Indonesia isn’t the most obvious choice in my home when it comes to gothic occult horror movies. Known more by this humble reviewer for their incredible crime thrillers, such as The Night Comes For Us, and The Raid, I was curious to see if the same level of detail and clever narrative structure would transpose into in something darker and more sinister. Satan’s Slaves showed me that I needn’t have worried.
Satan’s Slaves – Built on Solid Foundations
Billed as a prequel/reboot to Sisworo Gautama Putra’s 1980 Satan’s Slave (Pengabdi Setan), which was a loose remake of Don Coscarelli’s 1979 Phantasm, Joko Anwar’s (Impetigore) Satan’s Slaves sees an impoverished family dealing with their mother’s ill health during the mid 1980s. With no money to pay for healthcare, the father (Bront Palarae) is torn between keeping a roof over his family’s head, and providing enough care and attention to ailing wife. But this burden is not solely his to carry.
Led by older daughter Rini (Tara Basro), and younger siblings, Tony (Endy Arfian), Bondi (Nasar Annuz), and Ian (M. Adhiyat), who incidentally steals the show as the youngest brother, we see the family unite against all odds to maintain standards and normality in what becomes a house besieged by supernatural events. And its family that is the beating heart of this movie. Like in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) where forces beyond comprehension do their upmost to pull apart a loving household, the spirits in Anwar’s vision set out to do likewise, and in turn succeeded in scaring the living crap out of you.
The frights reveal themselves early on too when we see the mother (Ayu Laksmi) deliver some of the best eerie, open-mouthed face of shock since Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Her death also becomes the catalyst to even more horrifying paranormal activity, many of which I won’t detail here lest they dilute the experience, but I will mention there was one that involved an old Vision Master toy that, even though I knew it was coming, still raised me a few inches off the couch.
Back to the plot. With no need to find money for healthcare now his wife has passed on, the father decides to sell the house, and given it backs on to a cemetery and is in the middle of nowhere, I’m surprised it took the death of his wife for him to reach that conclusion. Forced to leave the siblings alone as he attends the city to iron out the paperwork, Rini becomes the head of the house, and following some ghostly tomfoolery that would send Bill Murray running for the hills, she befriends Hendra, the son of a religious father.
Together they discover that Rini’s mother was infertile, and that to make bountiful all that was barren, she joined a Satan worshiping cult. Like you do. There is one proviso though: when the youngest of her brood reaches seven years of age, it must be offered back to the cult. Deal! But wait, Ian is three days away from turning seven! Now the clock is ticking for Rini and her brothers to discover how they can renege on the satanic cult’s contract, and fend off monsters living in the shadows.
Will they save Ian? Will they save themselves? And will the father find a buyer for that ramshackle house where kids piss on the floor, wheelchairs move on their own, and the well in the bathroom (yes, you heard right) devours all those that venture too near its edge? Fingers crossed.
Common Techniques, Uncommon Quality
You watch enough horror movies and you become sensitised to the tricks directors pull. The poorly framed shot can easily announce the arrival of a demonic face. The drop in score pre-empts the jump scare. Filmmakers the world over lean on a box of tricks that have been used in cinema for decades. But every now and then you get a director that doesn’t necessarily create something new, but instead perfects it. Anwar is that director.
Part of me marveled at his ability to conjure scenes so scary they resonated long after finishing, while the other half cursed him for adding such fodder to my dreams. Putting aside the chills and thrills for a moment, the bedrock of great storytelling doesn’t sit in this movie’s jump scares, gore, or weird faces seen in mirrors. It is emotion. Anwar crafts characters you care about, so that when all the horror happens, you want them to survive, just as you want Poltergeist’s Diane Freeling to bring back Carol Anne from the closet. Or Emily Blunt’s character in A Quiet Place to make safe her screaming baby.
If you care for those you watch, you feel their anguish and fear. You surrender to their horror. And for a movie I had no expectations about, I was one of those siblings in that house, and I too wanted to survive.
Satan's Slaves (2017) - Extraordinary Indonesian gothic horror - Malevolent Dark
Director: Joko Anwar
Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:33