looking so good, so a lot of major studios are shifting, as there’s so much demand for series. So maybe I’ll go there, as there are offers to do series with genre elements in it. So maybe that first. Hopefully I’ll get a shot for another feature this year, though it’s not a good time, as producers are like if you want to make it now, there’s a lot of features unreleased from the last year, so there’s a lot of content. They need to put it out there, and maybe some of these projects had been projected as theatrical releases, and that’s already an amount that means that at some point they have to say they’ll stop producing features and start more on series.
That’s what I’ve been seeing here, since we’ve been in lockdown for most of the last year.
I haven’t been to the theatre since last year – I already forgot the good sound in theatres. Everything has been shut down.
Exactly the same here. They’re saying now maybe cinemas will open May or June, another 4 or 5 months. But I think that’s why more people are watching series – if you’re sitting at home it makes more sense to watch a series, and that’s why some people think horror is a safer bet for features, as if you make a horror, you make don’t need as big a budget, you don’t need a big name star, so if you get shut down, or if you can’t go to cinemas and have to go online, it’s easier to make money back with horror compared to other genres. Hopefully!
So yeah that’s my situation. In Indonesia it’s kind of shifting, and the demand with the platforms, they do want a lot of series, for people just sitting at home, with subscribers increasing. So they’re shifting their business, maybe this year they say not so many film productions, and concentrate on making content for the platforms. I think one of the good things with the platforms is that they do give us a little bit more freedom to go crazy a bit more, as its sort of different way of seeing it for our rules and having to go to the censorship board. Here it’s a bit different, and any content going to a digital platform doesn’t have to go through the same as a theatrical release, going to the censorship board and stuff. But we have to be careful so that they don’t mess it up. If we go overboard, and people start talking about it, and they start messing around with the rules and stuff, it’s like a double-edged thing. So we have to be careful, though we can go a little bit crazier than with theatrical.
Hopefully this year we’ll get back to film festivals as well, as that’s a great thing. You have one audience discovering films on Shudder, but another discussing films at festival too, a more hardcore fan base and then gradually building up a wider audience.
Thank you very much, very interesting to chat, and look forward to anything you’re doing!