There is an “otherness” that comes from watching a film from a country I don’t know much about. Joko Anwar’s film SATAN’S SLAVES, a huge hit in its home country of Indonesia, may harken back to Argento’s films and the cool aesthetic of Rosemary’s Baby, but arriving steeped in fresh, strange superstitions, every moment feels fresh.
Set in 1981, a family struggles to make ends meet as the former recording star mother lies bedridden for unknown reasons. After her death, the family (four children, a father, and a grandmother) find themselves haunted by the ringing bell the mother had used to call for them. The more they toil to get to the bottom of their plight, the more they discover about their mother and their own mysterious births.
Beautifully shot by Ical Tanjung, the film captures the fear that can emanate from ordinary objects under tense circumstances (well, wheelchairs). The camera lingers at times in a way that you are constantly expecting something to jump out at you, but this is a more subtle film than that (until the third act). The script takes time to draw the audience in with nuanced characters, especially an impish deaf child who steals most of his scenes with humor.
As the film propels to the end, and the danger becomes more unavoidable, there is the classic ‘why don’t they just leave the house’ question – I’m not sure that would have worked in this case, but there is a moment when they seem awfully content to just hang out in the house when a moment before they were packing to leave. But that’s a minor quibble with a film that entertains from open to close, and hints in a tag of something much larger which I really really hope we get to see.
As I watched the film, I found myself really thinking about how these stories play in different cultures. I couldn’t stop myself from a second screening and doing some Wikipedia reseach. In Javanese, the film is Pengabi Setan (clearly Setan is Satan). But here is the problem with that, Java is a Muslim country (and the characters in the film are clearly Muslim, we see them pray and there is an Imam character). Satan (or Iblis as he is more often known) is a very different concept in Islam than Christianity. So all our references have to shift. The Quran states that Satan has no influence over the righteous and that he only achieves power over those who fall. But we never see these characters ‘fall’ – as horror analysis would ask, ‘what is the sin?’ Things that are simple under our our culture don’t work the same elsewhere.
Still, SATAN’S SLAVE is a fantastic horror film, with excellent performances and a pristine aesthetic. The film made its Midwest premiere at Cinepocalypse and I hope to see a screening in Austin sometime this year. I would put this in strong contention for Fantastic Fest.