Sunday, February 10, 2013

"I'm surprised that a pretty girl like you would want to learn black magic..."

Mystics in Bali (1981)
Director: H. Tjut Djalil
Seen via: Mondo Macabro DVD (R1)
Rating:  5.5 / 10

Mystics in Bali is one of those filmic oddities whose flaws all somehow align to transform it into something fascinating. The last couple of Indo-action films I've written about mimicked the archetypes of Western genre films and were interesting because of their slight departures from those formulae. Mystics in Bali flips this approach around - it takes a story rooted in Southeast Asian mythology and attempts to restyle itself in a form more suitable for Western audiences. Prior to this film, most Indonesian horror took the route familiar to anyone who's ever watched a Bollywood film: melodrama, comedy, and musical numbers mashed together irrespective of genre that create something more goofy than frightening. Director H. Tjut Djalil wanted Mystics in Bali to have a broader appeal to try and achieve success overseas, so here he excised all but the most serious elements, played the story completely straight, and left the underlying Balinese mythology intact.

Cathy (Ilona Bastian) is a young anthropologist who's traveling the world studying the supernatural practices of various cultures. She takes a hands-on approach to her learning, which can only go wrong when you're studying witchcraft, really. Having already tried out voodoo and found it not to her liking, she's moved on to Bali, where she hopes to learn the ancient secrets of Leyak magic (also spelled Leák). She's accompanied by Mohendra (Yos Santo, who also pops up in The Devil's Sword), a native guide whose feelings for her are more than academic.

Mohendra helps Cathy contact a Leyak witch against his better judgment. The rules of Leyak, which he states early in the film, give us a nice info-dump so that we know what to expect:
  • Leyak witches laugh. A lot. Their presence is usually signaled by awful cackling, of which there is an abundance in this movie.
  • Leyak magic allows its users to shapeshift into animals or change their physical appearance. In addition to providing the basis for some seriously strange transformation sequences later on, it means the filmmakers were able to cast any old lady they could find as the Leyak witch without worrying about continuity. Convenient!
  • Leyak magic is one of the most "powerful and primitive" magical systems of the world. It's dangerously seductive and allows its users to manipulate others without their knowledge.
  • If you kill someone with Leyak magic, nobody will be able to prove the cause. (Not necessarily true, as we'll find out.)

The film's first half consists of Cathy and Mohendra meeting with the witch, who subjects Cathy to several strange occult rituals that will induct her into the ranks of the Leyak. At first the witch just demands gifts of jewels and jars of blood (which she drinks with her long, prehensile tongue). Things take a turn for the unsettling when the witch tattoos Cathy's thigh (again, using her tongue), and begins putting her into a trance during their meetings. It's in these trances that Cathy is truly shown the power of Leyak magic. Her first transformation takes place after she and the Leyak witch do an elaborate dance (while cackling hysterically, of course), then morph slowly into pigs.

The instructional sequences with the witch also mark the appearance of Mystics in Bali's signature feature: the flying witch head. During one of her later meetings with the Leyak, Cathy is placed into a trance and the Leyak borrows her head. That is, she possesses Cathy and causes her head to detach from her body, trailing internal organs as it flies away. If you have heard of Mystics in Bali, it's probably because of this:

While apparently a common feature of Southeast Asian mythology, the flying head with dangling organs is something that is eminently bizarre to my American eyes. It strikes me as grotesque in a way that most other monsters don't. First, it's close enough in form to an actual pile of human guts, and contains sufficient detail for you to be able to pick out individual organs. It's right in the pit of that uncanny valley for gore effects. Second, it's mobile and sentient. Guts as a result of a particularly violent death - sure. A pile of guts that flies around? Sorry, nope. I get creeped out when anything larger than a housefly flies at me. A screaming head dragging an awful meaty dreamcatcher made of organs? No, I'll take exactly none of that, please.

Once the witch takes control of Cathy's head, things get insane. Up until this point I had questioned whether the Leyak witch was actually evil. Really, all she did was look creepy and transform into animals - nothing so bad, right? Well, any open questions were answered when the witch uses Cathy's head to find a woman giving birth and EATS THE BABY AS IT'S BEING BORN.

Here's where that fourth rule of Leyak magic breaks down. It's pretty obvious to all the townspeople what's eating their babies. Especially when they come home to find this flying out of their window:

It's reassuring to see the townspeople reacting so strongly to these events, particularly when Mohendra and Cathy have been extraordinarily even-keeled in the face of these bizarre events. One of the strangest aspects of Mystics in Bali are the non-reactions the two protagonists show to all the varied things that befall them. For example, during the first meeting with the Leyak, Cathy shakes the witch's hand, which promptly detaches and falls to the ground. Cathy and Mohendra just look at it blank-faced while the witch cackles, then continue conversing with her. After transforming into a snake with the witch one night, Cathy pukes up a neon green slime and some live mice the next day. Mohendra's reaction: "Perhaps it was the food that made you so sick." You mean the food she ate and somehow neglected to digest while she was a snake? These disproportionate reactions are prevalent throughout the film. While they sometimes add to the surreal tone, most of the time they come off as a showcase for our stars' acting deficiencies. (To be fair, Ilona Bastian was a German tourist who Djalil found on a beach. He apparently thought having a European leading lady would increase his film's marketability.)

(In case it's not clear, this horrible thing is Cathy as a half-human half-snake.)
As crazy as Mystics in Bali sounds from my description, it's frequently marred by some glaring flaws. There's a lot of meandering in the story, especially during Cathy's early meetings with the witch. It often feels disjointed, especially in the first half. A couple of early scene transitions are indicated only by the change in the actors' clothing. Awkward pauses litter this film, both in the dialogue and the story. As much as I'd like to say that the weird bits sustain the movie's pace, they often remain simply weird little bits. Even during many of these, the non-acting undermines the scares, at least until the flying head makes its appearance. After that, the sheer insanity of the concept kept me interested. It should also be mentioned that most of the special effects are flat-out bad. But as a credit to the film, it never once lets this hinder what it's trying to do. Even when tongues or heads hung from strings are glaringly obvious, or the blue-screen effects take center stage for a little too long, Djalil plows ahead.

Another aspect that works in favor of the film's weirdness is the audio. The long stretches of silence, careless dubbing, and the low-fi soundtrack all blend together to create an eerie aural space. It'll sound familiar to fans of the similarly low budget dub jobs in many Super 8 and 16 mm features such as Death Bed or The Abomination. The soundtrack reputedly features traditional Balinese music, but this wasn't something that stood out to me.

Despite the relatively low score Mystics in Bali gets on my rating scale, it's actually something I'd recommend watching. Flying witch head movies (yes, this is a subgenre) are relatively scarce on this side of the world. For sheer novelty alone, Mystics in Bali is worth seeking out, even if it's often hampered by its low budget and shoddy production. If you're like me, the idea of a flying vampiric head is enough to convince you to keep the windows shut at night, even without all the dangly bits...

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