Chicago has been abustle with delightfully horror-themed activity since Cinepocalypse 2018 kicked off at the Music Box Theatre on Thursday evening with a screening of The Domestics. But I didn’t see that movie, and I’m not going to talk about it. What I did see, however, was the second film to grace the Cinepocalypse screens: Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves, which played the following day at 12:30, which is not when I saw it, but that’s not important. What is most important is that I saw it eventually, and it was great.
Satan’s Slaves is Anwar’s remake of Sisworo Gautama Putra’s 1980 occult original of the same name, and though I haven’t seen it myself, I’ve heard good things. People seem to like it. Though this makes me ill-equipped to comment on Anwar’s prowess in that regard, I say with the utmost confidence that this film is a very skillful, very compelling and well-crafted spook story on its own. It easily crept onto my list of favorite horror entries of the year so far, alongside bangers like The Ritual and Veronica.
Set in 1981, Satan’s Slaves is about a family in a very upsetting situation living in a depressing, ramshackled house just outside of Jakarta. The children’s mother (Ayu Laksmi) was once a beautiful songstress, but now her body is failing her, drying up like the discontinued royalties that have left her family poor, living in a depressing, ramshackled house where everything is awful, you know, just outside of Jakarta.
Our point-of-view character is Rini (Tara Basro), who’s left in charge of her brothers Tony (Endy Arfian), Bondi (Nasar Annuz), and Ian (Muhammad. Adhiyat) when their father (Bront Palarae) goes to collect some inheritance money after his wife finally “had mercy on [her] children” and kicked it. Yikes!
The film’s main narrative doesn’t truly get going until after mama succumbs to her mysteriously possession-esque illness, but Joko Anwar wastes no opportunity to craft a scare and does so early on, really utilizing the disease-ridden mother despite her momentary on-screen lifespan.
From then on, Satan’s Slaves is built of well-paced and measured scares that, at times, were so well-crafted that I couldn’t help but utter as much aloud, if for nothing else than public record.
I can’t bear the thought of a spoiler ruining anyone’s good time, but there’s a specifically impressive scene centered around a sinister portrait hanging at the end of a hallway that I can’t stop thinking about.
The scene’s anticipatory action was filled with palpable tension, well-delivered by Rini and young, mute Ian’s sufficiently horrified performances and enhanced by cinematographer Ical Tanjung’s penchant for devastatingly lingering shots. And though the build up generously hinted at where the scare was headed, the payoff still managed to be cinematically creative enough to earn my jump regardless.
This was something that happened more than once during Satan’s Slaves—a build up betraying its scare a tad early—and maybe there’s a critique in that. But as with the portrait in the hallway, also reoccurring was Anwar’s ability to steal my scare whether I knew what was coming or not. Based on your personal point system, that might earn him double—I don’t know, you tell me.
Because Satan’s Slaves is filled with a variety of different monsters—from zombies to demons to ghosts, oh my!—Anwar had a lot of space to flex, delivering what I thought were dynamic treatments of a delightful variety of horror trope mainstays.
Despite my lack of context for what Jakarta was really like in the ‘80s, I never questioned Anwar’s presentation and was delighted by the retro calling cards, like record players and radios, infused into his world and threaded into the narrative.
It’s for these reasons and plenty of others that I’m wholly unsurprised by the immediate, widespread success of Satan’s Slaves throughout Indonesia, and now stretching into the 40-plus other countries it has reached so far. It’s well-deserved recognition, and I hope it continues to see distribution to the masses. Pump it onto the peoples’ screens, am I right?
As for me, Satan’s Slaves was the best film I saw at Cinepocalypse this year. And no, I didn’t see all of them, but frankly that’s none of your business.