Satan’s Slaves (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Joko Anwar’s “Satan’s Slaves” plays upon haunted house tropes that plague horror movies in the west. It’s a mixed bag because the setup possesses details specific to Indonesian culture, but the punchline is familiar and tired some of the time. Cue shadowy figures coming out of their hiding spaces in the middle of a rainy night. I found this aspect of the picture to be uninspired at best and downright boring when pieces are awkwardly put together. This is not the ideal showcase of the writer-director’s talent.
The first half of the picture intrigues. We meet the family of six and learn plenty in regards to their dynamics as a unit. The matriarch (Ayu Laksmi), once a successful singer, has been ill for years. She is bedridden, her skin suffers from severe discoloration, and she is unable to speak. When she needs help, she summons using a bell. Those familiar with horror films will recognize almost immediately that the bell will become a source for scares. While these expected sequences do not break any ground, they do the job. I craved for more creativity.
The patriarch (Bront Palarae) must deal with not only mounting medical bills but also his children’s needs. I wished this character were developed more. After all, he and his wife share a history. It is strange that we never learn anything specific, surprising, or peculiar about their relationship. Thus, when mother is dying and father is right beside her, it feels like a portrait of two longtime roommates rather than of husband and wife. Father being off-screen for the majority of the time due to having work in the city, which is hours away, does not alleviate the lack of connection between he and his spouse as well as he and the children.
Rini (Tara Basro), the eldest, tries to provide around the house—from emotional support to making meals—while Tony (Endy Arfian), the second eldest, attempts to help financially by selling objects he values (his motorcycle, jewelry). Meanwhile, Bondi (Nasar Annuz) and Ian (M. Adhiyat) are absolutely terrified of mother; not once do we see them interact with her. We do, however, observe them at play. They’re cute and tender toward one another. The screenplay provides enough detail for each offspring and so we believe right away that they’ve lived under the same roof their entire lives. Quickly establishing their bond is critical because the conflict relies on challenging that bond. The writer-director proves to be up to the task.
The usual scares can be effective at times because the work is willing to take on arrhythmic beats between setup and punchline. Perhaps most effective are the haunts involving the two youngest. Ian is unable to speak so we anticipate him facing evil when he’s alone in a room (preferably when every else is sound asleep). But effective, for instance, is the small moments that occur once his instinct forces him to go on the run after recognizing he is not alone. Notice how the work takes its time. No one comes to his rescue right away—a trait uncommon to horror films in the west. In American movies, for instance, it is considered to be too cruel to allow a child character to be terrified for a prolonged period of time. Not here.
Meanwhile, Bondi looks on at the graveyard… which is only several yards away from their house. He is petrified of the idea of the dead rising from their graves. I found it interesting that Bondi gets only one or two in-your-face supernatural encounters. Most of his scares depend on imagining or anticipating that something might happen.
I found the third act to be messy and poorly executed. There are far too many characters running around and things pop out left and right. Naturally, there are convenient saves. I found no excitement, thrills, or scares from such drawn-out sequences, just busywork and loud noises. Clearly, Anwar’s strength is playing it small and personal. Minimal special and visual effects. Going for the jugular when we least expect it.