With all due cultural sensitivity, it’s totally okay to enjoy a foreign film while having no idea what the hell is going on. We can’t all be anthropologists, and formal or narrative elements that may seem entirely natural to those born and bred within a certain culture can easily seem like hallucinatory nonsense to an outsider, so there’s no need to feel guilty or stupid for simply marveling at the intriguing, wonderful strangeness of our shared world, as long as it’s done good-naturedly. Thus you can watch a movie like the notorious 1981 Indonesian horror classic Mystics in Bali from a point of complete ignorance about the Southeast Asian archipelago and just let its low-budget gruesomeness, terrible acting and mind-bending, nightmarish monsters simply wash over you as an off-the-wall B movie, leaning into that what-the-fuck feeling, but sometimes it’s nice to have a little ethnographic context and understand where all that weirdness comes from (learning is fun!), and in any case, the mythology that inspired Mystics in Bali’s most memorable moments is fascinating in its own right. Not that any amount of background is going to convince you that its makers weren’t on PCP.
Directed by H. Tjut Djalil, who, incidentally, also helmed the knock-off classic Lady Terminator (which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like), Mystics in Bali was initially banned upon its release, but VHS copies became widely circulated almost immediately, and the film’s reputation spread beyond Indonesia’s borders, eventually blossoming into a world-wide cult status. It tells the story of a naïve American student with an interest in black magic and vague plans for a book on the subject, who comes to Indonesia looking for the most powerful magic of all, that of the Leyak. She meets a man who arranges to introduce her to one, and agrees to become the witch’s disciple, but as her lessons progress, things quickly go awry, since it soon becomes clear that the sorceress has nefarious plans for her young student. Technically speaking, the film is kind of a mess, full of bad acting, exacerbated by an English dub recorded by even worse American actors, disorienting editing that gives a lurching sense of the passage of time and cornball special effects. It’s a mixed bag tonally too, flitting between sexless romance, unexpected comedy and grisly, effectively creepy body horror.
What it lacks in filmmaking proficiency however, it more than makes up for in unforgettable imagery, all of which was drawn directly from the folklore of Bali, a small island in the chain that makes up the country. In the general sense, Leyak refers to the Balinese witches, the kind of which the film’s wooden protagonist was so foolish to seek out. Being grizzled, vicious old crones with the ability to shape-shift, they share some superficial similarities with your typical pointy-hatted, broom-riding witch, but that’s around where the film might lose some of its coherence as far as Western viewers are concerned. Even the experts can sometime find themselves at a loss; as anthropologist Robert L. Winzeler points out, “Balinese witchcraft is vast and confusing”. So, instead of transforming themselves into a black cat or some Salem-esque example, they generally prefer shape-shifting into more exotic things, like, as seen in the film, horrifying half-man, half-pig abominations, odd lights that careen across the sky, or a row of bushes with an obscenely long tongue that licks strange runes onto young ladies’ thighs. Of course, there’s one manifestation that proves more remarkable than all the rest.
Referred to simply as Leyak in Bali, where they’re just one of many forms taken by a witch, the most insane monster Mystics in Bali has to offer is better known as a Penanggalan, and though no one is quite sure where the legend originated, it’s thought to have its roots in Malaysia before becoming widely known by various names across Southeast Asia. Though an apparently normal woman by day, come nightfall the Penanggalan’s head goes flying around the town, its lungs, guts and other organs dangling from it like a bloody kite tail. The monster preys on women and children in general, but is thought to target pregnant women in particular, showing up during childbirth to feast on the flesh and blood of newborns, a scenario which makes for one of the movie’s most cringe-inducing scenes (it’s pretty messed up). Superstitious Balinese sometimes decorate their homes with prickly thistles, thorny vines or pineapples, hoping that the horrifying creature will be wary of catching its hanging entrails on anything pointy and move on to easier pickings. If the head is killed, the body dies, but not the other way round, as the characters discover.
It’s noted, again by Winzeler in his book Anthropology and Religion: What We Know, Think and Question, the Balinese believers are reluctant to talk about witchcraft and the dark arts, worried that airing their experiences and suspicions in public will get them cursed. This may or may not explain why the town elders of Mystics in Bali seem so reluctant to go after the supernatural terrors when American movie characters would be dramatically loading their shotguns, and why, when the newly inducted Leyak begins vomiting up live mice, her Balinese boyfriend acts as if it’s a case for some Pepto-Bismol and not a fucking exorcist (or at the very least at least an ambulance). In the end though, nothing that I’ve imparted in the last 900 words or so is actually necessary to your enjoyment of the film, which to western eyes can justifiably become little more than an enjoyably delirious blur of bad movie clichés and deranged, fever-dream monsters. You don’t need to know anything about Indonesian folklore to be taken with its zany, far-flung charms, but those curious enough to dig deeper will find centuries of mythology that are even more interesting.