Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Malam Satu Suro (Indonesia, 1988)

It could be said that the length and breadth of Indonesian horror queen Suzzanna’s career was, to a certain extent, determined by the number of vengeful female spirits that could be found in Indonesian folklore. Fortunately for her, there were a lot. The Queen of the South Seas, the Snake Queen, the White Alligator Queen: Suzzanna played them all. And then, of course, there is Sundel Bolong, the “Ghost With Hole”. Malam Satu Suro comes along several years after the actress first portrayed that gruesomely perforated ghost in 1982’s Sundel Bolong, and shows signs of its makers -- including original Sundel Bolong director and longtime Suzzanna collaborator Sisworo Gautama Putra -- making an attempt to shake up the formula a little bit.

The Indonesian Wikipedia page for Malam Satu Suro suggests that it stands apart from other Sundel Bolong films by treating its lead ghost as its protagonist. However, as I’ve said elsewhere, it was not atypical for the spirits played by Suzzanna to be portrayed in a sympathetic light, in that the wrongs done them were often tragic in dimension and made their motives for revenge relatable to the audience. In Sundel Bolong, it is only the guilty who suffer her wrath, and once her vengeance is complete she is laid to rest once again. In Malam Satu Suro, things follow a similar trajectory, though it has to be said with a markedly increased laying on of bathos.

The film opens with a swell little scene set in a grave yard, in which an old shaman resurrects Sundel Bolong amid an array of exactly the type of rudimentary yet uniquely thrilling special effects we’ve come to count on from the Indonesians. After a cackling Suzzanna flies around on a pretty obvious wire for a bit, the shaman does a back flip and drives a spike directly into the top of her head. This causes the ghost to revert to her human form, that of Suketi, a ringer for the attractive Indonesian horror actress Suzzanna. Then, for reasons that were unclear to me, the shaman decides to make Suketi his adopted daughter.

Flash forward an indefinite amount of time later, and Bardo, a Jakarta businessman on a hunting expedition in the forest (and played by Fendi Pradana, who would also star opposite Suzzanna in the Indo martial arts fantasy Pusaka Penyebar Maut) stumbles upon Suketi and is instantly smitten. In fairly short order, Bardo convinces Suketi’s adoptive father of his intentions and the two are married amid a pageant of Javanese ritual dancing and weird fairy costumes.

Flash forward yet another indefinite, but likely longer, amount of time, and Bardo and Suketi’s lives are a model of upper middle class marital bliss, with two adorable moppets having been issued forth to complete the picture. To drive all of this home, Suzzanna sits down at the family piano and lip synchs a syrupy M.O.R. ballad as her husband and offspring look on adoringly. It all comes across like a particularly maudlin wedding video, but, as we’ve learned from previous Suzzanna films, the more idyllic the picture, the more tragically will it be rent apart.

And said renting indeed comes, in the form of a crooked business rival of Bardo’s, who, after consulting with a creepy, red-faced female Shaman, learns of Suketi’s former spectral guise. He and his goons then proceed to break into Suketi’s home in Bardo’s absence and pull the spike from her head. Once again, Suketi becomes Sundel Bolong, complete with the rotten, maggoty hole in her lower back that distinguishes her particular species of spook. She hangs around just long enough to freak the fuck out of her kids and their nanny, and then disappears into the night. However, the bad guys are not through, and later return to the house to murder the nanny and kidnap Suketi and Bardo’s youngest. A tense hostage drama follows, ending tragically when one of the kidnappers accidentally kills the child while trying to stifle his cries.

To be honest, throughout the movie’s kidnapping episode, it does feel like Suzzanna is getting kind of a superhero build-up. It’s as if Sundel Bolong is off ensconced in her Fortress of Solitude while, back in Metropolis, chaos takes reign. Every moment of her absence is one in which we anticipate her arriving at the nick of time to set things right with her maggot-eaten-hole-related super powers. Unfortunately, she doesn’t end up mobilizing until after her child has been killed, so her actions end up being, as usual, limited to payback. But first, she sits down once again at the family piano, now in her ghastly spectral form, to reprise that syrupy M.O.R. ballad from the beginning of the movie.

Now let me make clear that, while Suzzanna does interact with her family during this part of the movie, this is no heartwarming “My Wife, the Ghost With Hole” style TV friendly family portrait. As Sundel Bolong, Suzzanna is every bit her usual scary self, and perhaps even more so. The choice was made this time around to spackle her face with stark, kabuki style make up, which often changes dramatically in pattern from shot to shot, making for an effect that is memorably chilling. On top of this, when she finally does set out on her quest for vengeance, she digs up her child’s coffin and drags it along behind her, much like Franco Nero in Django, but to far more unsettling effect.

That said, the actual kill scenes in Malam Satu Suro, when they come, are noticeably antic, featuring a particularly gleeful and wisecracking Suzzanna. In this way, they’re reminiscent of the very Nightmare on Elm Street films that Putra and Suzzanna would later explicitly emulate in 1991’s Perjanjian Di Malam Keramat. There’s even a bizarre fantasy sequence that precedes the death of one baddie, an apparent John Lennon impersonator, who imagines himself singing before an adoring crowd and then turning into superman and flying around over their heads. In another scene, Sundel Bolong animates her dead child’s favorite teddy bear, making it march up to one prone perp and bloodily stomp his face in.

All of this leads up to a classic, only-in-Indonesia finale: A duel with the red-faced female shaman that sees her transforming into a person-sized suitmation frog as a cackling Suzzanna -- now turned into a leak -- flies around crazily above. Once this battle has concluded, Malam Satu Suro tries to again ratchet up the pathos for a last tearful moment between Sundel Bolong and her surviving family, but I doubt it could leave any but dry eyes in any house it played. In the end, the film only distinguishes itself from the original Sundel Bolong by how it flat out whups you upside the head with its tragic aspects, whereas, in the former, those aspects felt more organic and, as a result, more legitimately affecting. Sure, it’s possible to make a sad movie about a flying ghost lady with a rotting hole, but adding treacly power ballads and Vaseline-lensed romantic interludes will only make it… well, something different. Amazingly, though, that something different is still pretty entertaining.

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