Over a year ago I was lucky enough to chat to Joko Anwar for easternKicks, and he was talking enthusiastically about just finishing up his latest film, a remake of the first film he ever saw, “Pengabdi Setan”, a mostly forgotten Indonesian horror film that holds the distinction of being probably one of the few horror films to use Islamic rather than traditional or Christian themes. It’s taken me a while, but I have finally gotten to watch the finished article – and i come to this with high expectations, as Anwar is one of my favourite genre directors from any territory.
Although I have yet to see the original, reading around has made it fairly clear that this isn’t really a remake of the original film, it is more like a prequel/re-imagining, taking the story from the original film, expanding upon it, and dropping a couple of easter eggs to the audience aware of the source material. And along the way Anwar touches base on all kinds of horror movie themes and tropes.
Set in 1980s Indonesia, he takes a poor family containing a father, older daughter, and three sons (one of whom is mute) and their grandmother who are struggling with the seriously dehabilitating illness of the mother, who was once a popular singer. Caring for an invalid is expensive, but the royalties have dried up. Early on in the film, the mother suddenly passes away, and is seems her ghost is haunting the family. But then the story starts to expand, and rather than a superior interpretation of the asian ghost story, it turns into something somewhat more akin with “Rosemary’s Baby”, or the more recent “Hereditary”.
I’ll be honest. for about 50% of the film, I was feeling a little disappointed. It was well acted, brilliantly designed, and the scares were genuinely scary… but i somewhat wanted more from a Joko Anwar film. But slowly but surely, the stakes got higher, and more interesting things happened. In fact at times it got bat-shit crazy. And then I realised I was being royally entertained!
Now I watch a lot of horror films, and to be honest, whilst i’ll jump at a jump scare (especially if it is accompanied by the suitable music cue), not much really scares me. But god this one really crept me out, even when I was complaining about it feeling a little rote and routine. Anwar manages too eek a scare out of a Viewmaster FFS! And the lovely work of the camera that slowly moves around the frame to expose things previously unseen or hidden is delightful.
This film was Anwar’s pet project, and he has apparently been lobbying to make it for years. And my word, it doesn’t disappoint. Don’t worry too much about feeling excluded from it because of the fact it uses a muslim family, whilst there is an amount of iconography and tradition baked into the film, it doesn’t really inform it to the point of excluding those of us from outside that religion. If anything, it only highlights the common ground between Islam and Christianity – the rituals might be different, but the general concepts and tenants are fairly closely aligned. It’s the same God, and certainly the same Satan!
So yeah, Highly Recommended.