Indonesian horror films become infinitely scarier after watching Mondo Macabro’s incoherent interview with Barry Prima (which can be seen on their excellent DVD for The Devil’s Sword), in which he states that the rural people who often made up their largest audience really believed in the stories they told. Obviously the idea that a large portion of people live in fear of detached, baby eating heads and rapacious female sea deities is unsettling, yet the real horror comes not only from placing yourself in the shoes of somebody who lives in a world in which gods and demons lurk behind the drudgery of everyday life, but in living in a world in which a film maker can convincingly realize such horror with basically z-grade effects and film technique.
White Crocodile Queen comes from H. Tjut Djalil, the director behind Mystics in Bali and Lady Terminator, who made a number of films for the export market. Lady Terminator, for instance, is an Indonesian take on James Cameron’s Terminator, only with a lady -- a lady who happens to be an incarnation of the South Seas Queen rather than a cyborg. Mondo Macabro put that movie (along with Mystics in Bali and Dangerous Seductress) on DVD with an English language track, which is actually as close to its original language as anything else, since it was designed for export and shot without sync sound, and all Djalil’s readily available movies feature Caucasian actresses. White Crocodile Queen, not having been dubbed, exported, or filled with white women, was presumably meant for local audiences.
White Crocodile Queen opens with a birth, a scary birth. Marta’s wife sits at the edge of a river straining to give birth to twins. A white crocodile puppet with a red, plastic gem on its head arrives first, and Marta is just so proud. His wife then gives birth to a little girl, who, not being made of rubber, is considerably cuter. As the new parents admire their offspring a spear shoots through the mother’s chest. Sumarna, Marta’s rival, wishes to take his magic plastic gem and is willing to kill him to do so. A badly choreographed display of Silat ensues, ending when Sumarna stands on Marta’s shoulders and pees on his head.
The opening credits roll against the now grown White Crocodile Queen, played by the late Suzzanna, holding court in her underwater kingdom, while poachers walk about the lake shooting crocs with shotguns. This disturbs the personified crocodiles, while the only human in the hunting party to object is Sumarna’s daughter, Murti, which sets her up as a sympathetic character. This event leads to the Crocodile Queen deciding that it’s high time for her to seek revenge against Sumarna for the death of her family, an endeavor in which she enlists her little, human sister, Larsih, now the town’s clothes dealer/village bicycle.
Larsish attracts the attention of both Sumarna and his son, whose strangely infantile method of seduction involves him asking her to help him dress and scratch his itchy balls, which causes some badly acted tension in Sumarna’s household. Larsih, being another sympathetic character caught up in a plot beyond her control, likes Sumarna’s son well enough that she doesn’t want to murder him, but at the behest of her older, demi-goddess sister, delivers him to be eaten by crocodiles. The crocodile spirits then cause Sumarna to kill his youngest son, his henchmen, and supernaturally posess his daughter Murti. During all this, Murti’s boyfriend seeks the help of the village elder, who happens to be Marta’s brother, who mostly gives bad advice and reminds everyone that they should “trust Allah,” which must be pretty difficult when a pissed off crocodile goddess and her slutty little sister have it in for you.
Lead actress Suzzanna plays both the Crocodile Queen and Larsih, both fitting roles given her status as a simultaneous horror icon and sex symbol of Indonesian cinema. Surprisingly enough, Larsih receives a surprising amount of mercy and sympathy from the plot given that she’s a whore, and sexually powerful women typically come to grizzly ends in Indonesian horror/fantasy movies. It’s not at all surprising then, that the Crocodile Queen’s ransom for Murti involves having sex with her boyfriend or that she comes to her grizzly end shortly after this scene.
In Fear Without Borders: Horror Cinema from Across the Globe, Stephen Galdwin asserts that Indonesian cinema’s treatment of women functions as a model for the social order prescribed by the “New Order” regime which would eventually begin a censorship campaign against sexually charged films. This contradicts the Mondo Macabro documentary on Indonesian exploitation cinema that asserts that Indonesian film makers hid political criticisms behind their fantasies. No offense to Pete Tombes, but I side with Galdwin. Horror film in particular often functions as both a parable and nightmare of conservative values, visualizing behaviors that conservatives fear and possibly desire within a moral framework that will eventually punish those who engage in them. There’s a reason the virgin is usually the only one to survive.
As a supernatural revenge flick, White Crocodile Queen delivers with ridiculous special effects, gore, and sexuality coexisting uneasily with slapstick humor, an odd, Bollywood-style music scene, and unintentionally funny continuity errors. Special effects consist of badly handled optical printing, bubble machines, gallons of fake blood and rubber crocodiles with whom various actors valiantly wrestle. Ludicrous scenes include Sumarna running over his own child while hallucinating (he thinks his son is actually Marta’s zombie) and Murti attempting to molest her mother, Sumarna’s wife, while possessed. Infanticide and incestuous lesbian rape would be horrifying were the execution not so risible, and the film never becomes so ridiculous that it goes beyond “risible” to become outright hilarious.
I have to wonder, given the holiday season, whether Indonesian audiences found this as scary as I did The Exorcist when I first saw it at thirteen, though one of these has aged better than the other (I’ll leave it to the reader to guess which I mean). One of the joys of seeking out strange films comes from finding things to earnestly enjoy in movies that nobody cares about or even likes anymore (Barry Prima hates his films, and, I think, the anybody who would claim to enjoy them), but for whatever its strange images and local mythology are worth, I can only claim to enjoy White Crocodile Queen with a healthy dollop of the sort of sarcasm that too many refer to as “irony.”