Review: Satan’s Slaves aka Pengabdi Setan (Indonesia 2017) – Cinepocalypse 2018

I watch a lot of horror movies, and while I love them, I’ve become pretty jaded over the years.  Maybe one out of every hundred are actually frightening, and then usually only for a moment or two.  So when I say Satan’s Slaves is genuinely terrifying – indeed, for me, quite literally hair-raising – I mean it.  Joko Anwar has crafted an impeccable work of terror that plays its audience expertly, manipulating sound, visuals and sheer dread in the manner of masters like John Carpenter.

Satan’s Slaves is loosely based on an old Indonesian horror film, Satan’s Slave by Sisworo Gautama Putra, director of the great The Warrior with Barry Prima.  I understand that film is based loosely on Phantasm, though if so, nothing of that origin has survived to the remake.  The modern Satan’s Slaves follows a large family, three sons, a daughter, along with their father and grandmother, as they face an increasing ghostly onslaught following the drawn-out demise of their mother.  Even living in an isolated old mansion in the woods, literally overlooking a graveyard, the family is reluctant at first to acknowledge that there might be a problem, but they soon find themselves consulting both holy men and experts on the occult in an effort to fend off the supernatural siege.

Horror films have a long tradition in Indonesia.  I’ve seen and enjoyed plenty over the years – films like Queen of Black Magic and Mystics in Bali that have achieved cult status abroad for their striking imagery and imaginative plots.  But while those films are a ton of fun, they are rarely this accomplished.

As directed by Joko Anwar, Satan’s Slaves is an old fashioned, lovingly crafted creeper.  Anwar proved himself a master of unsettling atmosphere in his prior films like the cryptic and disturbing Kala and The Forbidden Door (both well worth watching).  Here, instead of an urban environment, Anwar is in pure Southern Gothic territory.  The old mansion, with its porch, decrepit well, and swampy forest, could just as easily be in Louisiana. It’s beautifully shot, and complimented by an equally exquisite soundtrack that evokes Kubrick’s The Shining in its use of atmospheric background mixed with manufactured oldies created partly by the director himself, with Karma being a particular standout.

Anwar well understands, as did Spielberg and Hooper when they made the quintessential family haunting movie Poltergeist, that you can’t be grim and dreadful all the time. You need to make the family at the center of events human and likable, you need to intersperse the horror with levity and everyday family scenes to give the supernatural the proper weight when it comes crashing in.  Actress Tara Basro helps center things in that respect as Rini, the oldest sibling, but scenes of her younger siblings goofing around and arguing really flesh out an intimate household.  Giving the family such a defined character also allows Anwar to play nicely with the tension between the agnosticism professed by the family, and the conflicting superstition and orthodox religion of their advisors.

Part Poltergeist, part Rosemary’s Baby, part old fashioned haunted house movie, Satan’s Slaves is an outstanding horror movie that should not be missed.  A huge hit in Indonesia, it will hopefully lead to even greater things for Anwar.

3 out of 4 stars (Very good).  Satan’s Slaves plays at Cinepocalypse on June 22 and June 25.

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