1981 | Indonesia
AKA: Sundel Bolong
Director: Sisworo Gautama Putra
I wish there was a better way to describe the late, Javanese-born actress Suzzanna than as “the Queen of Indonesian Horror”, but that title is as accurate as it is shopworn. Over a career that spanned more than three decades, Suzzanna, born Suzanna Martha Frederika van Osch, starred in dozens of features, most of them in the horror genre, and portrayed a wide variety of formidable, supernaturally empowered women, including various figures from Southeast Asian folklore—and even a distaff version of Freddy Krueger.
Of course, if you’re going to be the queen of something, Indonesian horror movies from the 1970s and ’80s are not a bad thing to be the queen of. When it comes to horror filmmaking with an exploitative edge, the Indonesians really knew what they were doing. Their films were compact and loaded with outlandish visuals and over-the-top shock moments, more often than not realized by way of rough but imaginative practical effects. While not all of them are classics, I can honestly say that I have yet to be bored by one. Furthermore, the heavy reliance on the region’s traditional tales for story material guaranteed subject matter that was a refreshing departure from the standard tropes of Western scare films.
Among the mythical spirits that Suzzanna personified on screen was the South Seas Queen of Javanese legend and her daughter, The Snake Queen. But probably her most famous role was that of the Sundel Bolong, or “Ghost with Hole”. Another figure from Javanese folklore, the Sundel Bolong’s origins date back quite some time. Perhaps fittingly, given that the legend has persevered due in large part to it being passed along through generations of oral tradition, it was difficult for me to find two versions of its details that exactly matched up. The most common features, however, seem to be those that characterize the Sundel Bolong as the avenging ghost of a woman (frequently a prostitute) killed during pregnancy. And in one of those details that lend these Indonesian spooks a disturbingly visceral quality, she is commonly identified by a gaping wound in her back—the result of her child being expelled post-mortem—that she conceals by means of her long black hair.
1981’s Sundel Bolong, the first of several successful films to star Suzzanna in the role, cuts right to the chase by immediately giving us a very good look at its titular ghost, in the process also giving us a clear sense of just how bright Suzzanna’s star was burning at the time. The actress gets a very prominent above-the-title credit and starts off the film by speaking to the audience directly, standing in a fog-enshrouded cemetery in full ghostly form. The Sundel Bolong’s appearance, as represented here, will only strike as novel those who have successfully managed to avoid Japanese horror movies entirely over the last twenty years, as, with her kabuki-esque pallor, long raven hair, and flowing white gown, she could have walked out of any post Ringu Japanese shocker.
That look is effective, especially once Suzzanna wraps up her introduction and turns around to show us her… well, her hole. To say the least, it’s not pretty, a nauseating confluence of writhing maggots, ragged meat, and exposed viscera. The Indonesians really don’t fuck around when it comes to this kind of thing. And in this case, make-up artist Didin Syamsudin, who worked with Suzzanna in almost every one of her films, really went all-out. As the entirety of the film’s credits will play out over a close-up of the hole, anyone who doubts this fact will get an ample opportunity to inspect his work. It’s quite an audacious play on the part of Sundel Bolong’s makers. Kicking off your film by forcing your audience to stare protractedly into such a gruesome, squirmy abyss is a good way to send all but the most committed among them running toward the exit.
However, such a move could also have been intended as a sop to the gorehounds in the house, in order to keep them on board for the slow build of the film’s first act. For, after Suzzanna’s introduction, we reel back to a happier time in her character’s life, a time when she was, most importantly, alive, and also in possession of no more than the normal amount of holes. At this time, she was a lovely young woman named Alisa, and when we first meet her, she has just gotten married to her handsome young suitor Hendarto.
Hendarto is played by Barry Prima, a martial arts trained actor who, that same year, worked for Sundel Bolong director Sisworo Gautama Putra in Jaka Sembung, released internationally as The Warrior, It’s a film that cemented his place as Indonesia’s number one action star. Prima also starred opposite Suzzanna in one of his earliest roles, and, despite his subsequent headliner status, would continue to do so on several occasions throughout the ’80s, often playing her romantic partner. Sundel Bolong makes a concession to Prima’s action hero status by providing him with a stunt-filled, third act tour de force in which he has a prolonged fight with a group of thugs who try to run him over with an assortment of vehicles. This might seem like it would be jarring within the context of an atmospheric supernatural tale, but given that Indonesian popular cinema at the time, like so much of Asian cinema, had something of a kitchen sink aesthetic, it’s less the case than you might expect—keeping in mind that we also get a fair share of broad comedic vignettes in between the gory set pieces and “boo” moments.
As you might expect, Alisa’s days of domestic bliss are short-lived. Hendarto’s business calls him away to distant shores. In his absence, some unsavory figures from Alisa’s past try to reassert themselves into her life. Alisa, it turns out, was a prostitute when she met Hendarto but was moved by their romance to change her ways. When she is contacted by the sleazy boutique owner Rudy about a modeling job, she goes to meet him, only to find that he’s working with her former pimp who, along with Rudy, runs the boutique as a front for their prostitution ring.
Alisa resists Rudy’s advances, but not without provoking his rage. Later, he and his gang ambush her on a deserted street, raping her in one of those scenes that seem to be a specialty of socially conservative cinemas like those of Indonesia and South Asia: the “chaste” rape scenes that manage to be completely harrowing while not explicit in any conventional sense. Thus begins a rapid downward spiral for Alisa. She seeks justice against her attackers, only to see them freed—and her own character questioned and attacked—by the proponents of a corrupt legal system. Matters are compounded when she discovers she’s pregnant. After consulting with an unsympathetic male doctor, she returns home and suffers nightmarish visions of being swarmed by disfigured and deformed infants—at least some of which appear to be the real deal. Again, Indonesia doesn’t fuck around. Finally, driven to despair bordering on madness, she takes her own life.
The above-related events might sound worthy of an old Joan Crawford or Douglas Sirk melodrama, which could cast some light upon what it meant for Suzzanna to be known as the “queen” of Indonesian Horror. It’s important to note that the genre boasts no “king” of corresponding stature. Suzzanna’s title actually confers with it a real type of authority. Indonesian horror films are overwhelmingly the stories of women, specifically women who have been betrayed and wrongly persecuted. While these women also end up being the locus of these films’ horror, there is nonetheless quite often an identifiable element of the tragic about them, be they as powerful a figure as the dreaded South Seas Queen, or one as lowly and debased as the creature that Alisa here becomes. Even Suzzanna’s incarnation of Freddy Krueger, in 1991’s Perjanjian Di Malam Keramat, is rejiggered to cast her as a wronged woman seeking revenge against those who murdered her family.
Being the figurehead for a corner of world cinema as notoriously over-the-top as Indonesian horror might seem like it would require a knack for scenery-chewing, but Suzzanna—while possessing one of the most unnervingly piercing stares in the business—finds her real strength in her ability to project gravitas and preternatural calm. In the case of a myth-borne character like Nyi Blorong’s Snake Queen, this helps build the portrait of a supernatural creature so assured of her power that any overt expression of menace would be unnecessary. In the case of someone like Alisa, the long-suffering victim yet to become a supernatural revenger, it translates as a kind of quiet stoicism, adding to the aura of martyrdom that surrounds her ghostly origin tale.
In both cases, Suzzanna serves as an anchor to all the carnivalesque madness that swirls around her in these films, maintaining the potential for credulity and identification on the part of the audience in spite of it. At the same time, such eerie serenity also adds to the frightening impact of those moments in which, wild-eyed, she finally leaps headlong into the maelstrom. In Sundel Bolong, Suzzanna’s transformation from martyr to monster is a quiet one, almost matter-of-fact, and perhaps due to its roots in familiar folk narratives, handled without any surplus of exposition.
In fact, the appearance of the Sundel Bolong occurs in a context that will be familiar to anyone versed in the campfire tales of virtually any culture. After returning for Alisa’s funeral, Hendarto, while driving late one night, encounters a strange woman walking along the side of a desolate country road—a woman who happens to be the exact double of Alisa. He offers her a ride, but once back at his home, she wanders off and disappears mysteriously into the night. Soon thereafter, the Sundel Bolong begins appearing before the members of Rudy’s gang, killing them one by one.
In pursuing her vengeance, Alisa assumes a number of guises, most commonly making her initial appearance to her victim in the form of another woman entirely. Usually, this woman lures that victim in with a promise of sexual favors, at which point the Sundel Bolong reveals herself, giving her terrified prey a good long look at her gruesome identifying wound before striking. At other times, she appears in much more terrifying forms, such as when she manifests herself before one horrified goon as a mummy with gauze plugging her mouth and eyes.
In the film’s final scene, in which Alisa closes in on Rudy in an old cemetery, she even takes the form of another well-known horror from Southeast Asian folklore, the Leak. Readers familiar with H. Djut Djalil’s 1981 Indonesian horror Mystics in Bali will happily recognize this as that female spirit capable of casting her head sailing through the air with lungs and entrails still attached. In all of these forms, our vengeful ghost ends up leaving quite a string of corpses in her wake, impaling one of her attackers with her own grave marker, drowning another in a bathtub, hurling another onto a live power line, and causing the one guy with pigtails to panic and flip his own car over.
Director Sisworo Gautama Putra sprinkles among these horrific set pieces a smattering of comic interludes. At one point, Alisa makes a nocturnal visit to an outdoor food stall, where she astonishes the proprietors by eating a heaping plate of sate in a matter of seconds and then drinking a pot full of boiling water. Of course, everything she has ingested then comes pouring out of the hole in her back, which explains why she was so hungry. Later, she hitches a ride with a rickshaw driver and gives him a fright by suddenly transforming into a skeleton, causing his hat to levitate off the top of his head like in a cartoon. In another scene, she scares a passing bumpkin by assuming a googly-eyed skull face.
Despite these hijinks, however, Putra—who, as one of the most prolific directors in Indonesian genre cinema at the time, worked with Suzzanna on numerous occasions, and on many of her most iconic films—admirably manages to keep the film from straying too far from the sense of tragedy and otherworldliness at its center, maintaining a base level of eeriness and unease throughout. Again, it must be said that he has a real ally in this in Suzzanna, as the star remains unwaveringly committed to the gravity of her performance, despite whatever mugging, pratfalls, or visible wires may surround her.
By Sundel Bolong’s final scene, Hendarto, has reached a dawning awareness of the fate that has befallen his bride and races to put a stop to her wrath. Though the Sundel Bolong, according to legend, is capable of being returned to her human form, Alisa has gone too far by this point to have hope for anything beyond a peaceful laying to rest of her tormented soul. Throughout the film, we have never been encouraged to view her as a villain, and when the end comes for her, it is more an occasion for mourning than celebration or relief. Somehow, while delivering the kind of overheated, comic book spectacle that we expect from Indonesian exploitation cinema, the filmmakers here have also managed to tell a tale steeped in a real sense of sadness and loss. Long live the queen.