Plot: pregnant woman is murdered… and comes to haunt her wrongdoers.
Ghost with Hole (for once a pretty accurate translation of the original Sundel Bolong, released alternatively as Devil Woman internationally) is, if not the height of Indonesian horror, than at least one of its more enduring and recognizable entries. Directed by one of the country’s grandmasters, headlined by two of its biggest stars and an ensemble cast of familiar and beloved supporting players Ghost with Hole is not likely to scare away Western viewers with any brazen insanity. Maybe Hong Kong was more colorful, maybe Japan was quirkier but nothing compares to Indonesian horror. Suzzanna portrayed more spirits, witches, and mythical creatures than anyone else and Barry Prima cornered the action/adventure – and martial arts market. Ghost with Hole unites the two in a phantasmagoria of melodrama, bloodsoaked carnage and an absolute minimum of broad crude comedy. It probably also helps that Ghost with Hole doesn’t stray from the well-trodden paths of the typical Asian ghost horror. If you’re looking to explore Indonesian horror Ghost with Hole is an ideal startingpoint.
The Queen Of Indonesian Horror wasn’t created overnight. In fact it very well took a decade or so before Suzzanna was bestowed the prestigious title. As these things tend to go the woman that would become known in Indonesia (and beyond) for her portrayal of wronged women returning as vengeful spirits, witches, and assorted folkloric beings debuted inconspicuously at the tender age of 16 in the drama Girl's Dormitory (1958). Her performance was so electrifying that in 1960 she was given the Best Child Actress and Golden Harvest Award at the Asian Film Festival and recognized for her talent at the Indonesian Film Festival. A few years later she married actor Dicky Suprapto. Suzzanna’s star and profile continued to ascend with The Longest Dark (1970), Birth In the Tomb (1972), and Crazy Desire (1973). Suzzanna frequently worked with directors Ali Shahab, Liliek Sudjio, and H. Tjut Djalil, as well as Rapi Films and Soraya Intercine Film. One of her frequent co-stars were martial artist Barry Prima, Clift Sangra, and at even future director Ratno Timoer. By 1974 Suzzanna was separated from Suprapto.
The man that would shepherd her career to domestic and international acclaim and her most defining roles would be Sisworo Gautama Putra. He was the man behind the first (and, to our recollection, only) Indonesian cannibal romp on the Italian model Primitives (1980) as well as the American market oriented Wolf (1981) and Satan’s Slave (1982), imitations of American scare classics Friday the 13th (1980) and Phantasm (1979), respectively. Under Putra’s auspices Suzzanna became the leading lady in notable horror epics as Ghost with Hole, The Queen Of Black Magic (1981), Soundgarden (1982), and The Snake Queen (1982). In between her horrors Suzzanna did her fair share of dramas but that didn’t stop her from getting anoited best female antagonist in Indonesian film alongside Ruth Pelupessi, and Mieke Wijaya. She married Clift Sangra in 1983. From there she made The Snake Queen's Wedding (1983), Lake Eerie (1984), The Hungry Snake Woman (1986), Death-Spreading Heirloom (1990), the A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) inspired Pact with the Forces of Darkness (1991), and The Queen of the South Sea (1991). In 1993 Suzzanna announced her retirement from the silver screen after the passing of Sisworo Gautama Putra. Fifteen years later, on 15 October 2008, Suzzanna passed way, age 66, in her home in Potrobangsan, Magelang after complications from diabetes. Ghost with Hole is probably the only Suzzanna feature that international audiences know.
In Southeast Asian folklore a sundel bolong is the vengeful spirit of a wronged pregnant woman (usually a prostitute – when they’re not it’s a kuntilanak) unable to give birth when she was still alive. For that reason she has a large hole in her back when in spirit form. Ghost with Hole was made after Primitives (1980) and before Wolf (1981) and the poster promises something, “beautiful… exciting… unforgiving!” Just to be sure and cover all bases it also mentions, “This story is based on a folk legend.” Ah, yes. The sundel bolong. One of the more recognizable ghosts in Southeast Asian folklore and one of the ur-characters in Indonesian horror - and weird cinema from as long as it has been around. Her appearance is recognizable even to Western audiences. Who doesn’t get the shivers whenever a long ravenhaired ghost in a white sari appears? In the West Asian ghosts like this were popularized by modern J-horror classics as Ringu (2002) but they have existed for far longer and have been around since the dawn of Asian horror cinema at large.
In other scenes Suzzanna can be seen as a Pocong (shrouded ghost) and as a Kui'yang (Krasue in Thailand, Penanggal in Malaysia, or Manananggal in the Philippines) or the floating disembodied head of an attractive woman with the entrails hanging down from the neck. This was one of Suzzanna’s first and most iconic roles and has her like Barbara Steele before her in a double role. Everything’s here: the mysterious beautiful lady with the umbrella, the superstitious elderly (or lowly houseservant), and a shaman. Ghost with Hole also prominently features the Leopold Stokowski arrangement of the 1867 Modest Mussorgsky tone poem Night on Bald Mountain, famously used in Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) as well as light washes of serene ambient electronics. Sure, it might not be Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, or Michael Stearns but it works. The practical effects by Didin Syamsudin are wonderfully gooey and the optical effecs, while rudimentary at best, where and when they appear are on par with the Filipino, Indian, and Taiwanese horrors of the day.
Newlyweds Hendarto (Barry Prima, as Berry Prima) and Alisa (Suzzanna) are blissfully happy with their union after several years of courtship. Hendarto is a ship captain in the navy and Alisa lives a virtuous, chaste, and morally upright life devoted to both her husband and her faith. In their opulent mansion their every need and want is looked after by live-in elderly houseservant Bi Ijah (Marlia Hardi). On their wedding reception Hendarto receives a call to report for duty and prepare for a long-term deployment. Unable to consummate their relationship the young housewife spends her days frantically knitting in longing despair. One day Alisa receives a call for a modeling job from Rudy (Rudy Salam) of Rudy Boutique. In reality the boutique is merely a front for the prostitution ring he’s running with Mami (Ruth Pelupessi, as Ruth Pellupessy) the madam from the brothel Alisa worked at back in the days when she was a prostitute. The modeling job is merely a ruse for Rudy to try and force himself upon Alisa but she spurns his advances. That night Rudy sends his goons Jefri (H.I.M. Damsyik), Dadung (Eddy Hansudi), Tom (Rukman Herman), and Bram (El Koesno) to collect her for Mami’s prostitution ring. In a derelict factory Rudy and his thugs take turns raping Alisa. Taking the case to court Alisa is mischaracterized as a harlot having provoked the attack and the corrupt judiciary swiftly acquits the perpetrators. She returns home broken and it dawns upon her that she’s pregnant with her rapists’ babies.
Haunted by harrowing visions of deformed and disfigured infants, disgraced in the eyes of polite society, and bearing the burden of crushing shame and humiliation Alisa takes her own life by slitting her wrists. Upon hearing the news of his wife’s tragic passing Hendarto and Bi Ijah bury Alisa. Returning home that night Hendarto runs into a woman bearing a striking resemblance to his late wife introducing herself as Shinta (Suzzanna). Understandably sentimental he welcomes her into his now cold empty home. What Hendarto does not realize is that Shinta is Alisa’s spirit resurrected. Her new persona allows her to spend time with Hendarto but necessity forces her to hide from him that she’s a sundel bolong. Superstitious Bi Ijah almost immediately notices that something strange is afoot. From there Alisa vows to to kill her wrongdoers, one at a time. During her nocturnal hauntings Alisa meets a friendly pedicab driver (Dorman Borisman) and sympathetic foodstall owner Ceking (Bokir) as she ferociously gorges on soup and satay (sate). As Alisa continues to haunt the remaining thugs Rudy introduces Heti (Diana Suarkom) to new clients. As their numbers dwindle and Alisa continues to enact revenge from beyond the unholy grave the increasingly desperate thugs hire a shaman (or dukun) (Adang Mansyur). Who or what will be able to exorcise the tenebrous apparition from sowing death and destruction wherever she goes?
To the average viewer this stars nobody in particular when in fact Ghost with Hole features some of the most recognizable faces and biggest stars of Indonesian horror and weird cinema of the day. Barry Prima was in Primitives (1980) and The Devil’s Sword (1984), among many others. Dorman Borisman and H.I.M. Damsyik were in The Queen Of Black Magic (1981), The Snake Queen (1982) and The Snake Queen's Wedding (1983) (where Suzzanna shared the screen with Enny Beatrice on both occasions). Ruth Pelupessi got her own ghost horror with Black Magic Wizard (1981) that same year. Other notable pillars such as Enny Beatrice, Eva Arnaz, Gudi Sintara, and Enny Christina never commandeered the same kind of clout as did Suzzanna. Nor did they for that matter held the same international appeal. Enny Beatrice was something of a lesser queen with an illustrious oeuvre including, among others, Alligator Queen (1983), Bloody Hill (1985), Virgins From Hell (1987), and Jungle Virgin Force (1988). While Suzzanna was the queen of horror there interestingly was no corresponding king. Barry Prima sort of qualifies but he was anywhere and everywhere and did everything. He was that versatile an actor and martial artist. One of the real survivors of the Indonesia’s low budget hell is Lydia Kandou – she of Wolf (1981) and Sisworo Gautama Putra’s Arabian Nights epic Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1982) - who has carved out a legitimate career for herself as a respected and well-liked comedic and dramatic actress in the decades since. As for Suzzanna? Well, she was, is, and remains one of the highest Indonesian nobility, domestic and abroad.
Ghost with Hole is a well-deserved staple in Indonesian horror and the sundel bolong is one of the classic vengeful female ghosts of South Asian folklore. Both remain just as prevalent now as they were then. There’s no denying the fact that Suzzanna was, is, and remains a cultural behemoth, a domestic grand monument and an international export of global reverence and acclaim. She was sort of a pioneer to boot. Equivalent of what Maria Menado was to Malaysia and roughly what Amalia Fuentes was to the Philippines (although there’s a valid point to be made that Fuentes appeared in a greater variety of roles across a multitude of genres). As such it’s entirely logical that some of Suzzanna’s features would be ripe for a modern day reimagining. Ghost with Hole was very loosely (but very lovingly) reimagined as Suzzanna: Buried Alive (2018) that acted as both a remake and a heartfelt tribute. As things stand currently it was the first part of a proposed tripartite Suzzanna franchise, produced and curated by Rocky Soraya. It’s slated to be followed by Guntur Soeharjanto’s Suzzanna: Kliwon Friday Night (2023) and Suzzanna: Witchcraft of Life Melting Knowledge after that. Taking over the role of Suzzanna is Luna Maya. Maya evidently carefully studied Suzzanna as she recreated many of the real Suzzanna’s mannerisms. Few are given that kind of loving tribute and even fewer legacies continue to resonate with audiences that long. A Suzzanna biopic is inevitably bound to follow, hopefully with Luna Maya too.