Well, that was predictable: for the sake of the 2018 Clarion West Write-a-Thon, I sold my reviewing services to the highest bidder–so to speak–and the highest bidder, once again, was Evil Tom.
Now, Evil Tom’s initial plan was to make me watch Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, as he was shocked to discover I’d never seen the movie. Such a selection would’ve suited me just fine, as I have mild interest in the film–almost entirely because Ezra Miller is in it–but not quite enough to actually bother, you know, renting it. Unfortunately, Evil Tom couldn’t resist changing his Evil Plan at the last minute, which is how I ended up watching 80’s Indonesian horror film Mystics in Bali instead.
Oh, man. SPOILERS be everywhere, people.
Cathy (Ilona Agathe Bastian), an American woman who wants to write a book about various black magics across the world, comes to Bali to study Leák magic. Unfortunately, Cathy quickly gets in over her head, which is to say that she loses both it and her attached viscera as she’s transformed into a floating, psychically enslaved vampiric creature that feasts on pregnant women and their unborn children.
1. Mystics in Bali was apparently the first Indonesian horror film intended for Western viewers, which actually doesn’t surprise me; fans of the genre will easily recognize some basic horror archetypes here: an outsider (likely some combination of white, Western, and/or American) goes to study and/or investigate the strange phenomena/folklore/superstitions of another culture, only to discover that, in fact, there are no rational explanations: there is no hoax, the magic is real, and whatever supernatural entity is involved is likely evil and almost certainly pissed. I mean, I basically just gave you the plot of The Serpent and the Rainbow right there, although it’s worth pointing out that Mystics in Bali preceded that particular film by seven years.
More importantly, while The Serpent in the Rainbow is a Hollywood horror movie adapted from a Canadian anthropologist’s nonfiction book on Haitian voodoo, Mystics in Bali is an Indonesian film telling a story about its OWN mythology and folklore, which is obviously way more interesting. Not to mention, this folklore? I mean, it’s just fantastically cool: vampires that manifest in the form of floating heads attached to their own guts and organs? Like, come on. That’s just awesome.
2. So, that’s what Mystics in Bali has going for it: awesome mythology and a perfectly decent setup. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the basic story itself.
The execution of that story, unfortunately, is just a disaster.
I’ve been having a hell of a time trying to organize this review in manageable sections. In this 54th attempt, we’re going to try what I’m referring to as the “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” approach.
Let us begin with The Problem of Cathy.
Cathy, as previously mentioned, is writing a book on black magic, and the way she prefers to learn is by practical study under the tutelage of an experienced practitioner. That seems reasonable enough, although I have to bring up a few points: one, Cathy supposedly already learned voodoo in Africa this way, which, HA HA HA, no, she didn’t, two, Cathy completes all of maybe two lessons before declaring that she shall “soon be a master of the Leák,” which HA HA HA, no, you aren’t, and three, while hands-on experience is obviously great, a certain level of academic research prior to meeting the witch might also have been advisable, research that I see absolutely no evidence of, considering she appears to have no conception of what a Leák (or Penanggalan) actually is, and also because of culturally sensitive sentiments she’ll express, like “Do you believe in the Leák, or is it just nonsense?” and “I’m afraid it’s all mumbo jumbo to me.”
Good job, Cathy. We’re all rooting for you and what’s sure to be your super awesome book.
Cathy is also just hopelessly naive and her reactions to weird and/or dangerous shit leave something to be desired. At one point, Cathy wakes up with blood smeared over her mouth, and while I can understand how she might not immediately jump to the conclusion that her head’s been flying around attacking pregnant ladies, like, maybe her reaction should be a bit stronger than a disgusted “ew” and a quick “I guess I bit my lip.” Really, Cathy? Does your lip actually hurt? Is there any kind of wound? And are you going to wash that off or–no, okay, let’s just go back to sleep with blood smeared all over your mouth. That’s hygienic.
3. We must also spend some serious time discussing The Problem of Mahendra (Yos Santo).
See how Christopher Plummer stands here, sort of just watching and not actually doing anything? Yes, that’s Mahendra in a nutshell.
It’s disappointing because–if you can look past his unfortunate 80’s hair–Mahendra is not an unattractive man, and yet it’s hard to escape the fact that he’s a deeply useless character. Mahendra is Cathy’s boyfriend, see, and also the person who introduces her to the Queen of the Leák. Despite this, the script can’t decide whether Mahendra actually believes in Leák magic or not. He initially talks about it like it’s all just a strange belief system. Shortly after, he says it’s more dangerous than any other black magic in the world, including voodoo. Then he says he has to believe it (though doesn’t specify why), but that it gets “overdramatized.” THEN, when they actually go to meet the witch, Mahendra reminds Cathy that they’re dealing with supernatural forces and can “expect anything now.” Immediately, there’s a sudden change in the weather conditions–
–and I’m like, “RAIN! WERE YOU EXPECTING RAIN, MOTHERFUCKER?!”
Complicating all this is Mahendra’s uncle, Machesse. See, Mahendra gets concerned about Cathy’s lessons (read: he’s not into a girl who can shapeshifte into swine), and goes to his uncle, who not only believes in the Leák, but possesses both this magical dagger and a bunch of mantras that can be used to repel the Queen. In fact, apparently there’s even a whole family history about fighting the Leák. One would think some of this might have come up before Mahendra arranged a meeting between his GF and the evil vampire-witch, but apparently the dude only believes in Leák magic when the scene calls for it. When Mahendra eventually says what’s happened to Cathy is all his fault, Mekaela and I were both like, “Yeah, a little bit.”
One would also think that Mahendra–now in possession of the mantras and magic knife–might try to use one or the other to help his girlfriend, but instead, he mostly just stands around some more. To make absolutely certain he does nothing plot-relevant, Mahendra takes off to go sail or something for a few days. But never fear! He comes back just in the nick of time to a) totally fail to keep Now-Evil Cathy’s head from reuniting with her body, and b) distract his uncle in the midst of battle long enough to get that guy dead, too. In fact, Mahendra’s worthless ass gets saved, like, three different times: two of those people die, while the other guy was already dead in the first place. (We’ll come back to that.)
And at this point, it should not surprise you to discover that Mahendra, himself, does not defeat either Cathy or the Queen, which means his primary role in this film is to be a functionally useless Arthur Holmwood type who occasionally provides awful exposition. (To be fair, there’s a lot of awful exposition to go around and just terrible dialogue in general. Cathy gets some of the best gems, like, “Well, as you know, the Queen of the Leák drew a spell on my thigh.”)
4. And not to keep harping on Mahendra, but to totally keep harping on Mahendra? Dude might have even worse reactions than his GF. In one scene, after telling Cathy that she’s killed someone, Mahendra casually says that she mustn’t worry, acting like she’s upset about eating the last slice of pie or something. Later, when he kisses her awake–which, can’t we just agree that’s always, always creepy–Cathy starts vomiting up yellow-green puke and live fucking mice, to which Mahendra says, “Cathy, what’s the matter with you?” CATHY, WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU? VOMIT MICE. Vomit Mice are what’s the matter with Cathy right now. (And also my next band name.) And in another scene, Mahendra sees Cathy’s headless body standing up in a room, and just has absolutely no reaction at all. Like, he maybe frowns a little.
FROWNING IS NOT THE CORRECT EMOTIONAL RESPONSE, MAHENDRA. You might wear those jeans well, but you are doing literally everything else wrong.
5. There is also The Problem of the Other Woman to address.
Okay, Maya is really not very much like the Baroness, mostly because the Baroness has a modicum of actual character, but I started a theme, damn it, and I intend to stick with it until, well, Note 6, probably. Anyway, Maya.
Maya only gets a name (and dialogue, for that matter) in the last ten minutes of the movie, but we meet her in the first five, as she glares jealously while spying on Cathy and Mahendra. She’ll continue stalking Cathy throughout the film, which is why she’s around to see Cathy’s Head zooming off to go murder a pregnant lady. As Mahendra is busy sailing at the time, it’s up to Maya to inform Machesse of this. She does technically get to talk here; unfortunately, we don’t get to hear her, presumably to preserve The Mystery.
Folks, it’s not that mysterious. Right after Machesse bites it, Mahendra–once again dangerously close to having to actually do something–is temporarily saved by Maya, who jumps in from out of nowhere and attacks the Queen. She’s quickly fatally injured, of course, but lives long enough to tell
the audience Mahendra that she still loves him, even though he left her for another woman. Mahendra is devastated by her death, even though he hasn’t mentioned or even vaguely referenced this woman once during this entire movie.
So, yeah, that’s Maya, a tragic and mostly silent female character who exists for virtually no reason at all.
6. For your consideration, I also present to you The Problem of Maniacal Laughter.
The Queen of the Leák (Sofia W.D/Debby Cynthia Dewi) is actually one of the better things about this movie, funky rubber-tube-nails and weird voice aside. (If Yoda and The Gatekeeper had a baby, that’s what the Queen would sound like.) Unfortunately, we’re informed that evil laughter is a trademark of the Leák, and while I’m all about that laughter preceding her every appearance, the Queen also enjoys gleefully cackling, like, every other sentence. That laughter will follow you into your dreams, not because its particularly haunting, but simply because it’s been etched into your brain by excessive repetition.
7. And when it comes to the Problem of Egregiously Terrible Editing . . . you know, let me just make a list.
7A. After promising to return to the Leák Queen, Mahendra and Cathy walk over a hill and straight into the next night with virtually no transition or sense of the passage of time. Admittedly, they are wearing different clothes, but if you don’t catch that right away–and I didn’t–it really seems like they’re still walking home when the Queen begins cackling again. (Also, Mahendra immediately asks, “Who are you?” even though the Queen’s voice is rather singular, and he’s the asshole who told us about her trademark laugh in the first place. Oh, classic Mahendra.)
7B. At one point, Mystics in Bali cuts to a scene where Cathy tells Mahendra about her lessons, only it feels like we’ve come maybe four minutes too late into the discussion, as Cathy has already apparently explained about her animal telepathy, or something, not to mention some adventure where she extinguished this ball of light. I need to be painfully clear here: we have seen no such ball of light thus far, which is why it’s very startling when Mahendra says that this light represents a human life force, i.e., Cathy just totes murdered someone. Cathy is understandably horrified; Mekaela and I, meanwhile, are like, “Wait, what?”
One might reasonably expect Cathy to start skipping class, but apparently she has to go back because she’s very sick with some magical illness that the Queen has promised to cure–even though Cathy just said, like, two minutes earlier, that she has no idea why she feels so ill.
7C. The Puking Up Mice incident is abruptly cut off for a scene with these, like, three fireballs in the sky? Talking fireballs, I need to stress. These fireballs are enemies.
The Possible Former Apprentice Fireball: “So, here we are. Finally, we meet after so long.”
The Leák Queen Fireball: “Come and fight your master!”
Then the fireballs all knock into one another in some kind of fierce Fireball Battle. One fireball crashes to the ground and becomes human again; that’s Cathy. Sadly, the Possible Former Apprentice Fireball crashes into the lake and blows up, his dead body surfacing shortly afterwards. It’s . . . yeah, I don’t even know. I mean, maybe the Fireball Battle is actually supposed to be Cathy’s Ball of Light adventure, even though “fireball” and “ball of light” aren’t what I’d call natural synonyms and I’m not convinced Possible Former Apprentice Fireball counts as human. Moreover, the Fireball Battle takes place 20 minutes after Cathy has already gone over her Ball of Light adventure. Either way, though, nobody will discuss this Fireball Battle ever again.
7D. Remember how I mentioned Mahendra was saved by a dead guy? Yeah, that would be his uncle’s uncle. Or possibly his uncle’s brother–the film says both, but since “brother” and “uncle” are words that aren’t always used literally, I wasn’t entirely sure how everyone was related. Either way, he’s a dead ancestor who was mentioned a whole one time before popping up, like, 45 minutes later; also he’s an old enemy of the Queen’s, like, for a character with not much actual backstory, the Queen of the Leák seems to have an awful lot of old enemies.
As far as editing goes, Mahendra’s Dead Ancestor isn’t nearly as bad as something like the Fireball Battle. Still, I’m generally of the belief that dead people shouldn’t get to randomly pop in and save the day without someone seriously laying in the groundwork. Not that he saves the day alone, mind: the sun rises, and the Queen goes up in some pretty hilarious flames. It’s a classic vampire death that would work a lot better if it wasn’t just SUDDENLY dawn–but to be fair, that’s a pretty classic problem in basically any movie where sunlight functions as a deadline and/or salvation.
8. Of course, we must discuss The Problem of 80’s Special Effects.
Like, okay. Even today, with the very best CGI money can buy, I’m pretty sure that a floating head and attached viscera would end up looking pretty goofy. And I’m definitely not gonna seriously hate on special effects from an Indonesian horror film from 1981. But.
The shapeshifting scenes are pretty hilarious, partially because the effects are about as bad as you’d expect–in the process of becoming a pig, for instance, Cathy turns into something that looks like an uncooked turkey that just happens to be bipedal and roughly 5’6″–but also because they’re so goddamn slow, it’s hard to wonder how anyone’s scared of the Leák at all. Like, just cut off the Queen’s head while she’s in the middle of turning into a snake, or whatever. You’ll be fine.
It’s also pretty funny whenever the filming entirely changes to show, say, Cathy’s head coming off her neck or the Queen’s false hand on the ground, scuttling away.
9. And surely we must mention The Problem of the First Lesson, or rather, The Problem of the Meet, Greet, and Entrapment–less because it’s a real problem and more because it’s all just pretty funny.
First, the Queen (who’s hiding in the bushes for whatever fucking reason) asks if Mahendra and Cathy have brought the things she asked for–even though we watched that whole meeting from beginning to end, like, three minutes ago, and nobody asks anybody for either jewels or multiple bottles of
Kool-Aid blood–blood that apparently comes in about six different shades of red.
Cathy is forced to hold the jewels in the palm of her hand so the Queen can grab them with her 25-foot-long forked red tongue that glows bright green for some reason. The tongue, mind you, pretty much looks like an enlarged Slim Jim–at least, in close-up shots. From further away, it’s more like someone’s badly trying to ribbon twirl.
Shortly afterwards, the Queen tells Cathy to take off her skirt. I’m like, “Goddamn it, Tom.”
Surprisingly, though, this doesn’t get nearly as icky as you’d expect. The Queen wants to place a tattoo on Cathy’s thigh that will imbue her with temporary magical powers. Eventually, once the old skin cells die off or something, the tattoo will fade and the powers will disappear. I fully expected for Cathy to try and cut the tattoo off at some point, but it’s barely even brought up again–only in one painfully insignificant scene that primarily exists for thigh and crotch shots.
At the end of the lesson, the Queen tells Mahendra to tell Cathy to do as she says, even though Cathy has no difficulty understanding or speaking with the Queen herself. Mahendra nods at Cathy, though, approving of the Queen’s instructions, so thanks a lot, Mahendra. You’ve doomed us. You’ve doomed us all.
The Queen also gives Cathy a cloth full of black magic words and tells Mahendra that he can’t come anymore because he’s too curious and asks too many questions about things he shouldn’t know. If memory serves, Mahendra’s questions up until this point have largely been dumb, but hey, I’l buy it: I’d probably want to kick him out, too.
10. Finally, let’s just ABC the rest of this review, shall we?
10A. The part that does get as icky as you might expect is when Floating Head Cathy zooms into some house, takes out a midwife by head butting her through a window, and murders a woman in labor by going between her thighs and feeding on her unborn baby. It’s not particularly graphic, but it is fairly reminiscent of That Scene From Re-Animator.
Though once again, it’s probably worth mentioning that Mystics in Bali actually came out four years prior to that film.
10B. Early on in the movie, the Queen (currently veiled) tells Cathy to return the next night. Mahendra demands, “How do we know tomorrow it will be you and not someone posing as you?” like that’s an actual problem that happens.
C’mon, screenwriters. I know you need to inform us that the Queen changes faces, but there simply had to be a better way than this.
10C. In one of the lessons, the Queen starts laughing, like always, and Cathy decides to join in. It is truly painful to witness.
10D. Mahendra’s Uncle explains that the Leák Queen needs to take three lives to become all powerful, and that she’s already taken two. I find this interesting because it means he’s either counting the lives of the mothers but not their fetuses or the fetuses but not the mothers. Living in a country where abortion is always a hot button issue and fetal care is often focused on to the detriment of the mother’s health, I find this arithmetic genuinely fascinating.
10E. In yet another example of Mahendra, the Useless Bastard: dude has a dream where Cathy appears, begging him to dig her body out of the grave. Then she goes all evil and tries to kill his ass. Mahendra wakes up, appropriately startled, and asks his uncle, “Tell me, what’s the meaning of that dream?”
Mahendra, you’re an asshole. Honestly. What do you think that dream means?
10F. Finally, it occurs to me that while I’ve spent a lot of time listing the problems of Mystics in Bali, I haven’t tried to fix any of them.
Honesty, that person probably shouldn’t be me. I’d love to see an Indonesian remake of this film, one with a halfway decent budget, hopefully better special effects, and–for the love of God–actual subtitles. But if I were a part of, say, some multi-cultural writing team working on a brand new remake for the modern day? I do have some ideas where I might personally enjoy seeing the story go.
Cathy is a bisexual Haitian or West African writer who has grown up practicing voodoo. She’s working on a book about comparative religions and begins in Bali, where her boyfriend Mahendra introduces her to the Leák Queen. Maya, who is Mahendra’s old friend, tries to warn him what he’s doing is dangerous, but he doesn’t believe her until it’s too late. Cathy, under control of the Leák Queen, kills him and commences feeding on pregnant woman. Maya either seeks guidance from her live uncle or her dead ancestor (there’s really no need for both) and gets the appropriate witch-fighting mantras and tools. Maya then helps Cathy break free from the Queen’s control by cutting off that pesky tattoo with her magic knife before being badly wounded. Cathy, still possessing fledgling Leák magic, also calls on her own religion to help her kill the Queen for good and save Maya’s life. There may or may not be sexual tension between them.
The Fireball Scene is not included in the movie.
Okay, so obviously, that’s not exactly a shot-for-shot remake, and such a story would require writers who know a lot more than me about multiple things, but I think it could be interesting. At any rate, it would at least solve a problem like Mahendra.
The actress who plays Maya. I don’t know her name because it’s not listed on IMDb, Wikipedia, or any review I read, but for a character who got, like, two lines to work with, I think she worked them. But I also enjoy both actresses who play the Leák Queen.
Shit, I don’t even know. C?
Don’t fuck around with forces you don’t understand is the standard moral for this kind of horror story, but I’ll add a more specific one here: if your teacher is using you to kill people and/or you’re throwing up live mice after your lessons, don’t go back to her even if you think you’re dying. Instead, demand that your useless boyfriend find you someone who’s not a murderer and might be able to help, just in case he has any wise uncles or dead ancestors he’s failed to mention thus far.