This was written for an episode that was part of the podcast’s semester abroad covering Mystics in Bali (1981) and Three … Extremes (2004).
Tremolo: Sweet Chariot of the Gods
Contains Mystics of Bali spoilers.
My first experience of Mystics in Bali was the croaked commands–part Yoda, part Wicked Witch– of the Leyak (or Leak) Queen. I played bass in a surf band and was listening to our new album. Our main songwriter added the Mystics sample on “Blood of Kingu.” I knew nothing about the movie except this sample and that I had to see it.
The leyak, like Kingu, a Babylonian deity, fit nicely into our theoretical soundscape inhabited by Lovecraftian Old Ones. Surf music is known for its created worlds. More famously, Man or Astro-Man? mined science-fiction, a sci-fi of cheap labs in low budget Cold War-era movies, of Space Age textbooks brought to life on stage. Daikaiju, as the name suggests, express themselves through a world of giant monsters. Certain forefathers of these bands at the intellectual end would be Devo or the Residents, in which a philosophy is expressed that hints at an alternate universe. Another form, more surface, would be the “gang” imagery of matching jackets and uniforms in the Ramones or The Ventures.
Surf’s imaginary worlds spin in the same solar system as lounge and exotica, with satellites like “crime jazz.” Likewise, I consider Mystics in a category of films that I call horror fantastique. Horror fantastique would cover peculiar horror films that have elements of the fantastic, the strange, the surreal, the absurd. These are films like Hausu (1977), Society (1989), and Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977). They incorporate elements of exploitation, art film, and frequently have low budgets. Various types of effects are often used to create the strange quality of the world on screen: in-camera FX, puppets, strings, post-production lasers, double exposure, etc. Sometimes it’s likely, especially in the cases of Hausu and Mystics, that as an American, there are elements that seem strange to me because of cultural differences.
Mystics is in some ways about these differences. The plot revolves around Cathy, an Australian who wants to learn powerful leyak magic and write a book about it. She’s in a relationship with a native named Mahendra, who operates like a fixer; he figures out who she needs to meet and tries to get her there. She not only wants to understand the Other, but become the Other.
Cathy gains access to the Leyak Queen, who then must gain access to Cathy’s body and mind in order for Cathy to learn everything she can. When the leyak uses Cathy’s body, she mostly uses her head, which detaches and floats through the air while organs dangle below, similar to the penanggalan of Malaysian folklore. The leyak has fangs, which make it easier to suck the blood of newborn–or not-yet-born–babies, of course. One could read the film as an example in which the leyak exploits Cathy’s body similar to how the bodies of Africa and the East have been exploited by the West. The Leyak Queen’s ultimate goal is to gain immortality and power and then discard Cathy. When she is inhabited by the leyak, she is not able to use her brain or body; she becomes a conduit that the leyak exploits for her own benefit.
The conduit for surf music has traditionally been the guitar. Surf has a foundation in American rock’n’roll, but the rhythms and melodies used in surf are often played to sound “exotic.” In a similar way, but like a reversal of surf music and exotica, Mystics uses Balian folklore (the exotic melody) to tell the story of an exploitation horror film (the guitar, in this metaphor). Evil is defeated as it is so often in American horror films. But the evil here is represented as either woman or Western.
Like instrumental surf music, Mystics in Bali and what I call horror fantastique, are not going to be for everyone. People may wait for someone to start singing over a Dick Dale tune the same way they may wait for a film like Hausu to make sense. That particular listener is going to have to wait a long time or will just be disappointed and likely find something more immediately pleasurable. Not that Mystics is a great movie, but it is unique and fun. Some of us, for better or worse, are like Cathy. We hear the call of surf’s tremolo picking or the caw of the Leyak Queen as a promise of a fantastic world that we have to experience.