Considered a landmark of Indonesian horror, Mystics in Bali (Leyak, 1981), has "cult classic" written all over it. The film developed an underground buzz long before its first official release in the west, four years ago as a Region 2/PAL DVD via Mondo Macabro's UK arm. After all the hype, the film lives up to reputation as a jaw-dropping riot of weird and disturbing imagery, but in other respects the picture is an amateurish mess, notably in its poor, almost schematic screenplay and atrocious non-acting by its leading player. As it turns out, top-billed Ilona Agathe Bastian wasn't an actress at all, but a German tourist the film's producers plucked off the streets, and it shows. Boy, does it show. Complaints aside, Mondo's DVD is another stellar presentation with some good extras.
The film's story is incredibly simple. Incredibly naeve black magic scholar Cathy Kean (Bastian), having already written a book about voodoo, enlists the help of her Indonesian boyfriend Mahendra (Yos Santo), whom she calls "Hendra," to put her in touch with a practitioner in the Black Art of Leak (pronounced "lee-ack"; it's also spelled "Leyak"). Out in the middle of nowhere, late at night, a meeting is arranged with a Leak master, the hag-like Queen of Leak (Sofia W.D.), no less. After supplying the cackling old witch with several bottles of fresh blood (did Cathy run down to the corner 7-11 to get it?) the great mystic of Bali agrees to take Cathy on as a short-term disciple with no strings attached. Yeah, right.
Though Cathy apparently can't quite remember what happens during her nightly lessons (we never see her take notes; she's supposed to be researching a book, remember?), in fact the Queen of Leak is using Cathy's body for nefarious purposes, sending it out into the night in search of the blood of newborn babies. In the film's most audacious scene, Cathy's head becomes detached from the rest of her body and goes flying off into the night, her still-attached heart, lungs, stomach, and intestines trailing below like the tail of a kite. The creature finds a young mother in labor and, sticking its head between the woman's legs, feasts on the woman's emerging fetus and placenta.
The rest of the film is more of the same, with bizarre scenes of a hypnotized Cathy turning into a snake (very effective) and a pig (awfully silly) while a worried Hendra seeks the advice of his Van Helsing-like uncle (W.D. Mochtar).
For the adventurous cinephile, films like Mystics in Bali are undeniably interesting insofar as one can explore the similarities and differences with other culture's genre concerns as compared with our own movies and their concerns. As is the case here one finds that some concepts, like the sinister, cackling witch, are pretty much universal while others are culture/place-specific. Some of these alien concepts are disturbing precisely because they aren't familiar to us Westerners. In one scene with Hendra, for example, Cathy falls ill and begins vomiting up a mix of lime green goop...and squirmy white mice. I have no idea whether this is referencing something specific in Indonesian folklore or an invention of the filmmakers, but I've never heard of anything like this in a western-world horror movie and the scene, conceptually at least, is highly disturbing.
It's also easy to forgive the cheap visual effects utilized to bring such horrors to life. The scenes with Cathy's disembodied head and its tail of entrails are a combination of a prop for long shots and crude shot-on-video superimpositions that don't at all match the look of the film's 35mm 'scope photography. The animal transformations incorporate Rick Baker/American Werewolf in London-type effects, done on the cheap, but their imagination compensate somewhat for their crudeness.
Conversely, the film's unambitious script is little more than excuse for its shock scenes; there's no logic to its characters' actions, and ideas are introduced then disappear to such a degree that it plays like big chunks of the script were thrown out midway through filming. The film, at least in its English-dubbed version, is full of clunker lines: After Cathy's headless body has been buried while her body-less head is floating around terrorizing the countryside, Hendra wonders aloud, "Perhaps I can get get her back on the right track?"
Sofia W.D. (especially) and Mochtar deliver amusing, professional performances, and Santo is agreeable if not a good actor, but Bastian, who resembles a trashy Faith Domergue, is pure cardboard. When she desperately exclaims, "This is turning into a horrible nightmare!" her facial expression is exactly the same as during the film's love scenes with Hendra, which is also the same blank expression when she's lapping up the blood from a victim's vagina.
Video & Audio
Mystics in Bali is presented in its original 2.35:1 'scope screen shape, in a beautiful 16:9 enhanced transfer marred only by a few splices and bits of dirt that were doubtlessly inherent in "the rare original negative," as Mondo Macabro calls it. (How many original negatives can a film have?) The presentation is not subtitled, nor is there an Indonesian track. The dubbed version is, frankly, much livelier than the leading performances onscreen, and the Leak Queen's evil laughter is, obviously, the source of Mondo Macabro's trademark scream at the end of the company's logo film. The disc, incidentally, is all-region NTSC.
Supplements include the original theatrical trailer, which is sourced from an old tape complete with video wrinkle at the bottom of the frame, but it serves its purpose in illustrating how the film was sold
Mystics in Bali & The Indonesian Exploitation Movie is another very informative text essay by Pete Tombs which is supplemented with a H. Tjust Djalil Director Filmography. Finally (and amusingly), How to become a Leak is preceded with a warning cautioning readers against actually trying follow its instructions.
Landmark horror status aside, Mystics in Bali isn't as daffily entertaining as Mondo's other Indonesian titles, notably Lady Terminator and Virgins from Hell, though it has its moments. For its terrific transfer and the novelty of its subject matter, horror fans will definitely want to check it out and despite complaints about its script and its awful lead performance, the DVD is Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.