Mystics in Bali (1981) - The Bad Movie Report
One of the things a horror movie fan is always trying to do is find the next thrill, some novelty that will fuel a new, unfamiliar frisson. Some heretofore undiscovered predicament for the protagonist to writhe within. A fresh twist on an old story. Or – if you’re like me, and I don’t think I’m alone in this pursuit – you look through books of world mythology, find a monster you’ve never heard of in your life, and wonder, Why hasn’t someone made a movie about that? Such is the case with the bizarre Southeast Asian penanggalan, which takes the form of a flying severed woman’s head, its spinal cord and entrails dangling freely – and gruesomely – below it.
There was only one movie I knew of featuring a penanggalan – Mystics in Bali – though the previously linked page also mentions a Hong Kong horror film, Witch with Flying Head. Mondo Macabro issued Mystics on disc, but only in a Region 2 PAL edition … however, this is exactly the reason I own a region-free player.
Well, that’s not precisely true. The truth of the matter is, a company named IVL started releasing remastered and restored editions of the Shaw Brothers catalog, so I was able to finally own pristine copes of movies like Inframan and Crippled Avengers. Only trouble was, they were Region 3 DVDs. That, and I had waited unsuccessfully for a year and a half after being wowed by what little I saw of Zhang Yimou’s Hero at the 2002 Academy Awards to actually see it in a theater…
But we were talking about Mystics in Bali, weren’t we?
The penanggalan, needless to say, is prominently displayed on the cover.
Mystics is the story of Cathy, a woman who is either American or Australian (apparently it depends on which dubbed version you watch), who comes to
By all accounts, the Leyaks are a bunch of blood-drinking, shape-changing bad bongos, so we can be pretty sure that Cathy has already sealed her fate, barely five minutes into the movie. After only a few nocturnal lessons from the sorceress, she tells her boyfriend that she’s already spending her evenings turning into various animals. But it’s not until the point where Cathy feels she’s learned enough for her book that the sorceress’ true intentions are revealed, and she turns Cathy into a penanggalan to seek out newborn baby blood; this will enable the sorceress’ power to grow until she can take over her local Leyak clan and then… uh… do evil stuff. She's not very clear on what that may be, but we can be very sure that it involves standing around and cackling. A lot.
Luckily for the world at large, the boyfriend’s uncle is a bit of a holy man and takes steps to stop the Leyak’s reign of terror.
Mystics was produced during a boom in the Indonesian film industry fueled by a new law that required film distributors to market one domestic movie for every five American movies they imported. By their very nature, these homegrown movies were extremely cheap and exploitative, as the producers wanted to maximize their profit on something they knew they wouldn’t be able to sell outside of the country. So there were a lot of violent, gory horror and action movies made during this period. They’re not very good, but they are enthusiastic. Take The Warrior movies, starring Barry Prima as folk hero Jaka Sembung - no one is ever going to confuse these charmingly low-rent martial arts flicks with Once Upon A Time in China, but by golly, you better believe that when Jaka puts paid to the villainess in Warrior 2, he rips her face off. Literally.
And apparently you need your eyelids to hold your eyeballs in. If nothing else, Indonesian cinema is also quite educational.
The best, creepiest scene in Mystics is the first appearance of the penanggalan, when the sorceress causes Cathy’s head (and entrails) to separate from its body to fly off into the night. It glides into a hut where a woman is in the throes of labor. It punches the midwife though a nearby window (a darn good stunt, too) and then buries its face between the expectant mother’s legs. While the unfortunate woman reacts, the beach ball on her stomach is deflated as the penanggalan sucks out her baby.
There’s nothing explicit in the scene outside of hanging rubber entrails. I hate to think how the scene would have played out in the hands of a less restrained Italian director, for instance. But it is the high point of the movie.
There’s another creepy moment when the uncle, acting on a tip, visits Cathy’s rented house and finds her headless body there, frozen in a posture of fear and shock, from when the sorceress visited her earlier and informed her that no, her work wasn’t finished, and penanggalan-ed her on the spot. Playing the Lam Ching Ying character to the hilt, Unc sinks four skewers into the bloody neck stump – apparently blessed skewers, they smoke as they go in – which prevent the penanggalan from joining back up to its body.
Unc and the boyfriend must then spend a three day prayer vigil over the body, at which point Cathy will, apparently, be put to rest forever (having tampered with the black arts, the best they can hope for is putting her soul to rest, proving that, at its heart, Mystics in Bali is a gussied-up Hammer vampire movie). This of course leads to a showdown with the Leyak and her flying special effect, which should be spectacular, but is instead kind of incoherent and goofy. I have to admit, however, that they threw a whole bunch of stuff at the screen in the hope some of it would stick, and possibly give the ticket holders a chance at leaving satisfied, including cheap animation, pig demons, and fireballs. Hoo-weee, as we say in the South.
It also doesn’t help that the ending introduces not one, but two characters at the last for a double deus ex machina. Okay, one isn’t strictly “introduced”, but if you were spending any time during the movie wondering “who is that chick lurking around in the bushes?” (as I did) , you will find out at the last.
That’s far from the only instance of bad storytelling. The sorceress informs the Boyfriend that she’ll look different everytime they meet, which seems like a cheap enough way to inject some strangeness and creepiness into the proceedings, but instead just gets confusing. There’s one point where Cathy runs into a pretty young woman in the woods, and they both lie down on the ground and turn into snakes. Cathy will later explain this was the Leyak queen, and they went to her hall, where there were many delicious things to eat… as evidenced by the fact that Cathy is vomiting up live mice the next day, just in case you forgot you were watching an Asian horror movie.
What pushes this deep into the realm of X-treeeeeeeme bad storytelling is the fact that Boyfriend saw them transform the night before and still tells her the whole incident is due to “something you ate….” Um, yeah, Socrates, the something she ate is still scampering around and squeaking on the bathroom floor.
The snake transformation is also pretty painful to watch, and not for the right reasons - it has some of the more lamentable attempts at prosthetic makeup I’ve seen in some time. Particularly the sequence where Cathy appears to be wearing an enormous set of wax lips. For the most part, the penanggalan is what you’d expect – a mannequin head on a wire – but the scenes where Cathy’s head separates from its body are accomplished with what appears to be grainy, video-generated matte work, as if a Doctor Who serial had been transferred to film.
So much as I'd like to give Mystics in Bali a passing grade, a breathless recommendation that you rush right out and see it now, I can’t - sadly, it just can’t deliver enough in the way of horror or outrageousness for a casual view. Even for the monster or genre completist - there may be some savory stuff here, but your mood had better be stuck in forgiving, because you're going to need it. I believe it was Tom Weissner who once made reference to "The Scene" - that one bit of film that caused hundreds of gwailo fanboys to sit through hours of dreck for one sterling moment in a horror movie that absolutely could not see anywhere else. Mystics has a couple of those, and for some, that might be enough. It's the getting there, as usual, that will be the rough part.
And next time, I'd like a monster
- December 10, 2004