Tuesday, August 9, 2011

THE EAST IS RED #22 – Mystics in Bali (1981)

by Lisa Morton

Back in 1998, there was a book that came out called "Mondo Macabro" by Pete Tombs that rocked my cinematic world. The book’s subtitle – "Weird and Wonderful Cinema Around the World" – gives you just the tiniest hint of the wonders that are to be found in this amazing tome. Where most other books on cult or exploitation movies were covering the same old tired ground (really, how many essays praising Herschell Gordon Lewis as an auteur do we need?) and revisiting movies we’d not only heard of but actually seen, Mondo Macabro was presenting us with stuff like Indian horror movies by the Ramsay Brothers and a crazy Japanese flick called Exorsister and something deliriously titled Satanico Pandemonium. They had an inspiring section on Tsui Hark, and, back in the days when the internet was little more than a bunch of ugly graphics that still took forever to load on your dial-up connection, they were an amazing resource.
But one movie stood out even among the wonders described in Mondo Macabro. One movie sounded so marvelously strange and received such high praise that I instantly went running to every video store and distributor in town searching for it.
Nobody had "Mystics in Bali".

I hated Pete Tombs. This guy made this 1981 Indonesian cheapie sound like the most kickass thing EVER, and now it was turning out to be more like the mythological Holy Grail (I’m not kidding, either – even its eventual DVD box art referred to it as “The Holy Grail of Asian Cult Cinema”). It was impossible to find. Descriptions of it – the plot was supposed to center on an Indonesian creature called the leyak, which was a disembodied head flying around trailing its own innards – formed strange and glorious pictures in my mind.
Finally, five years after the publication of Mondo Macabro, a wonderful thing happened: Mondo Macabro became a DVD company, and Mystics in Bali was one of their first releases.
Then it went out of print almost immediately.
I’d missed the damned thing again. Occasional copies that turned up online were astronomical in price. I decided this was a movie I was destined to never see.

Then, in 2007, I heard that Mondo Macabro was about to re-release it in a remastered version. This time I didn’t wait: I pre-ordered that bastard. It was a magical day when it finally arrived.
So, was it worth the wait? Did it live up to its street rep as (in the words of one website review) “one of the most psychedelic experiences you'll ever have in front of a television set”?
Do cheese and Asian food ever go well together?
I’m going to dispense with my usual well-reasoned and carefully analytical approach here and just describe this bitch, because that’s really the only way to do it justice.
The credits alone let you know what you’re in for: As drums pound on the soundtrack, a bunch of Indonesian masks are held up before the camera and shaken, all behind credits that look like a font designed by a nearsighted five-year-old. The story: An American student named Cathy has come to Indonesia to study black magic; she’s already adept at voodoo (she really looks like a voodoo expert), and has heard about the Indonesian leyak. Her boyfriend, an Indonesian who looks strangely like Lionel Richie, takes her to a remote island and arranges for her to meet the ultimate leyak master, who has foot-long nails, a nastyass wig, and who laughs a lot. And laughs. And laughs.

The next night they return to see the master again. This time the shapeshifting master appears as a giant tongue, who drinks the blood they’ve brought (“This is really good blood!”), engraves some designs in Cathy’s leg, and gives her a cloth with magic symbols (“It’s all a lot of mumbo jumbo to me,” exclaims Cathy, the voodoo expert). The next night Cathy returns to the creepy forest to meet the master alone. More laughter announces the master’s arrival (what, was this leyak master a failed standup comedian?). This time the master performs a lot of spastic movements and laughs until Cathy starts laughing, too (Cathy, however, is such a supremely bad actress that you may not be sure if she’s laughing or trying to clear her throat). Cathy’s face begins to distort. She and the leyak master bounce around for a few seconds in completely stupid pig costumes, then turn all the way into pigs.
The next day she tells Lionel – er, I mean, Mahendra – about her porcine adventures, and Mahendra goes to see his uncle to ask about how to fight this evil magic (apparently he doesn’t want to believe that his girlfriend is really a pig). His uncle tells him he has mantras that will fight a leyak master, and he gives Mahendra a magic dagger.

Mahendra goes to see Cathy the next day, but she’s not feeling well (swine flu, perhaps?). That night she goes to see the leyak master again. You don’t think there’s more laughter involved, do you? In the middle of the laughter, Cathy’s head suddenly lifts off her body (courtesy of possibly the worst optical effects ever), dangling guts. The master is in control of Cathy now, and sends her head flying off. Cut to: a woman in a jungle hut in labor. Cathy’s head and guts fly through the jungle (okay, this is pretty cool), attack the woman, and apparently suck the baby right out of her. We go back to the master laughing again.
Cathy’s head returns to her body, and she tells the master she’s learned enough and she’s done. But of course she’s not: On the way home (or is it another night? Who knows), she meets a mysterious woman (the leyak master turned young? Who knows?) and they both transform into snakes. Mahendra is hiding nearby, watching. The next morning he finds her asleep, kisses her awake, and she instantly vomits off green goo and live mice. Remind me not to kiss any Indonesian guys who look like Lionel Richie.
Cut to: A bunch of talking, grunting fireballs having a duel in the middle of the jungle. They laugh, snarl and explode some trees. One of them is dumber than the others, and turns into Cathy. She watches as the remaining two fireballs duke it out. It’s kind of like the WWF with lighter fluid. One of the fireballs finally flames out in a less-than-spectacular display of optical effects. The remaining fireball turns into the leyak master, who tells us she’s finally defeated her enemy. Laughter ensues.

The next day, Cathy starts having neck pains, and off goes her head. A young woman watches. Laughter. Cathy wakes up later and finds her face covered blood. “Must have been a dream,” this brainiac mutters. “Guess I bit my lip!” They don’t get much smarter than Cathy. I hope this isn’t how Indonesians see all Americans.
The girl who saw the flying head tells Mahendra’s uncle, who meets with a council of do-gooders who try to figure out what to do. They reveal that if the leyak master takes one more life, her power will be complete. Uncle wants to handle this quickly…so he goes off to meditate.
The leyak master appears to Cathy the next night as a beautiful and wildly overacting young woman. She tells Cathy she wants “hot fresh blood”. “All right,” Cathy drolly intones, “I’ll get it for you…but not tonight.” I guess the local Hot Fresh Blood store is already closed. The leyak master laughs some more, then sends Cathy’s head off again. Mahendra’s uncle shows up at Cathy’s room, and finds her headless body; he drives some toothpicks into the neck stump (so much for mantras and meditation), and shows the body to Mahendra (“maybe Catherine’s being used by some evil supernatural forces now,” Uncle brilliantly suggests, after driving sizzling toothpicks into a neck stump). Meanwhile, a bunch of villagers confront the flying head and drive it back into the jungle. When it returns to the body, it just can’t get together, and the head flies off. Cathy’s body collapses.

Cathy’s body is buried the next day, and Uncle tells Mahendra they have to stop the head from rejoining the body. Mahendra is obviously heartbroken by Cathy’s death…or not (he nods when uncle tells him to “move on”). The next night, Uncle and Mahendra guard the grave. Cathy’s head and the Leyak master (inexplicably back to a deformed old crone) show up and laugh more. A bunch of really terrible optical effects ensue, scored by something that sounds roughly like cats wailing. The master attacks Uncle with some day-glo green animation, distracting him while Cathy’s head rejoins her body. The master rips out Uncle’s throat, kills another villager who attacks her (who turns out to be Mahendra’s ex – wow, talk about bad breakups), and attacks Mahendra, who performs a spectacular double somersaults backwards into Cathy’s open grave. Suddenly a naked old guy dressed in a sheet shows up, and turns out to be the great master Oka. He fires some pretty white animation at the leyka master, and the big duel’s on. The two big cheeses (yes, I mean that in every sense) battle it out. Leyka turns into a bipedal pig with huge boobs (I swear, I am NOT making any of this up), and is stabbed by Oka – at which point she turns into a sort of masked clown thing. Unfortunately, the leyka master has become so obsessed with laughter by the end of the climactic fight that she’s caught by the rising sun and melted away. Likewise, Cathy’s body collapses in Mahendra’s arms. He and Oka have won.

But have we? Well…Mystics in Bali is astoundingly bad on every level. The direction (by H. Tjut Djalil, complete with jerky pans and zooms and jump cuts), the acting, the dubbing, the cinematography (shots are often not even in focus), the script, the effects, are all so sub-par that they make the worst American children’s show of the 1970s look sophisticated by comparison. There’s not one single thing in this movie that’s genuinely frightening or disturbing.
But…damn, you can’t take your eyes off it. In the history of movies that work like train wrecks, this could well be the Hindenburg. If it’s not at all scary, there’s no denying that it’s a laugh riot (despite being filled with more annoying laughter than any other movie in history). It’s ridiculous and colorful and has just enough local color to be visually interesting and my GOD is it cheesy.
So, there you have it. Is Mystics in Bali good? Oh God no. But is it worth watching? Oh yeah. Just don’t expect outrageous Asian cinema on the order of Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain or Jigoku and you’ll probably enjoy it. Hey, want some cheese with that rice?

--Lisa Morton