One of the most celebrated Indonesian horror efforts, the original “Satan’s Slaves” (or Pengabdi Setan) was initially released during the height of the country’s horror boom in the early 1980s by Sisworo Gautama Putra, one of the leading horror directors of the time. Now in 2017, a remake of the original becomes poised to offer the same overall impact for its director, Joko Anwar, with one of the most enjoyable efforts of the year.

The film screened as part of Five Flavours Asian Horror Night

After their mother comes down with a mysterious illness, a family including the Father (Bront Palarae), and his kids Rini (Tara Basro), Tony, (Endy Arfian) Bondi (Nasar Annuz) and Ian (M. Adhiyat) try to get by in life despite the strain it puts on the family. Once she finally passes away, the family pay their respects and try to move on but find themselves continually haunted by strange visions of ghosts in the house. Eventually, the family comes to realize that their mother’s ghost has returned from the grave to help fulfill a demonic pact made years ago and must find a way to put an end to it before they succumb to the curse.

This here was quite the enjoyable if slightly flawed effort. One of the more engaging aspects is the strong technical quality at the forefront of the film. Most of the scares present come from the sterling cinematography by Ical Tanjung, which sets this one off with some fine scenes as the mundane task of caring for their mother in her room while allowing for effects like the constant bell she rings or the objects to flutter past the window to generate its scares. This also goes for traditional ghost hauntings as well, which are some of the most chilling sequences in the film. The first night after the funeral where the ghostly voices speak out to the son while he’s looking through a toy is heart-stopping, while the boys coming up behind each other in the darkness offer some solid suspense set-pieces. This mixture of tactics between strong, technically-accomplished scares and traditional jump-scares gives this a great balance.

Moving beyond, the film manages a lot more to like in a stellar second half. Ramping up the supernatural antics even further while introducing black magic, satanic cults and devil-worshipping yet still settling firmly in the realm of the ghostly hauntings, this is a series of incredibly strong sequences. From the mother appearing to attack her during a prayer to the revelation of the ghosts’ connection to the family and finally the creatures appearing in the house which is absolutely chilling, this section of the film creates plenty of chills. The exploitation of the Muslim religion against the Satanic rituals needed to perform the occult rites creates a strong contrast within these scenes as the source of the horror. With burial rites and other superstitious beliefs to be observed here that go against what is practiced in the US, it lets the terror come forth from the subversion of these themes into familiar grounds which lets this sink in for a foreign audience.

What bolsters a lot of the scares is the fine acting on display. Lead Rini, played by Tara Basro, gives a stellar performance as the oldest daughter. Strong-willed, family-minded and wanting to help out any way she can, the ability to be soft and sensitive towards her younger brothers and resourceful when dealing with the more supernatural elements gives her a memorable outlook during her scenes. She stays calm during a crisis and yet always remains believable, which really pulls us onto her side as the events get crazier. Her brothers, Tony, Bondi and Ian, who are played by Endy Arfian, Nasar Annuz and M. Adhiyat respectfully, end up blending together since they’re all around the same age. The film could’ve shrunk them down to two individuals to save time here, but they don’t embarrass themselves which is rather nice to see. Since Ian has a disability with his hearing loss and everyone else is forced to use sign language around him does make him stand-out, and Tony’s interest in the occult which clues him onto the whole affair has a strong impression. Overall, though, the cast really shines here.

There really isn’t much to dislike with this one. The main factor holding it down is an overly complicated story that has too many unsolved questions. This one offers no reason for who the evil spirit resembling the mother was or why it was in the house anyway, what the zombies want from the family or the actual plan of the cult was at the end when it seemed everything was already in order. Since the zombies’ purpose was already achieved by having the last child of the Satan’s slave woman be on their side, this confusion does tend to slightly lower the film although it’s nowhere near that big a detriment. The rest of the film manages to hold up so well that there are so few issues here that this ranks as one of the finest entries in the genre not just for the country but overall.

This review was originally published on Don’s World of Horror and Exploitation and is gratefully reprinted with their cooperation.

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