Le Charme horrible de l’Indonésie

Indonesia’s modern history was quite tempestuous – over the space of 70 years, the country had survived everything from decolonization to occupation, from a nationalism-cum-communism to an anticommunist military dictatorship and a quasi-democracy of sorts, “corrupt and nepotism-ridden” though it might have been. All these influenced its culture quite heavily; whether we talk of Indonesian cinema, music or literature, they are both vibrant and original.

Thus, before we move on to reviewing Indonesian cinematographic developments, let’s take a brief look at her political history.

f2f0ce8314ebd6a4c28aa070e08dae43bb7f6d02Indonesia was a Dutch colony until 1945, when, following a lengthy power struggle, Sukarno, a nationalist with strong socialistic tendencies, became its first independent president. His policies had a devastating effect on the development of Indonesian culture: he instituted a fierce, uncompromising censorship against the “poison” of the West and against the Chinese and the Japanese “imperialists”. As a result, the Western movies, magazines and books had completely vanished from the country.

Sukarno’s economic policies were likewise brutal: he tightened everything up, closed the market, nationalized everything he could think of and, in addition, instituted draconic repressions against the local Chinese. These latter became a sort of symbolic scapegoat for the inept nationalist-communist government: everything bad that happened in the country, from shortages of water to the economic crises was blamed on the Chinese diaspora.

Conscious of the importance of cultural development, Sukarno tried to force the Indonesian intellectuals to advance a patriotic, singular national culture, in the safe haven of total isolation from the Western trends. Quite expectedly, these attempts failed miserably: the money allocated to the enterprise time and again disappeared into thin air, the disgruntled intelligentsia amused itself with criticizing the moronic actions of the government and, frankly, wanted nothing at all to do with Sukarno’s vision of national culture.

92520041After a while, when the collapsing economy reached the stage of food shortages and lack of medical services, there was a military coup headed by General Suharto. He termed the communist epoch the “Old Order”, as opposed to the “New Order” he was about to institute. His economics were those of a relatively open market, his politics a moderate form of nationalism, and his cultural views were pro-Western enough – especially compared to those of his predecessor. Almost the only exception to his openness were his strict anti-Chinese politics; Indonesian cold war with PRC was an immutable state for its military rulers. In particular, Indonesia was exposed to, or maybe I should say drenched in, foreign movies.

And so it was that in this conservative, backwards country with the highest Muslim populace there appeared movies showing nudity, horror movies based on the darkest Indonesian folklore, and more.

One of the earliest trademarks of the newly developing Indonesian movie industry was an overwhelming number of copycat movies. (This, by the way, was also true of other inexperienced cinematographic industries feeling their way, for instance those of Turkey and India). A very interesting example was called “Satan’s Bed” (Batas Impian Ranjang Setan). This remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” featured an amusing makeup of its Freddy Krueger against whom was set a shaman.

RANJANG-SETAN-kruegerVariations on the shamanistic theme are quite frequent in the Indonesian horror movies. Unlike the Western tradition, the Evil here is quite usually defeated not by a hero but by the adepts of Light Magic similar Good-aligned spiritual characters. This can be better understood if we remember that the Western ideas of individualism and stand-alone heroes are foreign to Indonesian folklore. The Indonesian culture and consciousness are quite archaic and collectivistic; when asked to identify himself with something, an Indonesian will most likely name his family or clan. Thus, the classical hero defeating the forces of evil could hardly be expected to take root in Indonesian cinema.

The development pace of the Indian cinema during the New Order’s rule was nothing if not spectacular. Having started from scratch, it managed, in a mere couple of decades, to overtake the wealthier and more experienced Indian and Turkish industries, and rise up to the level of Hong Kong or South Korea. Nowadays all kinds of movies are being produced there – from existential dramas to action or horror stories.

Besides strongly recommending the reader to watch “After the Dark” and both parts of “The Raid”, we won’t give any details on either dramas or action movies. They are easily on the level of, if not better than, their American or Hong Kong counterparts – mostly because the latter had become moored in the tradition of dynamic, brutal cruelty which no longer holds much interest to a discerning viewer. The horror movies, on the other hand, are unique and interesting enough for us to want to review them in detail.

Indonesian culture is rooted and enmeshed in Indonesian mythology; it is syncretic and full of dark mysticism. The country is quite inhomogeneous religiously, territorially and ethnically. Thus, its cultural basis is formed of strange and shadowy symbolism and sinister practices native to the many various peoples and regions forming the relatively young Indonesian nation. The most terrible myths – the ones that shaped its horror stories – were strongly influenced by kejawen – a Javanese religion/philosophy that really is a syncretic mix of Buddhism, Islam and various popular paganist traditions. The beliefs and rituals of Bali and Sumatra also played a key role in forming the Indonesian mysticism. Some researchers go as far as to claim that the Balinese, for instance, do not comprehend the need for separating the myth from the reality; and that their literature genres are not, as is usual in the West, divided into realistic and fantastic tales. In short, the archaic traditions have such strong sway in this region that the natives a consciously inhabiting their own “Myth space”, allowing it to change around them when new intellectual or cultural trends are injected into it.


This explains why the movies growing on such rich and unusual soil are nothing short of amazing. For instance, a movie produced in 1989 by one of the best Indonesian horror authors, H. Tjut Djalil, was called “Lady Terminator” (Pembalasan Ratu Pantai Selatan). In it, the ideas lifted off the Hollywood’s “Terminator” were combined with the Javanese legend about the Queen of the Southern Sea. The result was as original as it was spectacular. The movie was uninhibited by the Asian and the Islamic mores (naked breasts, emancipated and aggressive female characters); it offered a new take on the classical Cameron’s plot; the shooting style was more theatrical than is usual in the West, with acting to match. The plot’s background is Jakarta, which was rapidly expanded and enlarged in the 80s; this urbanistic exploration and the outstanding naval landscapes lend the movie much charm. The implied mysticism and the sexual abuse in the murders of the male characters (the Lady Terminator revels in tearing off their genitals) turn the picture into a unique blend of action, explo and mystic horror. It truly is a gem and a pleasure to watch.

Naturally, the horror-saturated Indonesian culture is not confined to that one country, but rather attracts its followers all around that region. For instance, a famous pop-singer and a witch doctor, Mona Fandey was executed in Malaysia in 2001. She used to combine singing and the dark arts, offered magical assistance to politicians and other well-connected clients, and practiced human sacrifice. She had been apprehended having, together with her husband, murdered Mazlan Idris, an ambitious Malaysian politician who went to her for ritualistic assistance more than once in his career. Curiously enough, Mona’s magical paraphernalia in her dealings with Mazlan was an amulet once belonging, at least according to her, to Sukarno. We’ll never know for sure why she decided to use the Indonesian artefact – possibly its arcane power were stronger than anything found in Malaysia, or maybe its particular capacities were somehow connected to Indonesia – but anyway, the result, for Idris, was as brutal and horrible as can be expected of the darkest Indonesian myths. His body was cut into several pieces, partially skinned and buried. Mona became unbelievably popular in the Malaysian countercultural underground, she is as revered among the local Satanists as Erzsebet Bathory is among her fans. Various black metal and death metal fanzines print panegyrics to her memory, and, lately, she had a movie called “Dukun” dedicated to her. She became quite popular in Indonesia as well – mostly due to the abovementioned talisman, though rumors abound that her magical schooling and initiation took place in that country.

Be that as it may. Recently the Indonesian horror movies became somewhat more streamlined, and draw their inspiration from the classical, favorite Pan-Asiatic concept of ghosts and other unquiet spirits. This, compound with the improved quality of photography and camera work, resulted in the Indonesian movie industry turning out pictures that are hardly distinguishable from, for instance, the South Korean ones. They are less original, their charm and chaotic drive had diminished, they are no longer as exasperatingly and lovably unbound as those created in the 70s and the 80s.


There is no arguing that the best Indonesian horror movie was created in 1981. It was called “Leak / Mystics in Bali”. This is what happened: in the end of 1970s and in the first half of 1980s the country was drowning in criminals and mobs. The government did all it could fighting them, all the efforts and the budget surplus went into that struggle. Thus, the economy and the culture were left pretty much alone, and felt a real surge of liberalism. On the other hand, the massive arbitrary sweeps of arrests and killings by the army, the police and the paramilitary organizations, known as “Pembunuhan Misterίus” (“Mysterious Murders”) created an atmosphere of chaos and lawlessness, which undoubtedly influenced the producers. And so the “Mystics in Bali” is a conglomeration and a reflection of all the socio-cultural trends of those times, while at the same time being an unbelievably strong and virile movie in its own right.

The plot, in any case, is a classic one. Cathy Kean, a ‘foreign’ ethnographer with a keen interest in the occult, comes to Indonesia to study the Leak magic. Her friend helps her contact a leak-witch, and the latter pulls her into a veritable nightmarish maelstrom of uncontrollable events and uses her to advance her evil designs. If pressed to define the movie’s genre, I would say it was something in between a very scary fairytale and a classical horror-movie. The witch bears strong resemblance to a Baba Yaga from the Slavonic myths, only without the latter’s sugarcoating for kids. Several episodes were quite revolutionary in an early-80s movie, especially an Indonesian one. For instance, in one scene Cathy vomits live mice and worms, and it still look horribly strong even today.

The movie contains lots of references to the conventional Western horror movies, enough to bring joy to the hearts of the connoisseurs. There is one scene, for example, where the witch takes possession of Cathy’s head, magically tears it off her body, grows vampiric teeth in its mouth and makes it fly through the air. A mob armed with sticks and torches finally manages to corner the head. All this is an obvious reference to Dracula who, when confronted by a mob of his long-suffering subjects, could turn into a bat. This episode recurs throughout most of Dracula movies, including the brilliant “Waxworks” of 1988, in which Dracula was actually cornered and caught.

To sum up: the movie manages to combine an authentically scary atmosphere, high-quality (for the early 80s) makeup, a proper cocktail of national mythology and the Western clichés, and a general feeling of terrifying madness, into a hitherto unsurpassed masterpiece.


Despite the aforementioned trend shift towards the profitable, impersonal, clichéd movies, Indonesia continues, from time to time, to turn out undeniably notable horror movies. For instance, “Macabre” (“Rumah Dara”) of 2009 is a solid slasher film with a mystic background, complete with the already familiar to us from the Indonesian horrors emancipated and aggressive female characters. Malaysian government forbade to show it in the country, citing “excessive violence” as their excuse.

As far as such movies go, “Macabre” has it all, really. From groups of young people to disquietingly glamorous women (who, naturally, live beyond the ‘city limits’ and lure the naive travelers), from bloody violence to vampirism, cannibalism and the eternal youth. The cast includes such stars as Arifin Putra, who will later become famous in “Raid 2”. Here he still not fully confident in his abilities, moves and acts a bit awkwardly at times, but his potential is obvious to the discerning eye.

In “Macabre” we see the new, mature face of the Indonesian horror movies. It is no longer as reckless and naive as it once was, and it no longer borrows the Western ideas impudently, but rather filters them through the unique and original native cultural prisms and shows us the result of these reflections. We probably won’t see another “Satan’s Bed”, which tried, with a childish and touching naïveté to repeat Wes Craven’s success. And it is a good thing – after all, we can hardly expect the swiftly developing movie industry to also forever remain in diapers. We can however, despite the somewhat troubling signs, expect and hope for more advanced and higher quality movies.

Kitty Sanders, 2015