Mystics in Bali

Review of Mystics in Bali (dir. H. Tjut Djalil, 1981):

I wear a stone around my neck everyday. The Balinese call it ‘Kresnadana’, which, I believe, means it belongs to the god Krishna in a world less materialistic to the one in which I live. For the time being, though, I claim it as my own and, as such, draw the intrigue of many Balinese who continually ask me how I came into possession of this much-desired rock (that’s another story for another time).

For the unfamiliar, Mystics in Bali might seem like a jolly good laugh. As a horror film, it falls squarely into the category of good bad films – performances so wooden they should join an environmental movement, scripting so poor it deserves social welfare and special effects so cheesy you’d expect them to come with crackers. Let’s put it another way – this film is unlikely to send you under the sheets shuddering in fear or squinting through your fingers for fear the gore will have your stomach lurching. But there is a very real Balinese/Indonesian belief of black magic (the cult of the Leyak) from which this film derives its mythology and it’s bloody scary stuff for anyone who’s come across it. As evidence of this fact, Mystics was originally banned on its release in Indonesia in the early ’80s. Take it from me, there are some of us who get the heebie-jeebies from the likes of such cinema ridiculousness – and I’m one of them.

However, I am the rarer kind of viewer in this instance. As the DVD cover attests, Mystics in Bali is “The Holy Grail of Asian Cult Cinema” and, similar to its Japanese sibling Nobuhiko Ohbayashi’s nutty Hausu (1977), this is a treasure that promises much derision and enjoyment once finally acquired because you won’t find it readily at your local DVD retailer. One reviewer says, it has “some of the most bizarre supernatural horror elements I have ever seen in a motion picture”. Based on the book, Leák Ngakak by Putra Mada, Mystics was actually conceived in the Western mould of horror and pitched for an international audience, just like further work from its filmmaker such as the delightfully blatant Terminator rip-off, Lady Terminator (1989). Seek it out.

In Mystics in Bali, an unsuspecting American girl – played by a holidaying German tourist, Ilona Agathe Bastian, who was convinced by the producers of the film to extend her stay on the tropical island for a couple of months but, not surprisingly, amounted to little more in terms of a movie career – develops a morbid fascination in the dark arts of Indonesia. She encourages her local paramour – he of the tight jeans and impressively thick bouffant hair – to introduce her to a Balinese leyak (in a stand-out performance by Sophie W.D.) who promises to divulge black magical secrets just as long as the foreign lady agrees to be her disciple. Despite the leyak having a face that would make her own mother recoil in horror and an unrelenting laugh that could cut glass (make it stop!), the American agrees… and with hardly a flicker of emotion. But that seems to be the defining element of Ilona’s unique breed of acting. Let’s just say, Lee Strasberg trained she ‘aint.

I’m not even going to start picking through the holes in this screenplay because it resembles a sieve. Special mention must be made concerning the SFX, though, because they’re really something to write home about. Djalil and his filmmaking cronies have employed a crude form of animation (no computers in sight) and physical prosthetics, rubbers, etc, to bring the black magic to ‘life’. In a couple of particularly satisfying sequences, our disciple transforms into a pig and – the pièce de résistance – loses her own head (with spinal cord dangling) that gets into all sorts of unbecoming mischief, such as flying through the air (duck!) and eating the foetus from another woman’s womb. Choice stuff.

These are just a few of the sublime moments that make Mystics in Bali a cult supernatural horror in its own right. And in paying homage to such originality, I’d also like to note the beauty of its cinematography. Some scenes/shots are quite breathtaking in their atmosphere and lighting while others are perplexingly inept. I can only guess someone’s nephew was handed a camera to take care of incidental pick-ups. The title sequence is a true marvel as well – quite frenzied and exciting, as though witnessing the emergence of an Indonesian Dario Argento. One could only hope for such brilliance, but even if it does not deliver on the promise of the opening few moments, Mystics in Bali offers so much more.

Watch it with others who understand the brilliance of bad cinema. Or a Balinese local, if you’d like a different perspective.

Mystics in Bali is available on DVD through Mondo Macabro.

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