★★★★.5 out of ★★★★★
Directed by Joko Anwar
Why is it that so many contemporary films are pining for the days of yesteryear? More to point, why is it that films are consciously choosing to be firmly placed in the 1970s or 1980s?
Not stylistically per se, but the actual films are set in the pre-digital age. The answer finally dawned on me when I sat down to give ol’ Satan’s Slaves a “go.” There’s something deeper, more pure, and certainly more nuanced afforded to filmmakers who calibrate to an analog sensibility. There’s no tricky technological suspension of belief to overcome. Films in this vein stay relatively evergreen in that there’s no nagging piece of technology that is either profoundly dated or stabs the viewer in the eye with its Logan’s Run aesthetic. No. None of these things. Just pure quiet contemplative analog.
The 2017 Indonesian joint Pengabdi Setan, AKA Satan’s Slave, is exactly that film. Now while Satan’s Slaves is a remake of a film by the same name from the 1980s — and that same film was something of an homage to 1979’s Phantasm — this updated horror/Satanism/ghost/zombie film is a bonafide banger. I mean, cat’s pajamas, this film really has it all. I’m not just talking about the horror/Satanism/ghost/zombie elements, oh no, there’s so much more.
Set in 1981, in rural Indonesia, filmmaker Joko Anwar, unfolds a loving, caring, funny, and Speilberg-esque family dynamic. Mom is sick, but Dad and his four children (…well maybe three) work to do what they can to keep the family afloat. The Mother, Mawarni, was something of a songstress who cut a number of LPs in her day. But the days of accolades, residuals, and fanatic fanbases have all but dried up. Mawarni has fallen in to a semi-catatonic state and the family is left feeling the financial squeeze of 1981. She eventually seizes up and dies, but not before being told be her husband to “…have pity on the children.” Almost immediately following the funeral, the father leaves the family to find work, and in a rather analog piece of foreshadowing tells the kids that even though the phone has been shut off, there’s probably no reason for them to contact him and there’s nothing that can really go wrong. Expectedly, thing do.
The moment Dad has one foot out the door the jump scares start in. However, these are well-deserved, well-timed, and thoughtful jump scares. In what I’m pretty sure are horror film firsts, three of my favorite scares in recent memory come courtesy of a foreboding sign language warning, hair combing, and a View Master. Yes. A View Master. And it’s scary.
The eldest child, Rini, is left to hold down the fort. No money. Little food. Bumps in the night and ghostly apparitions a-plenty. Rini soon discovers a letter written by her recently deceased grandmother and she decides to track down the intended recipient. Leading her to an old friend of her grandmother’s Rini is informed that her parents’ holy union was in fact UNholy. When Mawarni and her new husband were presented with fertility issues they didn’t turn to God for help, but instead turned to SATAN! Grandma’s old pal, and occult writer, implores the kids to pour over his very pedantic writings on Satanic Fertility Cults. Because as well all know, Satanic Fertility Cults, are the worst kind of satanic cults.
But what’s worse than being involved in a Satanic Fertility Cult? The realization that your entrance fee in to said Satanic Fertility Cult is your youngest child when they hit the ripe age of seven! Turns out all of Mawarni’s kids were spaced out just so. When her next youngest child was inching towards seven she’d have another kid. Problem solved. She’d have another kid and the Satanic Fertility Cult (…or others) couldn’t come and take her youngest child when they turned seven. Problem not solved. Mawarni knew the gig was up and died from the grief of realizing her youngest son, Ian, was about to hit SEVEN.
In the final act of this master class in horror additional and darker secrets are revealed, the poltergeists and ghouls are replaced with to zombies and the newly undead, and the family gets their collective act together. Frankly, that’s one of the foundational elements that makes Satan’s Slaves so great — family. In the end they all realize that all they have is each other, their love for one another, and the tribal stability that they create as the collective. The actors, all of them, are superb. Their authenticity and likability rings clearly throughout the film. That’s never an easy feat, but director, Joko Anwar, hits this family dynamic on the mark with tons of aplomb.
You’d think a film that tried to pack horror/Satanism/ghost/zombie elements in to a single film was be a ghoulish mess, but if you had these thoughts you’d be extra-wrong. All of these elements and a strong family extraction are woven together like a beautiful quilt passed on from generation to generation — secrets and all…
Satan’s Slaves (AKA Pengabdi Setan) is showing at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival on Saturday, August 11, at 7:00 p.m. GO. SEE. THIS. MOVIE.