Horror Globetrotting: Mystics in Bali (Indonesia,1981)


Welcome to Horror Globetrotting, a weekly column where we travel to different corners of the globe to unearth some of the finest horror gems.  For the inaugural edition we’re visiting Indonesia to take a look back at the cult classic Mystics in Bali, a bizarre horror comedy released in 1981 that deserves to not only be remembered, but celebrated eternally.

As a country, Indonesia is steeped in magical tradition… especially the black arts. Therefore, it was only natural that  black magic has served as a source of inspiration for the country’s finest fantastical cinema. During the ’70s and ’80s, Indonesia released some of the most surreal, bizarre and entertaining horror films ever crafted. Movies which infused local superstitions, religious beliefs and dark arts practices with grotesque imagery and gore shone a spotlight on a fascinating culture – albeit through the lens of outlandish genre films that tend to induce more laughs than shocks when watched today – were commonplace in horror, fantasy and action fare, no matter how ridiculous the final outcomes could be. For instance, take Special Silencers (1979), a madcap kung fu gem which follows a man with trees growing out of his stomach because he swallows cursed pills he obtains from a spooky hermit.  Starring the great Barry Prima of The Warrior series (which is action fantasy at its finest), and directed by exploitation king Arizal, Special Silencers is chaotic, weird and wild – but as goofy as it is, it does contain mystical elements which typify how superstitious cultural identity found its way into the archipelago’s creative arts.

For films which directly explore the theme of black magic, then The Snake Queen (1982) and The Queen of Black Magic (1983) are prime examples of films of this ilk, offering a glimpse into forbidden practices and injecting them with raucousness.  It’s hard to describe the feeling that occurs when watching these movies; on one hand they’re hilarious and camp, but like a dark spell, they possess, enchant and beckon the viewer to their twisted will.  Which brings me to the topic of discussion – Mystics In Bali.

Directed by H. Tjut Djalil, whose 1989 Terminator knock-off Lady Terminator is essential viewing for any self-respecting trash connoisseur, Mystics of Bali is a masterpiece and arguably the first Indonesian horror film to put their scare fare on the map for Western audiences to discover.  The movie was made with the intent to appeal to foreign markets; to do this they cast an Australian actress in the lead role, playing an American.  According to IMDB – which we should always take with a pinch of salt – she hasn’t acted again since, which is a shame because she immediately solidified as a cult icon when she agreed to star in this gem.

It tells the story of Cathy (Bastian), a young fool who seeks out an evil witch for training in the dark arts as part of her research for a book she’s writing. The old hag agrees, but she’s not to be trusted with that evil cackling laugh. Tricked by the wicked mare, Cathy is turned into a a flying vampire with internal organs hanging from her neck, controlled by the witch for her own sinister gain. As her body sleeps at night, her head at the behest of the witch, ups and leaves at night to drink blood so the old spell caster can attain youth. It is now up to her love interest and the local holy men to try and save the day.

Out of all the legends to be found in Indonesian folklore, perhaps the most interesting the Leyak, of which Mystics In Bali is based on. According to Balinese lore, the Leyak is a cannibalistic creature with multiple talents, if you call what I’m about to describe ‘talent.’  By day the creature appears as a seemingly normal person, but by night it adopts a more sinister form: a floating vampiric head with dangling entrails which floats around feasting on the blood of the living, with a special hunger for pregnant women and newborn babies.  Additionally, the Leyak is also said to possess the ability to shape-shift and possess people, so all in all you don’t want to get in the wrong side of one of these things.  In her brilliant book Encyclopedia of Giants and Humanoids in Myth, Legend and Folklore, Theresa Bane states other forms the witch has been known to take include: a tiger, a golden toothed monkey, a giant bird, a rat, a ball of light and a motorcycle with no rider.  Mystics In Bali doesn’t go into that much depth exploring the various outlandish forms the Leyak can take, but it does explore fascinating ritualistic elements and mysticism. Plus, we get to see a floating head go on the rampage and perform cunnilingus on a bewildered, crying woman.

During Cathy’s stint as a Leyak, we also see her turn into a pig and a snake woman. Say what you will about her horrifying experience, but she wanted to learn the dark arts for the sake of a book she was writing based on anthropology; therefore, if any positives can be taken from her experience, it’s being able to tell one heck of a story.

Mystics In Bali contains many scenes that will put a big ol’ smile on your face; it doesn’t take itself seriously for a second. That said, it is seeped haunting, gripping atmosphere throughout, and the scenes pertaining to the black magic do feel like you’re experiencing something you shouldn’t be.  It’s not as graphic as other black magic-themed shockers to emerge from the Far East during this time period, but it exposes occult practices nonetheless – and while projected in a comedic light, they do allude to the real witchcraft which is still commonplace in native regions to this day. That’s pretty spooky, right?

Despite not being the type of film most people would ever take seriously, Indonesian Film Censorship Board did and it was subsequently banned. In the west, the film was considered to be too shocking and bizarre to be screened.  However, thanks to unlicensed video tapes, it found its way into the ether of horror film fandom and began building its legacy as an outrageous cult classic.  Nowadays you can pick up a copy of the DVD, boasting the movie in its original uncut form thanks to Mondo Macabro.

If you’re unfamiliar with Indonesian horror and exploitation then Mystics in Bali is a perfect starting point. It’s catered to appeal to a wider audience than the typical fare the country was releasing at the time, but it also retains the core elements present in their black magic horror cinema at the time.  And if you’re a fan of nutzoid movies, they don’t come much better than this lunacy.



Sign up for The Harbinger a Dread Central Newsletter