Sunday, June 16, 2024

Mystics in Bali


Mystics in Bali Poster

(1981) Directed by H. Tjut Djalil; Written by Jimmy Atmaja; Based on the novel Leak Ngakak by Putra Mada; Starring: Ilona Agathe Bastian, Yos Santo, Sofia W.D., W.D. Mochtar, and Debbie Cinthya Dewi; Available on DVD 

Rating: ***½ 

“Cathy, voodoo or any other black magic is nothing compared to this Leak magic. According to what I’ve heard, the Leak is the most powerful of all magic.” – Mahendra (Yos Santo) 


“There are some things people weren’t meant to know” is a popular theme of many horror films, often involving a naïve westerner poking their nose where it doesn’t belong.  Of course, anyone who’s watched more than a few movies of this type knows exactly where it’s going. While its central theme and plot are familiar, director H. Tjut Djalil’s Mystics in Bali takes a decidedly Southeast Asian spin on familiar material, incorporating Indonesian folklore into the mix.* As a pure horror film, it represented a departure for Indonesian cinema, which previously adopted Bollywood’s “kitchen sink” approach (with a mélange of slapstick comedy, drama, and musical numbers). Intended as a breakout film for the export market, Mystics in Bali featured an approach that would appeal to the tastes of Western audiences. 

* Fun Fact #1: Due to the subject matter, which incorporated authentic Balinese beliefs and practices, filming was moved from Bali to nearby Java, to avoid upsetting the locals.

Leak Master

Cathy Kean (Ilona Agathe Bastian)* is an inquisitive young American woman visiting Bali, Indonesia, as research for her book on different forms of black magic. Through her friend Mahendra (Yos Santo), she learns about a powerful form of Indonesian black magic known as Leak (Pronounced “Le-ack”).* Mahendra arranges a meeting with a Leak master (Sofia W.D.) who appears as a hideous crone, but subsequently agrees to take on Cathy as her disciple. Naturally, there is a steep price to acquire this forbidden knowledge, as Cathy unwittingly pays with her body and soul. Employing her mastery of the dark arts, the ever-cackling sorceress (who sounds something like the Cryptkeeper in Tales from the Crypt) borrows Cathy’s head (yep, you read that right) to do her bidding. Cathy’s head detaches (with entrails dangling underneath) and flies around, searching the countryside for the blood of potential victims.** She’s bound by the Leak master to take the lives of three people, so the witch can become all-powerful and immortal. Now it’s up to Mahendra and his uncle Machesse (W.D. Mochtar), a mystic, to set things right, setting the stage for an ultimate battle between good and evil. 

* Fun Fact #2: Ilona Agathe Bastian wasn’t an actress but a German tourist who happened to be at the right place at the right time. A wife of one of the producers convinced Bastian to extend her stay by several weeks so she could appear in the movie. To date, this remains her one and only film role. 

** Fun Fact #3: The Leak (or Kuyang) isn’t strictly confined to Indonesian folklore, but has several counterparts throughout Southeast Asia, including: Thailand (Krasue), Cambodia (Ahp), Vietnam (Ma lai), and others.

Mahendra and Cathy

Cathy and Mahendra are clearly more than just friends, but within the confines of the movie they enjoy a chaste relationship. Considering the gory, anything-goes nature of the film, the conspicuous restraint the filmmakers demonstrated with regard to the two leads suggests it was due more to censorship concerns than anything else. (Mild Spoiler Alert) We only learn toward the end of the film that the young woman stalking Mahendra and Cathy is Mahendra’s jealous ex-girlfriend. When we learn of her connection with Mahendra, it almost seems out of left field. I can only speculate that the original, longer cut of the film fleshed out this character a bit more.

Cathy's Disembodied Head

Compared to American cinematic standards, the special effects are crude, but once we’re in the thick of things, it ceases to matter. The transformation sequences (when Cathy and the Leak master turn into pigs, and later into snakes) have a creepy, otherworldly quality that transcend any technical or budgetary limitations. But the animal transformations are only appetizers for the main course. Arguably, the movie’s raison d'être is revealed when Cathy’s head separates from her body, becoming its own entity. It’s not an especially convincing visual (the video-based effects don’t quite synch up with the film stock, and the flying head just looks like a mannequin head on a wire), but it still creates an uncanny experience, leaving our collective imaginations to fill in the blanks.

The Leak Master Wields Her Power

Initial plans to market Mystics in Bali as a “breakout” Indonesian film geared to Western audiences backfired, when it failed to find adequate international distribution. Outside of its native Indonesia, the film only made it to Japan as a theatrical release. Home video and word of mouth eventually gave the movie a new set of legs, especially with its DVD release in 2007. It’s been unfairly maligned as “cheesy” or goofy by some reviewers, but that overlooks the cultural significance of the film, which reflected the Balinese culture and superstitions. Those spoiled by the technical wizardry of Western cinema, with its emphasis on photorealistic effects and slick production values, might find Mystics in Bali too rough around the edges, but that’s missing the point. Instead, Mystics in Bali asks you to suspend your disbelief and consider there are forces much greater than ourselves in the world – forces that deserve reverence and above all, caution.   

Sources for this article: “Mystics in Bali & the Indonesian Exploitation Movie,” by Pete Tombs (essay from Mondo Macabro DVD); “Krasue,” Wikipedia entry: Krasue 


  1. From the information you give in this very intriguing review, Barry, the plot sounds as a resting as the visuals! I'm definitely putting this on my list,. Honestly, you had me at the point where Kathy's head is borrowed! Lol

    1. LOL! Thanks, John. It's definitely not the same old thing. I hope you get a chance to see it. :)

  2. Hi Barry, hope all good with you - hope you have the time...

    1. Hi there, Gill! Doing well, thanks. I hope you and yours are good. Hmm... Now I need to put my thinking cap on... :)

    2. Looking forward to what you come up with...