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Film Reviews

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Mystics in Bali (1981)

At the risk of making generalizations, it’s a fairly safe bet that most people who are passionate about cinema aren’t wild about remakes. Granted, there are exceptions (Carpenter’s version of The Thing comes readily to mind), but for the most part, remaking a classic film is seen as a plea for money rather than an artistic act. Still, there are plenty of films that would do well to be remade. A film may have an interesting premise that was handled poorly, or a film may have aged poorly and would resonate better with modern audiences if it was remade with some contemporary tweaking (granted, the latter is a really uncommon occurrence). Mystics in Bali is a film that belongs in the former category, as it has a really interesting subject (Balinese witchcraft), but features such cinematic ineptitude that the only reason to watch it is it’s inherent weirdness.

Title cards are weird, right?

Catherine “Cathy” Kean (played by German tourist Ilona Agathe Bastian) is an American student who is writing a book on the black magic arts of Bali, practiced by witches known as Leáks. Her guide/boyfriend/possible fellow student Mahendra (Yos Santo), who is a Balinese native, manages to hunt down the Leák Queen (Sofi W.D. and Debbie Cinthya Dewi, who plays a shapeshifter), who agrees to teach Cathy the secrets of the Leák. Turns out, the secrets of Leák include using tongues to give magical tattoos, becoming balls of fire, turning into snakes and pigs, and laughing at nothing in particular before you dance in a circle. When Cathy decides to stop taking Leák lessons, the Leák Queen casts a spell on Cathy, making her into a bizarre floating head with hanging entrails that eat unborn children. It’s up to Mahendra and his Buddhist priest uncle Machesse (W.D. Mochtar) to put a stop to the Leák Queen’s reign of evil.

The best thing about Mystics in Bali is that it was actually made by Indonesian filmmakers and actors (save for Bastian obviously), which gives the film an authenticity that isn’t normally seen in exploitation films. If there’s anything that a remake of Mystics would need to carry over from the original, it’s the authenticity. The look into a culture not normally seen in Western films is the biggest reason to see this movie, and a remake that fixes the issues in this film would definitely create interest in Balinese culture. Still, there are quite a few things that need fixing in this film.

Apparently, Leak Magic requires the use of a green screen.

Problem #1: Explain
Not much is explained in this film, especially the relationships between the characters. We never find out how Cathy and Mahendra met, or if they’re even dating. The most we get is some flirting, an awkward kiss, and some one-sided declarations of love.  While the Leák mythology is explained somewhat, it isn’t in detail, and most of the explanations are vague. This is especially evident in two scenes: the first is a scene where two flaming balls fight for apparently no reason, and the second is the end, where the villains are defeated in a very deus ex machina manner, which would have seemed less like a cop out if it was hinted to at the beginning. The special features on the DVD do provide some background on Balinese mythology, but a film shouldn’t have to rely on extras to make sense.

Apparently the American cut is thirty minutes shorter than some other cuts, and maybe the scenes that were edited out contained the entirety of the character development, but the lack of explanation in this movie really puts a damper on the enjoyment of the film. A good remake would address the character’s relationship to each other, and make sure that the mythology that’s so vital to this movie is explained properly.

Yes, I’ve seen this in context; it still didn’t make much sense.

Problem #2: People don’t act like that
Whenever you watch a horror movie, you expect the characters to do at least a few stupid things, but the characters in this movie seem more like MacGuffins than people. Cathy has the most reason to act oddly, since she is under the control of the Leák Queen for a good portion of the film, although you have to wonder why she thought she could learn all the secrets of black magic and then just leave. Mahendra is an even bigger idiot: when he finds out Cathy unwittingly killed a person, he tells her not to worry about it.  He doesn’t even seem concerned when his uncle warns him about the evils of Leák magic. Machesse isn’t exactly free of culpability either, since he takes no action to help Cathy until it’s too late and people have started to die.  

I could have made a “Spirit Fingers” joke, but I didn’t. You’re welcome.

Problem # 3: Plot
The plot is minimal, to say the least. Its few subplots are either introduced in one scene and then abandoned entirely, or introduced in the beginning, forgotten completely, and then shoved back in at the last minute.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the three protagonists were developed,  rational, or personalable. While a simple plot is fine, this film would have more weight if you could see the characters interact with each other.

What do you bet we start seeing news reports about youngster’s getting tattooed by witch tongues?

Adding some fully developed subplots would make this film much more involving. One subplot that was only mentioned briefly was Mahendra’s ex. We see her watching the protagonists at the beginning, and then she disappears until the very end of the film. We find out that Mahendra left her so he could be with Cathy — even though we never find out if he’s really with Cathy — but Cathy never finds out. This subplot would bring out some great non-supernatural drama. How would Cathy react? Would she still want to be with Mahendra? Would the audience still find Mahendra a likable character? This would keep the film interesting in between scenes of decapitated heads.

Obviously, a remake that fixes these problems could still be horrible, though it would be horrible in a different way. A remake, especially a big budget remake, could definitely be very bland, or Americanized to the point where it wouldn’t matter if the movie took place in Bali or Baltimore.  But if made with care, this film could be remade into a modern classic of religious horror.

By Marshall Oliver Estes  8/25/2011

Part of a series:
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Cthulu (2007)

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: The Burning (1981)

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Just Before Dawn (1981)

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: House (1977)

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Introduction

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