With Satan’s Slaves
(Pengabdi Setan), Joko Anwar has directed the biggest hit of his life. With over four million tickets sold, Satan’s Slaves
was the most successful Indonesian film of 2017. But with this remake of the horror film from 1982 of the same name directed by Sisworo Gautama Putra, he has also created a major turning point for Indonesian cinema in recent years, paving the way for a rock-solid return to the horror genre (in a creative crisis as well as in dire straits at the box-office) and to renewed prospects for the exportation of locally-made films, to South-East Asia and beyond.
Indeed, Satan’s Slaves
has been the biggest grosser in the history of Indonesian film in Malaysia, and is reaping huge rewards in various other Asian nations.
Anwar has been working on this pet project of his for years. Luckily, after garnering rave reviews on the international stage for his previous outing, A Copy of My Mind
(2015), he got the green light from Rapi Films, which had also produced the original and is described as the most terrifying Indonesian horror film of all time. It is, in turn, based on the film Phantasm
(1979) by Don Coscarelli. For his part, Anwar was not content to simply copy and paste the original version, but he rewrote the material, enriching its narrative tapestry.
While in the original, the family subjected to diabolical attacks from presences beyond the grave was made up of just a father, a son and a daughter, plus a gardener, in the 2017 version, there are four siblings, a girl and three boys, the youngest of which is deaf and partially mute. Their ages vary greatly, and the reason for this will become apparent during the course of the film. There is also a grandmother in a wheelchair, and the poor mother is on her deathbed – in the original film, she featured only in the opening scene of her own funeral. Anwar dedicates an incredibly beautiful opening scene to her, which introduces the elements of horror in a gradual fashion, in particular via the use of sound: the old songs that the mother sings and, especially, the bell the sick lady uses to call her family members to her bedside.
Then there is the magnificent choice of the location: while in the original, the wealthy protagonists lived in a comfortable house, Joko Anwar has moved them, in his version, to an isolated mansion in the woods, a stone’s throw from a cemetery. And as if that were not enough, in the grounds is a well from which to either extract water or to fall into unexpectedly when pushed by evil forces. The absurd thing is that the father, due to financial dire straits, wants to sell the house, and the rest of the family want to leave it too. But, as is the norm in these storylines, an easy exit from such unhealthy environments is hindered.
While the original at times slips into hilarity – although it is still unclear whether intentional or not – an ironic corrective measure has clearly been included in Joko Anwar’s screenplay and adaptation (sometimes at the price of some anachronism or another, for example the joke on the video-camera hidden in the coffin in a story set in 1981). In this sense – without giving any spoilers – we should point out the radical repositioning of the character of the Islamic preacher, whose main narrative function in the original is here assigned to the character of Budiman, an old friend of the grandmother and investigator of the occult. Joko Anwar has eliminated the character of the governess Darminah and the scene which is both terrifying and exhilarating of the exorcism conducted by a dukun
(the traditional shaman in Indonesia and Malaysia), but she still appears in the finale, although a younger version of her (even if it is only someone of the same name, the reference here is obvious), while her companion is called Batara, like the divinity invoked by the dukun
to chase the demons out of the house.
Besides the quality of the writing and the complexity of the reinvention, Satan’s Slave inevitably distinguishes itself for the attention to the mise-en-scène, the lighting and the sets, which place it in the higher echelons of horror productions, not only in Indonesia. And we only need to watch the phenomenal use that Joko Anwar makes of white sheets in a couple of imaginative scenes (neither present in the original) to understand how much cinephile-infused talent gave shape to this incredible success. And we genuinely hope that the triumph of Satan’s Slave will allow Anwar access to the resources to keep on his roll in the creation of inventive cinema.
Born in 1976, Joko Anwar made his directing debut with the short film Joni Be Brave
(2003) while at the same time screenwriting the feature film Arisan
! (2003) by Nia di Nata. He directed his first feature film Joni’s Promise
in 2005. Following completion of his second feature film, Kala
(2007), he wrote the highly successful Quickie Express
(2007), presented at FEFF in Udine. He then worked with Mouly Surya on Fiksi
(2008) and directed Forbidden Door
(2009), both presented at FEFF. After Modus Anomali
(2012) and A Copy of My Mind
(2015), presented in the Orizzonti section of the 72nd Venice Film Festival, he had the biggest hit of his career so far with the film Satan’s Slaves