There is something about Indonesia that lends itself to horror movies. For one, this is a country where many people genuinely believe in ghosts. And on the island of Java, where I live, a particular kind of mysticism prevails to this day. It’s not that hard to understand why. This is a land of volcanoes, jungles and ancient ruins, where the earth often bleeds mist and fog. It’s not such a stretch to feel like there is some kind of magic here.
We also happen to be living in a time when the horror genre is gloriously resurgent. These films are cheap to make, they provide an abundance of thrills, and they have been killing at the box office lately. The Indonesian film industry, like anywhere else, has been following this trend and they really hit a home run with this year’s Pengabdi Setan (The Devil’s Servant). It cost around $300,000 to make and has been one of the highest grossing films of the year in Indonesia. Moreover, it is good. This is a film that could play in any theater in the world; director Joko Anwar taps that particular morbidity that can scare anyone, no matter where they are from. I fear for the day when an American studio executive discovers it and remakes it into something truly horrifying — a stale, dumbed down American rehash of another person’s better work.
Horror movies are, by definition, generic. This one is more or less an Indonesian riff on Rosemary’s Baby (and it’s actually a remake of an older Indonesian film). Set in 1981, it is about a family whose sick, creepy old mother dies and then a bunch of weird Satanic shit ensues. The back-end of the film degenerates into a bit of a low-key zombie carnival but a good horror film will always transcend the boundaries of the genre, and this one does. It does so by expertly cultivating an extremely creepy feeling through mood, tone and foregrounding characters while spooky silhouettes flash in the background. It relies on the simple fact that there is perhaps nothing scarier than an old Indonesian woman, eerily lit and doused in cadaver makeup smiling in a way that would make Stephen King shit his pants.
A lot of this is accomplished through production design and setting. The film takes place in a farm house that would not be out of place in Indiana, which is apparently because in the 1980s the government was still mandating the preservation of old Dutch farm houses. This is a ghost story, therefore, that takes place in a house that is itself a ghost of colonialism. It is well-made, frightening and is further evidence that the Indonesian film industry is starting to come into its own and make some real quality cinema.
As the blood red title card smashed on the screen Laura leaned over and said “I don’t think there are English sub-titles” which is OK because I can understand enough Bahasa to follow along. I will admit that during the parts where the characters discussed satanic ritual cults I got a bit lost because, oddly enough Satan worshiping was omitted from my Indonesian language text book. For most of the movie I had my head buried in my hands while Laura covered her ears. At one point I looked over and saw the guy next to me was curled up on his girlfriend in the same way, and at another point when a creepy old woman ghost popped up on the screen the same guy emitted a half-groan, half-wail that sounded like he was giving birth to a nightmare. So it is safe to say this movie is scary.
Even Laura, normally not terribly moved by the shabby horror trappings of American studios, was pretty terrified. I guess that is because in Indonesia there is something called a “lollipop” which refers to the way Muslims who have passed away are wrapped in white shrouds before burial. The manner in which the shroud is wrapped makes the head of the corpse take on the look of a lollipop and there is a widespread belief and fear that you can catch a glimpse of these things walking around in the dark some times, especially near cemeteries. So the imagery and themes in this film are particularly resonant with an Indonesian audience.
After the film finished, I went to use the toilet and soon found myself all alone in the bathroom washing my hands. I started to get this unnerving feeling, like as soon as I looked up in the mirror I was going to see one of the Devil’s servants standing behind me. I know it is silly — but I ran out of the bathroom without drying my hands. As we drove home, Laura was telling me about how she and her sister had seen a ghost once. We were driving down a back road in Yogya because the ring road was congested, and as she was talking a slender man dressed in black crossed the road in front of us. “Look out for that lollipop,” I joked.
“What lollipop?” Laura said as we drove on.
“That guy crossing the road just now,” I said.
“What are you talking about? What guy?”
I turned around to look out the back window. There was no one there.
Since that day, I have refused to shower by myself.