What is it about a hot woman in a skull mask? Is it that her nubile body makes one pine for his lost youth while her death’s head visage mockingly reminds him of his encroaching mortality? Probably.
Neraka Lembah Tengkorak is based on a series of popular Indonesian novels credited to author Bastian Tito, all of which focus on the exploits of Wiro Sablang, a sort of wuxia-style wandering hero gifted with a wide variety of supernatural powers. Seven films in all were based on the series, all starring actor Tonny Hidayat as Wiro, and the popularity of the books would later also translate into a successful TV series, albeit one with a different actor in the lead.
The world presented in Neraka Lembah Tengkorak (English translation: Hell Skull Valley) is similar to the Martial World of Chinese fiction, complete with various feuding clans and schools, as well as every chance meeting between strangers resulting in a brief fight before anyone bothers to figure out whether they have a beef or not. This is, at least, what seems to be happening during the first half of the movie. We spend a good deal of time watching as the members of one particular school fend off challenges from whatever random lone fighters shows up at their doorstep. Thanks to their advanced martial arts skills, they don’t appear to have much trouble doing this -- until, of course, the real villains of the piece make their entrance.
These would be the aforementioned hot chicks in skull masks, who number five in all and come dressed in color coded outfits for easy identification. (The green one, for instance, is the leader, while the yellow one, we will later learn, has a romantic past with our hero.) These women each have the magical ability to dematerialize in a puff of smoke and then unexpectedly reappear in another place, which makes them considerably harder to beat than the more mortally-abled itinerant swordsmen that the clan is used to dealing with. In fact, they are impossible to beat, it turns out, as the women have soon managed to kill the entire lot of them.
It is at this point, forty minutes into Neraka Lembah Tengorak, that our hero finally makes his appearance. Thankfully, it is an entrance well worth the buildup, as it involves Wiro Sablang flying in on the back of a giant puppet eagle. I have seen the character’s name translated as “Wiro, The Crazy Warrior”, and Tonny Hidayat indeed plays him as something of an unhinged prankster. He giggles constantly, and spends a lot of time toying with his opponents before making his opening move, perhaps capitalizing on their impression of him as being a harmless nutjob. Such drawing out of the action proves necessary, for, once we see Wiro’s formidable powers demonstrated, it becomes clear that, if he were just to get right down to the fighting, the movie would be over in a matter of minutes. Seeing someone make an opponent explode simply by angling his palm at them might be exciting in the moment, but it doesn’t provide much opportunity for building suspense in regards to a fight’s outcome.
Neraka Lembah Tengorak was directed by Lilik Sudjio, a prolific director of Indonesian genre films who also helmed the previously reviewed Darna Ajaib, as well as The Queen of Black Magic starring Suzzanna. Sudjio was obviously working with very limited resources here, with the result that Neraka Lembah Tengorak comes across like a Chor Yuen wuxia film that’s been leeched of all of its elegance, intricate detail and lushness of atmosphere. Thankfully, Sudjio compensates for these missing elements in the best Indonesian tradition, delivering wave after wave of cheesy gore. Knives and swords being driven into and/or through people’s heads becomes something of a leitmotif, and Wiro’s aforementioned exploding palm technique is truly something to behold.
At the same time, the film’s very minimalism manages to provide it with something of a unique atmosphere all its own. Music is used very sparsely, with most of the fight scenes being accompanied by little more than the low, constant sound of howling wind in the background. This lends a brooding, funereal aspect to the action that stands in weird contrast to its frenetic pace and garish presentation. In this respect, the film reminded me a bit of Polly Shang Kwan’s moody gore-fest Ghostly Face, which, given my fondness for that film, is a very happy association indeed.
For Neraka Lembah Tengorak’s bloody finale, a couple of Wiro Sablang’s erstwhile sidekicks -- a crazy old kung fu master and an acrobatic, blue veiled swordswoman -- belatedly make the scene, effecting an exponential increase in the number of heads being paired and perforated by blades before it all comes to an abrupt conclusion worthy of a 1970s Shaw Brothers film. All in all, the film has that dirty, rough edged charm that I’ve come to expect from this branch of world cinema, and, while it was certainly no watershed experience, I didn’t regret losing the scant seventy-five minutes it demanded of my time. Then again, if you put a scantily clad woman in a skull mask at the center of your movie’s action, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have me for the duration, no matter how lame everything else in it may be.