This is an article originally published in BRUTARIAN Magazine #33, back in 2001. We proudly re-present here with full permission from it's author, Greg Goodsell.
INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW
An American graduate student’s head flies away from her body, her intestines and lungs trailing behind her in the breeze. An evil sorcerer transforms a suave martial artist into a “were-pig”. A band of Asian babes in halter tops, hot pants and thigh-high boots mount their dirt bikes to do battle with drug lords ...
All of these lurid situations and images should be readily familiar to followers of Indonesian horror and exploitation films. MYSTICS IN BALI (1981), WARRIOR AND THE NINJA (1987) and VIRGINS FROM HELL (1987) from which the above scenes originate from respectively have delighted discerning western audiences with their exotic, flavorful elements.
Shot quickly and with very little, if any budget, these films entertain with jury-rigged special effects, silent movie plots and an overall cinematic technique that could be charitably called “rustic.”
Many extenuating factors contribute to these movies’ appeal. Usually set in the lush, dense forests and jungles of its homeland, peopled with natives who live a way of life untouched by industrialized society, these films cater to the video armchair traveler. Indonesian films also have a fierce integrity to them, untouched by irony and sophistication. A film set in a village with mud walls, bamboo roofs and wandering livestock has the undeniable ring of authenticity to it. These are no movie sets. The viewer gets the impression that once the movie lights were switched off from the generators, the film crew retired to hammocks slung between palm trees to continue shooting the next day.
A certain cultural ignorance surrounding these films adds to their aura. Only occasionally using conventions found in Western movies, the Indonesian horror film has little or no use for vampires and werewolves. These films dip deeply into
Before the viewer plunges in with a machete a pith helmet into this rough cinematic terrain, two things must be kept in mind. First,
Another factor in these films is that all were made under the iron-fisted rule of President Suharto. As recounted in the film THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1982), the Javanese strongman expelled the communists from power in a bloody coup and took control in 1967. Welcomed by the West who was then concerned with the spread of communism in that part of the world, the Indonesian proletariat began to enjoy limited modernization and a certain economic prosperity under his reign. As Pete Tombs’ explains in his indispensable examination of world exploitation cinema Mondo Macabro, these films were intended for a blue-collar, working-class audience who demanded escapist fare. Fantastical in nature, these motion pictures were intended for the worker done with his shift at the American-owned oilrig. These films could be read as part and parcel of Suharto’s bread-and-circuses governorship. The regime was not above forcibly removing a film from theaters that did not suit its purposes - LADY TERMINATOR (1988) was yanked after a 10-day run when it became apparent it would become the popular film in Indonesian history.
Suharto resigned in 1998 amidst accusations of corruption.
One casualty of all of this upheaval appears to have been its genre cinema. In the seventies and eighties, independent producers along with established studios such as Rapi Films ground out product that found broad appeal among the people of the world’s fourth most populous nation.
At their best, these movies drop the viewer in a strange jungle wilderness populated with strange beings, sights and sounds. The viewer is left to hack their way through the underbrush without a compass. Those who have covered this terrain find it’s a trip worth taking over, again and again.
THREE EARLY EFFORTS
While Indonesia has had a bustling film industry since the 1930s and beyond, we will begin this survey with three features shot in the late 1970s, early 1980s. One follows the template of countless Asian fantasy films; another mimics a Western horror film almost shot-by-shot and winds up putting its own distinct spin on things; and the third tries to cash in on an exploitation staple only to get it gloriously, hilariously wrong.
PENANGKAL ILMU TELUH (Circa 1978: Loose English translation: Black Magic Talisman Knowledge) directed by S.A. Karim, is a typical supernatural Asian horror film. A husband in a rural farming village thinks his wife is being unfaithful and enlists the aid of a local wizard to cast spells against her perceived lover. Bargain basement special effects ensue, as another wizard is enlisted to do battle in a war of magic. One especially graphic scene has the village round-heeler stricken with premature aging, leaving her face terribly wrinkled. Seeking the services of a witch, the woman undergoes a Third World “chemical peel” where the hag flays the woman’s face with dull knives. The witch then applies a thick cream that is peeled away as a mask, restoring the woman’s face to its previous beauty.
Any viewer familiar of the horror films of
This conclusion is overly facile. A casual viewing of any of these movies reveals that any character that resorts to magic -- either for vengeance or to combat witchcraft, is doomed to failure. Even the most sympathetic characters that seek the assistance of a shaman or sorcerer invariably come to a bad end. The true Asian horror film routinely admonishes the viewer to reject the ancient fears and superstitions from which it draws its inspiration.
Another thing entirely is DUKUN LINTAH (Loose English translation: Leech Warlock, circa 1978) directed by Ackyl Anwary, the scriptwriter of Penangkal. It closely follows Asian horror film conventions as well. A young man’s advances to a rich girl are rejected as she takes her true love’s hand in marriage. The young man seeks the services of a jungle witch doctor, which as the title suggests uses bloodsuckers to mete out vengeance. DUKUN LINTAH then abruptly turns into a slavish, frame-by-frame remake of David Cronenberg’s SHIVERS/THEY CAME FROM WITHIN (1975)! Viewers will recognize and begin to mentally check off scenes lifted in their entirety from the original, almost down to the camera angles.
What makes DUKUN LINTAH so fascinating is not its blatant plagiarism (Cronenberg’s attorneys are either unaware of this film’s existence or assume all they could get in damages would be earthen pots and rice), but how the narrative plays in a diametrically opposed setting. THEY CAME FROM WITHIN’s gross-out sequences are reproduced in loving detail; leeches swim up a bathing beauty’s nether regions as she soaks in a river, the hero tries to stuff the parasites in his mouth once they’re removed from his stomach; a fat. elderly woman becomes a sex-crazed maniac, et cetera. It soon becomes abundantly clear that a horror film about the alienation of modern life simply doesn’t play the same after the setting is changed from a sterile apartment complex to a mud-caked village with outdoor privies - although it does make for some fascinating comparisons. It comes as no surprise that the leech-infected villagers in DUKUN LINTAH do not go on to infect the outside world as in the original, but revert to happy villagers after a holy man says a prayer.
How Indonesian filmmakers take a particular story or genre element and tailor it to parochial tastes is highly evident in PRIMITIVES (1978). Shot at a time when movies such as MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST were packing them in grind houses, director Sisworo Gautama gathers all the appropriate elements and bluntly refuses to follow any of this sub-genre’s conventions. How, you may ask? PRIMITIVES is the only Third World Cannibal movie from a
PRIMITIVES follows a trio of intrepid city explorers, led by Indo-trash perennial Berry Prima in search of an undiscovered jungle tribe. Predictably, our heroes fall into the clutches of a gang of savages who delight in trussing them up and forcing them to eat Gila monster pate. They manage to escape, but not before the bespectacled, nerdy member of their party dies from his wounds. In a poignant moment, his life flashes before his eyes of happier times, i.e. eating snow cones in a filthy water slide park!
The cannibal genre that enjoyed a vogue in the late 1970s was essentially the product of white Europeans (Italians, mostly) contrasting the differences between brute savages and “civilized man.” Films in this canon are rife with racism and xenophobia while simultaneously pointing out the inherent brutality of modern civilization. Primitives can’t begin to address these themes, because, well ... it features Southeast Asians being menaced by Southeast Asians in third-rate caveman outfits!
Such an ill-advised attempt is revealed early on in the musical cue that occurs immediately after savages in a jungle glen dispatch a man; as the credits roll, it’s not chanting or percussion we hear but Kraftwerk’s electro-funky “We Are the Robots!”
These films out of the way, we now turn our eyes to an important Indonesian feature that used its naiveté and lack of polish to literally cast a spell on this reviewer to go in search for other videos from this far-flung land --
MYSTICS IN BALI (1981)
It all began after a friend of mine loaned me this video he said he absolutely hated. MYSTICS IN BALI, along with THE BOXER'S OMEN (1983), is the one feature that left me scratching my head in wonderment as to what planet this broadcast was transmitting from.
MYSTICS IN BALI, directed by H. Tjut Djalil was at one time a hot and widely discussed commodity on the
The film opens against a montage of Balinese dream warrior masks. The story concerns American occult scholar (Ilona Agathe Bastian) Katherine Keane, fresh off the plane to research Balinese Leak (pronounced Lee-ak) Black Magic. Enlisting the aid of her native boyfriend Mahendra (Yos Santo), they arrange a meeting with a practicing witch in the nearby rain forest. The hag, who keeps her decaying face hidden in the darkness, agrees to instruct Kathy in exchange for bottles of human blood.
Returning the following night with withdrawals from the local blood bank, the witch begins to instruct Kathy on the ways of Leak sorcery. But the cackling hag enacts a big price from Kathy, as the crone gradually regains her youthfulness, and Kathy becomes an unwilling pawn in a climactic battle between demonic forces.
MYSTICS IN BALI gives the
In the film's most notorious scene, Kathy's head separates from her body to fly through the air to devour newborn infants, accomplished by blue-screen TV effects and puppet strings.
As Pete Tombs would rave in Mondo Macabro: “MYSTICS IN BALI[ ‘s] . . . . awkwardness and shooting style give it a strange kind of authenticity. The camera hardly ever moves; most scenes are filmed in one take, using medium or close shots. In the many night sequences there are no foregrounds. The characters are isolated against the vast, empty backdrop of black space. There’s a constant feeling of mystery, of tension, as though almost anything might emerge from the blackness.”
One can readily laugh at MYSTICS IN BALI
Sometimes, sincerity is the most effective component in art. Such is the case with MYSTICS IN BALI.
Described as “
Suzzanna entered moviegoers’ consciousness back in 1979 with QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC (1979), which found limited domestic exploitation play as BLACK MAGIC III, in an attempt to associate it with the Shaw Brothers’ unrelated BLACK MAGIC series. In a backwoods village, Suzzanna plays a woman wrongfully accused of witchcraft. Her mother is killed; her home destroyed and is driven into the jungle by the angry township. She meets a wizard who has his own reasons for disliking the village, and the predictable magical mayhem ensues.
Suzzanna would come into her own in what one suspects is a series of films about the Snake Queen. Either an obscure
The character is introduced in all her supercilious glory in THE SNAKE QUEEN (198?). Suzzanna delivers good fortune to her followers under the provision that a human sacrifice is made in her honor within the year. The special effects are surprisingly good, perhaps showing the hands of the film’s Japanese co-producers. Attended by her many chorus girl supplicants in a glittery grotto, SNAKE QUEEN is rich in kitschy exoticism. The opening scene where the Queen is introduced to the audience gliding through a series of psychedelic alcoves in an outrageously phony cave setting could pass muster as the Most Boring Ride in
Not so serious in tone is HUNGARY SNAKE WOMAN (1982), directed by PRIMITIVES’ Sisworo Gautama. The Snake Queen this time advises a young ne’er-do-well to kill three women and dine on their breasts. The film has a bit too much fun with the character; Suzzanna beds down with a mere mortal and the circular bed swirls magically around a series of undisguised disco spotlights.
The last film to make the
Fascinating in their excess, the films of Suzzanna are ripe for camp stateside discovery.
I WANT TO GET EVEN!
I WANT TO GET EVEN! (1988, aka VIOLENT ASSASINS aka LADY EXTERMINATOR). The film is a weird hybrid of silent movie-style melodrama, crime and action genres. The plot is a simple one. Irma (Eva Arnaz) is the long-suffering wife of cab driver Rudy (Clift Sangra). A demure lotus blossom with beautiful features, blue eye shadow, red lips and furry armpits, she works as a cashier at a nightclub to make ends meet. The nightclub is the front for a drug and weapons smuggling operation lorded over by Sid Haig-lookalike Cobra. Gang rape is a favored pastime of Cobra’s business associates, and a trio of thugs drags Irma into the jungle for a quick one-two.
Husband Rudy, who appears to have his eyebrows and moustache drawn in with felt pen, doesn’t take too kindly to the news. In spite of Irma’s first trimester pregnancy, Rudy insists the gang rape is all Irma’s fault and sends her sailing out of his speeding taxicab! As the viewer can guess, their marriage is more than just a dysfunctional one. Turned out of the house, Irma seeks solace in a friend who advises her against abortion. As her friend points out, her mentally defective handicapped daughter (played by a real mentally defective handicapped girl - a taboo Asian cinema frequently indulges in) born under duress has grown into the light of her life. “A man is only his own pride,” Irma discovers upon reflection.
The rest of the film details the activities of Cobra’s gang and Rudy’s attempts at vengeance. Irma loses her baby in childbirth in a blood-drenched, dinner-losing scene. She figures enough is enough, and donning a Rambo-style headband and mounting a dirt bike, she trains her bazooka on the remnants of the gang before riding off with her now-wiser husband into the sunset.
The film has all the sleaze and cheese viewers have come to expect. Cast members are dressed in ugly primary colors, sometimes in T-shirts with incongruous English slogans. In a standout scene, another innocent girl is gang-raped off screen as a gangster moll bites her thumb listening to the sounds of passion coming from the other room, her T-shirt reading “The Grand Canyon is for lovers.” I WANT TO GET EVEN’s attitude towards the inequity of the sexes is just astonishing. The abusive, monstrous husband is seen as the film’s hero and the wife is expected to stand by him through hell and high water.
Especially telling is director Maman Firmansjah’s first scene. Panning across a slum neighborhood over the opening credits, the camera lights upon various apartments. A montage of depravity including alcoholism, intravenous drug abuse and porno video shoots includes a shot of a young lovely opening a vein in her wrist with a razor blade and drinking her own blood. We return to the same scenes at the film’s close, which ends with a stern biblical verse.
More engaging than most serious documentaries on the subject, I WANT TO GET EVEN is an over-the-top exploitation feature that reveals dire situations that exist in the
FILMS IN THE CITIES
We will conclude our survey of Indonesian trash cinema with two atypical films that are set in urban areas. LADY TERMINATOR (1988; known under countless titles such as NASTY HUNTER and REVENGE OF THE SOUTH SEAS QUEEN) and DANGERSOUS SEDUCTRESS (1992) rely on the old genre staple standbys such as curses, vengeful goddesses and cut-rate special effects, but strive for a contemporary feel by setting their narratives in the relatively modern environs of modern Jakarta. Stalwart veteran H. Tjut Djalil, under his nom-de-plume “John Miller,” directed both TERMINTOR and SEDUCTRESS.
LADY TERMINATOR is arguably the most widely known and seen Indonesian exploitation film. It enjoyed a robust release in the
Make no bones about it; LADY TERMINATOR is a shameless rip-off of James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s popular action franchise with a few stray South East Asian trappings. The film’s notoriety comes from a stilted prologue set 100 years into the past wherein the evil blonde South Sea Queen castrates her male lover for failing to satisfy her. One wily sailor is able to exorcise her malevolent spirit by coaxing a cartoon snake out of her vagina. The execution of this one particular scene is a hoot. The malevolent spirit is represented by an optical that suggests black felt pen drawn directly on to the film’s frames. The queen utters a curse that she will live on a hundred years hence in the body of an unwilling host.
Terminator then switches to present day, with lovely brunette (Barbara Anne Constable) studying oceanography. On a boating expedition, evil forces drag her to the bottom of the ocean floor and the crude cartoon snake penetrates her. Reborn, she becomes the female incarnate of Ah-nult’s android destroyer. She makes her way to
There is no point in defending LADY TERMINATOR as anything more than blood-soaked entertainment. To the trash fan, it is little more than Judgment Day without a nuclear war sequence to slap the audience’s wrists for indiscriminate bloodshed. But its withdrawal from cinemas implies a deeply buried political subtext that didn’t gibe with the then regime.
The most recent Indonesian horror film to reach western eyes has been DANGEROUS SEDUCTRESS, released on video in
DANGEROUS SEDUCTRESS’ attempts at sophistication fail uproariously. An Enigma-knockoff theme song, palatial settings decorated with chintzy décor and a heroine who would fail to get past cherries on Pac Man all add to its entertainment value. It is perhaps fitting we end our survey of Indonesian horror films here, as DANGEROUS SEDUCTRESS offers a summation of their appeal. They don’t make them like this any more, but it’s wonderful that films like these were still being made as late as 1992.