What The Fest!? 2018: Satan’s Slave Review – Indonesian Occult Horror Remake Gets it Right
Starring Tara Basro, Bront Palarae, Endy Arfian, Nasar Annuz, M. Adhiyat
Written by Joko Anwar
Directed by Joko Anwar
The most-viewed film of 2017 in Indonesia, Satan’s Slaves (aka Pengabdi Setan) is a remake of the 1982 film of the same name, which was written by Sisworo Gautama Putra. This time, it’s being tackled by Joko Anwar, the man behind films like The Ritual and The Forbidden Door, who creates a film that oozes 70’s Satanic occult horror inspiration from every pore.
In Satan’s Slaves, we follow a family in the early 80’s who is dealing with a terminally ill mother, who passes away very early on in the film. Her death begins a series of supernatural occurrences, all meant to instill fear and sow tension amongst the four siblings, Rini (Basro), Tony (Arfian), Bondi (Annuz), and Ian (Adhiyat). Their father embarks on a work trip to try and get a handle on their financial struggles, leaving them to fend for themselves against the increasingly terrifying, and deadly, hauntings that pervade their home. As things get worse, the sinister truth emerges and the family realizes that their own dark secrets are about to come forth in a night of chaotic horror.
Clearly inspired by films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and the more recent The House of the Devil, Satan’s Slaves is a film that wastes little time in getting to the scares. The bell that the ill mother rang to get the attention of her children, chimes throughout the film, hearkening to the ankle bell from The Autopsy of Jane Doe, while creepy paintings loom at the end of dark hallways, seemingly peering over anyone caught in its stare. While little in the film in the way of scare mechanisms feels original, they still work surprisingly well. While never outright scary, Satan’s Slaves maintains a deliciously creepy atmosphere throughout, not hesitating to show off its terrors.
Culminating in a third act that would make this film a magnificent double feature alongside Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here, Satan’s Slaves has no problem going big and boisterous. While it makes sense in line with the story the film itself presents, there is still a feeling of this being a bit jarring even though it is undoubtedly a wickedly entertaining spectacle. An earlier moment of unexpected and frankly over-the-top gore doesn’t help either.
The writing is sufficient enough to get the point across, although there are gaps in the story and the rules by which this film plays by are unclear. Questions come up throughout the film that are simply ignored or are left open enough for viewers to come to their own shaky and unsatisfying conclusions that often are founded in speculation rather than grounded evidence. For example, Ian, who is deaf and mute, begins speaking for…some reason that is never addressed nor explained.
Visually, cinematographer Ical Tanjung clearly had an absolute blast, delighting in slow zooms, charming pans, and playful depth of field blurs. The music by Bembi Gusti, Tony Merle, and Aghi Narottama mirrors the action on screen wonderfully, although it’s not exactly memorable once the credits roll. The cast performs with enthusiasm and passion, which certainly elevates the film as their terror is palpable. Plus, genuinely creepy children is always a bonus.
Without a doubt, Satan’s Slaves is certainly creepy and I found myself completely drawn into the story for the first two acts. However, the third act quickly spins out of control and takes this taut and wonderfully acted horror film into rather absurd territories while struggling to keep its story intact.