My notes on the Indonesian horror film Pengabdi Setan (Satan’s Slaves), screened at the Fantasia Festival.
Given that remakes have been the backbone of the mainstream English-language horror film since inception – arguably, Dracula (1931) is a remake of Nosferatu – it’s no surprise that the trend has been replicated by other film industries. This Indonesian film is a remake of a 1982 film of the same title that was itself loosely derived from Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. In a 2018 context, it feels like an alternate version of Hereditary – there are a surprising number of parallel plot and character elements – but also a solid entry in the Asian spook market, an across-the-Pacific manifestation of the weird blip of ‘80s nostalgia in US horror, and an auteur piece from genre-savvy writer-director Joko Anwar (of the impressive Modus Animali/Ritual).
Rin (Tara Basro), daughter of now-ailing local pop singer Mawarni (Ayu Laksmi), struggles to keep track of her siblings – teenager Tony (Endy Arfian), ten-year-old Bondi (Nasar Annuz) and deaf youngster Ian (M. Adhiyat) – while the brood’s father (Bront Palarae) is pre-emptively grieving his dying wife or taking off on mysterious, lengthy errands. The young woman is left in charge at the huge, creepy, mortgaged family home – overlooking the local cemetery – which actually belongs to a wheelchairbound grandmother (Elly D. Luthan). Mawarni passes away, but starts to manifest or seem to manifest around the house, throwing her children into various states of terror. And granny is found drowned in the basement well. Rin investigates the backstory – with the help of Hendra (Dimas Aditya), the helpful lovestruck son of the local Imam (Arswendi Bening Swara) – and learns from grandmother’s old boyfriend Budiman (Egy Fedly) that various sinister, Satanic forces have been intervening in the family’s life since well before any of the children were born. The ghost keeps looming, an apparent Satanic cult gathers in the graveyard, horrible fates befall several characters, and Rin starts wondering which of her family members she can trust … and which are being targeted by demonic forces.
It’s a slow-building ghost/conspiracy story, with an ambiguous female ghost – who seems to haunt her family as much out of guilt as anger – and a nice escalation of creepiness. Anwar paces his film more like a Western horror movie, trimming some of the flab and meandering that’s typical of commercial Asian genre cinema, and stresses the way the heroine keeps having to make sacrifices without credit for the benefit of the generally feckless men in her family. The ‘80s setting is nicely understated – with Mawarni’s records featuring in the plot, including a variant on the backward-chanting urban myth as Rin finds a hidden groove under the peeling label of a vinyl album, and a sense of the tension between western and local mores and beliefs as represented by the odd split between Indonesian and English character names in the household.
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