Familial scare fare has been dominating the horror landscape lately. In 2018 alone, movies like A Quiet Place, Hereditary, Cargo, and Pyewacket have followed other recent entries like The Babadook (2014), The Witch (2015), It Comes At Night (2017), and Bloodlands (2017) as the latest fright fables to focus on terrors pertaining to the family unit. All of these movies feature their own unique chills and thrills, but just like The Fast and the Furious franchise, family is the theme that threads each film together. Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves, the remake of the 1980 Indonesian chiller of the same name, also follows this trend whilst simultaneously going out of its way to soar above other recent films of this ilk by unleashing a full-scale blitzkrieg of nightmarish assault.
The story centres around a struggling rural family, living on the outskirts of Jakarta, who must contend with a dying matriarch, financial woes, and the supernatural shenanigans that plagues their household. The burden of the family’s situation falls primarily on Rini (Tara Basro), who must take care of her ailing mother and younger siblings while their father is preoccupied with finding ways to make ends meet and stop them from becoming homeless. But with their parents unable to keep an eye on their haunted offspring and protect them from the dangers lurking in the shadows, the terror intensifies and dark secrets are revealed in the lead up to a finale that’s completely bonkers and packs a punch.
If you’ve seen haunted house movies before then you know the beats — moving objects, spectres appearing in the shadows, etc. Anwar knows these customs well and he applies them with meticulous conviction whilst delivering some refreshing variations of conventional tropes. Even the film’s calmer moments are pervaded by an unnerving aura and an eerie atmosphere that broods and lingers. The threat of something sinister striking at any given second feels tangible in every frame, which leaves little time to breathe.
Then Anwar pulls the rug out from under us, and we’re dragged down some unknown hallways full of unexpected twists and turns. I won’t go into details here as this is one movie that deserves to be experienced first-hand, unspoiled. However, Anwar’s ability to effortlessly juggles several sub-genres without descending into unfocused pastiche territory must be commended. The movie makes efforts to surprise viewers at every turn, but the story earns its forays into everything from James Wan-esque modern traditionalism to occult-flavoured madness.
The story also takes its time when introducing us to the protagonists. When they eventually face their plight, we’re given plenty of reasons to care about their fates and hope that they overcome the terrifying trials they must face. The fact they’re so young makes each character easier to sympathise with as well, but I’ve always loved horror that’s presented through the eyes of a child. Anwar has stated that he was inspired by Phantasm (1979) when making Satan’s Slaves and it shows. Both movies revolve around unfortunate youngsters as they experience the grief of losing parents while also facing unexplainable danger. Childhood should be an innocent time that’s ignorant towards the world’s ills. Unfortunately, life isn’t always fair — even towards children — and darkness can affect any of us, regardless of age. These poor bastards are cursed.
Satan’s Slaves is quite the enigma and deserves to be seen by any self-respecting connoisseur of cinema’s darker terrains. It’s rare to find a horror movie that establishes an emotional bond with its audience while simultaneously pummelling them mercilessly with torment. At nearly two hours, perhaps a couple of scenes could have been trimmed, and I wish it was less polished than the other contemporary slowburners populating the market at the moment. But those are nitpicky criticisms that shouldn’t detract from the abundance of accomplishments on display here. Once Satan’s Slaves hooks its death grip into your soul, it doesn’t let up.
Satan’s Slave played at Cinepocalypse on June 22, 2018