The characters in bad horror films miss the easy opportunities to solve their problems. They stay the night in haunted houses on the anniversary of someone’s violent death when they damn well know about AirBnB. They investigate that noise in the dark attic where the killer is lurking when they could stay downstairs and finish their beer. They refuse to see that the puncture wounds on their anemic friends neck might be caused by vampires and don’t go out for Italian food. If the characters found those easy ways out, the movies wouldn’t be any fun. It puts horror storytellers in a hard place. They need the characters to do stupid things to advance the plot, but need the characters to be smart enough that the audience identifies with them. It’s a challenge that director and writer Joko Anwar navigates superbly in Satan’s Slaves.
The movie starts with Rini (Tara Basro), negotiating with a record company executive. Her mother (Ayu Laksmi) was a pop star before her illness. The family can’t afford the mother’s medical bills, but the executive won’t budge, leaving Rini to go home with next to nothing. Her brother Tony (Endy Arfian) sells his motorcycle. Her father (Bront Palarae) has mortgaged the house and can’t afford to pay the phone bill.
This set-up is spectacular. When Dad needs to leave the children alone to raise money to pay off the mortgage, so they can keep the house, there’s no question it’s the kind of dumb thing that people in horror movies do. They always split up. But what other option is there when the bank is going to foreclose on the house if he can’t come up with the money? They can’t leave the house when the ghosts start thumping in the night and chasing them down dark hallways. Dad took the car and Tony sold his bike. They don’t call for help because they couldn’t pay the phone bill. Anwar’s rigged everything so his characters are forced to do the stupid things that people in horror movies do because their poverty has left them with no other option.
It doubles as incisive social commentary. I can’t speak to the economic systems in place in Indonesia, but as an American whose immediate family members have dealt with life-threatening health conditions, I relate to the plot where all their money is gone because of their mother’s healthcare problems. Who wouldn’t give everything they have to help their mother? It also shows the way the lower classes in many societies have no option but to stay where they are despite increasingly worse conditions. Moving isn’t free.
Once Satan’s Slaves has established its characters can’t escape, it goes to work scaring them and audiences. It starts out with familiar imagery, but as the movie progresses it gets more and more original, ending with some spectacularly scary shots. Satan’s Slaves has more scares (jump and otherwise) than most horror movies. It’s relentless.
It all comes together too. There is a specific reason that it’s happening to this family in this place at this time. What’s great about Satan’s Slaves though is that it tricks audiences again and again about what’s happening and why. Anwar has a penchant for giving viewers enough information to stand so he can knock them down again. And that has to do with his greatest strength: He takes his time, not rushing from scare to scare but allowing audiences to process before moving on.
The biggest issue is the movie’s portrayal of characters with disabilities. Ian (M. Adhiyat) is non-verbal, communicating only in sign language for most of the film. (Minor spoilers) The ending implies some very negative things about him that suggest the non-verbal community is evil. Anwar should’ve considered the implication of those decisions before he chose the ending that he did.
The other, smaller, issue is with the translation. For whatever reason, they elected not to subtitle the mother’s music. Since the same song was used as a motif, it would’ve helped if it were translated. Repeated use of any songs with lyrics in a film is a good indication that it’s significant to understanding the themes at play.
This is a good movie despite my issues. Anwar crafted a strong film that puts its characters into dangerous situations and keeps them there. Satan’s Slaves is scary, treading on similar emotional ground to Hereditary. See this movie.
Satan’s Slave is debuting at Cinepocalypse on June 22, 2018.
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director: Joko Anwar
Writer: Joko Anwar
Stars: Tara Basro, Endy Arfian, Nasar Annuz, M. Adhiyat
Studio/Production Company: Rapi Films, CJ Entertainment
Release date: June 22, 2018
Length: 107 minutes