Friday, July 18, 2008

Mystics in Bali (1981): or, Balinese Magic Takes Guts

There's something about watching a horror film from another culture that can give a viewer a startling and not-altogether-unpleasant sense of disorientation. The differences between one's culture and the one represented on the screen--which has by definition a mythology, cultural signifiers, codes of behavior and established horror tropes completely separate from the viewer's own--can often set the audience's heads spinning and produce odd reactions. The Hopping Vampires of several Asian horror films, for instance, never fail to get a guffaw out of Western audiences, though in their home countries these well-established bogeymen would have moviegoers cowering under the seats. Similarly some of the Japanese demons that to us look more like bumbling cartoon characters than creatures spawned from hell. If you weren't raised on a steady diet of spook tales involving such beasts, you might have a hard time mustering a suitably terrified reaction to their appearance.

All of which goes a little way toward explaining the gleeful and seemingly unhinged bat-shittery of the 1981 Indonesian horror classic Mystics in Bali. Still--I can't help thinking that some of the stuff presented here is Grade-A Wackness WHEREVER you're from.

The movie opens with a credit montage of demons who look like Dr. Teeth on acid. These would totally have tripped my shit out as a kid, I don't mind telling you, and even now I wouldn't want to find one under my bed or ensconced in my armoire. The music during this sequence is also alien and creepy in an "I don't know what's going on here, but I'm sure it's Not Good" kinda way.

Once that's done we leap into the saga of poor little Kathy, a wide-eyed American abroad who has come to Bali to learn about Leyak Black Magic. In hilariously dubbed expository dialog with her native guide and love interest Hendra, Kathy explains that the Balinese Black Magic is the Most Powerful Black Magic in the World, greater and more scary even than the voodoo she learned while she was in Africa and the smattering of Witchcraft she picked up in a coven in England. "Why's a pretty girl like you interested in knowing black magic?" Hendra wants to know, which Kathy answers by saying she's researching for a book on the subject. However, her scenes with the feather-haired and tightly tee-shirted Hendra belie her real motives, which are somewhere between International Tongue-Wrestling Training and a package sex-tourism holiday.

"The evening breeze! Caress the trees! TENDERLY!"

Luckily Hendra is a man who can get things done, as in short order he's made contact with an elusive Leyak Master who will agree to meet with Kathy and pass on the secrets of her dark arts. Along the way we get some great magic ceremony footage with seriously reverbed-out bad trip music, some disorienting camera work, and a romantic picnic in a forest with human skulls littering the ground! Kathy is one freaky chick, and Hendra has found the way to her heart, what with his black magic appointment planning skills and "Property of Notre Dame" form-fitting tees. As their romance blooms, a seductive-looking witchy woman watches jealously from the jungle.

The meeting with the Leyak Master takes us over the border from poorly-dubbed soap opera into full-blown other-dimension weirdness and never looks back. Leyak Masters can change their form at will, Hendra informs us, but can always be recognized by their high-pitched, cackling laughs. Why a sorceress with the ability to choose any form she wants would select the bug-eyed, long-haired, Coffin Joe-nailed monstrosity that shows up for the meeting is anyone's guess, but Hendra knew what he was talking about with that laugh thing--the gleeful, totally insane cackle she unleashes frequently in conversation just goes on and on and on, to the point that I kept expecting to hear the opening notes of "Wipeout" by the Ventures every time she took a breath.

The First Meeting scene is just pure excellence. We get a sudden rainstorm that drenches our two lovers before the Leyak Master appears, we get that famous sampled wolf howl (A sound-effect short-hand for creepiness in any language, apparently. Are there wolves in Indonesia? Maybe coyotes? Irritable opossums?), and more. The Leyak master herself has a voice that can best be described as Yoda meets Terry Gilliam's bridgekeeper from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but with just a soupçon of King Diamond thrown in for flavor. After agreeing to teach Kathy the secrets of Balinese Black Magic, the Leyak Master offers her bear-trap hand to shake on the deal--and then walks off, leaving her disembodied hand in Kathy's! The American drops it, and it crawls off in a scene that really puts the "special" in special effects.

"This is only a loan, mind you."

The next night Hendra and Kathy meet the Leyak Master again. This time the witch has chosen to appear as an aswang, a vampire-like creature from Filipino folklore that sucks blood through its long, prehensile tongue. In fact, the tongue is all we get to see, as it snakes out of the bushes to take some diamonds from Kathy's hand, and then to drink from the Coke bottles full of blood that the lovers have brought with them, as previously agreed. (No hints as to where they got it.) "Mmm! Good! Delicious!" the Leyak Master enthuses whilst slurping. "Now I need to take off your skirt!" I know such a statement might seem startling, but Kathy drops trou without batting an eye. I guess when you're in a one-on-one with a ten-foot long warty tongue, it's best to just roll with it.

Of course when the tongue then proceeds to tattoo a black magic spell on your naked thigh, you might start to reconsider the wisdom of the whole book-research enterprise. Back at her bungalow, Kathy invites Hendra to examine the tattoo to see if he can read it, in a scene absolutely FRAUGHT with cultural dissonance. You can tell from Hendra's goofy-ass expression and the Significant Music that what's going on here is MAJOR on the Indonesian eroticism scale, though to Western viewers it looks like he's just been asked whether her butt looks big in her bikini.

The next night Kathy meets the Leyak Master alone for the first time. Her walk through the swamp leads to her nearly falling into a pit full of White Indonesian Swamp Mice and a papier mache skull of questionable crafstmanship. (Why didn't they use the realistic-looking skulls from the picnic scene? Were they rented?) They meet at the Wicker League Basketball Association's practice court, the Leyak Master appearing as a balloon-faced woman using bamboo bird cages as crutches--laughing all the way, of course. After an impromptu interpretive dance lesson, both Kathy and the sorceress TRANSFORM THEMSELVES INTO HOGS in a transformation scene that can only be described as COMPLETELY FUCKING AWESOME. Air bladders, glycerin-goo, bad-trip music and rapid editing--it really must be seen to be believed, and should.

"No, I'LL go to the market. You stay home."

Meanwhile Hendra is understandably concerned about his Thigh-Revealing Mama, so he goes to talk to his uncle, who Knows About These Things. The uncle gives him some protective chants and a magical dagger ("Take it--it will increase your power!") apparently passed on from Hendra's OTHER uncle, a white magician of great power who is unfortunately out of town for the weekend. The guy playing Hendra's uncle is AWESOME, by the way--he's like the Indonesian Samuel L. Jackson. DON'T. FUCK. WITH UNC.

Kathy's lessons continue, leading to the most famous set piece in the film: the Leyak Master, just swimming in ulterior motives, enslaves Kathy and turns her into a penanggalan--another creature from Indonesian folklore that is just about as crazy as you could hope for. Basically, Kathy's head separates from her body, taking ALL ITS INTERNAL ORGANS WITH IT (you can see trachea, lungs, stomach, heart, intestines...the LOT) and zips through the sky, seeking women who are with child. Because you see, the penanggalan feeds on the unborn, by SUCKING THE FETUS OUT THROUGH THE MOTHER'S VAGINA. Do you get to see this happen? HELL YES you do. Another example of cultural dissonance: naked thighs? Big Deal. Disembodied head with trailing organs on a zip wire vacuuming a fetus out a mom-to-be's fun-chute? Not as much.

"Please, just try to relax."

There pretty much HAS to be a drop off after THAT shit, although the movie does its best to keep the crazy magic pumping. Kathy rebels against her new master but is powerless to resist hot sweet baby sludge, Hendra and his uncle go all Harker/Van Helsing on their asses, and the hot girl from earlier is revealed to be--I think--one of the Leyak Master's other incarnations. We get another transformation sequence where the sorceresses turn into snakes that's ALMOST as good as the pig change, we get to see Kathy vomit live (white) mice, a battle between talking fireballs, and an absolutely pyrotechnic climactic confrontation between the forces of Good and Evil that leaves one hero dead, introduces a new character out of nowhere, causes several trees to be uprooted, and ends up with a resolution that may have been new in 1922, but seems kind of hokey here.

Mystics in Bali is an experience of which every mad movie fan should avail himself. The peek into Indonesian folklore is instructive and interesting, but it's the wild effects, the freaky music, and the hilarious dubbing/exposition that will warm the cockles of your jaded move-watching hearts. Being an Indonesian joint there's no nudity and (surprisingly) precious little blood, but the mixture of bad matte effects, wild practical effects, and 80s video filters more than make up for the l(ey)ack. You'll laugh, you'll pop your eyes, you'll send your head flying off in search of baby cakes, and you'll laugh some more. 3+ thumbs, not to be missed.

Lipstick's in Bali

And special thanks to Tenebrous Kate for providing the pixels!


Tenebrous Kate said...

This one's a doozy, isn't it? I love the fact that it brings the heavy weirdness and gives no quarter, right through the end. Your summation of the turning-into-pigs scene is ENTIRELY RIGHT AND GOOD.

Wouldn't you love to be part of Uncle's council of elders? You just get to sit around, smoking cigarettes, drinking what is undoubtedly AWESOME Indonesian hooch, judging stuff? That's the LIFE, man.

The Duke of DVD said...

This sounds like a must-see, indeed! Fantastic review as always, dearest Vicar. Hog transformations, unborn fetus sucking... yes, I must watch this.

Anonymous said...

I will definitely keep an eye (or perhaps an entire disembodied system of internal organs) out for the this one.

Have you seen the American indie film from the 90s, Aswang? It turns the whole convention around, as a thoroughly American film about a family of American missionaries in the Phillipines turned in aswang, who return to the US to inherit an apple orchard in rural Wisconsin.

It differs from most over-the-top 80s indie gore-fests (Evil Dead II, Re-Animator, etc.) in that it plays the situation fairly straight (no splatstick, but plenty of splat). But you will believe that an American aswang can hang upside-down from the roof and extend a 30-yard prehensile tongue into the womb of a pregnant woman. Definitely worth a watch, even if you only wind up writing a hilariously negative review.

Anonymous said...

Okay, inspired by my previous comment, I watched Aswang again. I really don't understand why this isn't on everybody's top 10/20/50/100 list of horror films.

Mondo Macabro released it on DVD about 4-5 years ago, and maybe it's not in print anymore, but seriously.

Back in the early days of the horror blogosphere (when it was more of a horror Magellenic cloud), I pushed this film. And no one believed me.

I swear, in 10 years or so, horror fandom is going to be talking about what a great film Aswang is. Because it is. Imagine the perfect synthesis of slasher, splatstick, new cinema schocker, Eurogothic, and classic horror, with themes borrowed from
Filipino/Malaysian/Indonesian horror.

I realize I've strayed from the topic of this post, but you have got to see this movie.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Well, I've got to say, Howard, that I admire your dedication to mad movies, and more than a little chuffed at the influence MMMMMovies itself seems to exert over your movie-watching habits! If more people go out and watch crazy foreign horror flicks because of something they read here, I can only consider the enterprise a success!

As to Aswang, I did indeed see that movie a few years ago, but to be honest I must not have been in a sober enough frame of mind to appreciate it fully (IYKWIM). All I seem to remember is that the director had a MAJOR foot fetish on for the lead actress. Oh, and something silly where a girl tries to escape binding, not by cutting though the very thin piece of wood she's chained to, but by cutting through something else.

Everything else is a blur, though. Given your strong feelings about it, I'd be more than willing to give it another chance.

Greg B. said...

I also loved this movie. I just watched and reviewed a new Mondo Macabro gem called "The Queen of Black Magic". It's not quite as weird as MiB, but technically it's a better movie.

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