Bad things happen in houses where they don’t pray. So says a kindly Imam in Joko Anwar’s chilling horror remake Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan). Taking inspiration from a 1982 classic, Anwar updates the tale of supernatural dread and familial breakdown for the new century while maintaining the early ‘80s setting and pushing back still further into the superstitious, gothic past. The family, threatened by financial, social, and spiritual pressures is stretched to breaking point by supernatural unease. Advised that the cure for their ills is religion, they begin to conform but, unlike the original, godliness cannot save them from a greater evil and if the family chooses to save itself, it will be through acts of selfless love rather than brutal adherence to a set of outdated social codes.
As the film begins, eldest daughter Rini (Tara Basro) – a 22-year-old former college student, has given up her studies and become the defacto maternal figure to her small family while her mother, Mawarni (Ayu Laksmi ), remains bedridden after a long illness. Mawarni was once a famous singer and the family’s breadwinner, but having been out of the spotlight so long her music has begun to go out of fashion. Royalties have dried up and there is little prospect of any further income. Lacking the funds to pay for ongoing hospital care, the family have brought Mawarni home to care for her themselves though the father (Bront Palarae), worrying about feeding his children, secretly urges his wife to be on her way to a better place, as a disturbed Rini hears him say from outside the door. Soon enough, Mawarni is gone, but not forgotten. Strange noises fill the old mansion as Mawarni’s bell continues to tinkle in the night, her records play without warning, and radios reset themselves to play her song. When dad leaves the siblings – 16-year-old Tony (Endy Arfian), 10-year-old Bondi (Nasar Annus), and 7-year-old Ian (M. Adhiyat) who is deaf and mute, in Rini’s care to head into the city in search of money, the kids are left to deal with the legacy of his moral cowardice all alone.
Adopting the trappings of the classic European gothic chiller, Satan’s Slaves sets itself in an old fashioned villa located in a forest some distance outside of the city. If the house were not creepy enough on its own, it is also conveniently located next to the local graveyard where Mawarni has now been laid to rest (in theory, at least). Moving in “next door”, a kindly Imam and his spiritually open minded son Hendra (Dimas Aditya) promise to provide pastoral care to the bereaved children but find themselves engulfed by the house’s increasing power to isolate and terrorise.
Tipped off by Hendra, Rini discovers a dark and disturbing secret regarding her mother’s former life and her own origins. Devolving into a vast conspiracy involving satanic fertility cults and their apparently omnipresent spy networks, Satan’s Slaves revels in its oppressive atmosphere of supernatural dread and human impotence as the children find themselves surrounded on all sides by faceless, umbrella wielding zombies lying in wait to tear their home apart.
Rini is told, by an old friend (Egy Fedly) of their grandmother’s (Elly D. Luthan), that the fertility cult requires child sacrifice but that the cult cannot take the child unless the family gives it up. She is being asked, quite literally, to put her life (and those of her siblings) on the line in order to save “the family”, yet “the family” or more particularly hers already has its problematic elements. Rini’s grandmother, recently deceased in mysterious circumstances, was not originally accepting of her daughter-in-law because of a class difference and also because of her occupation as an “entertainer” which was not considered respectable at the time. She only warmed to Mawarni once the children were born which was already some years into the marriage as Mawarni, finding it difficult to conceive, became desperate for a child and for her mother-in-law’s acceptance.
Rather than the lack of spiritual rigour which the Imam blames for the increasing demonic presence, it is these social taboos which seem to have opened the door to evil. The kids try the religious solution, but unsurprisingly it doesn’t help them. Literally haunted by their late mother who feels herself “abandoned” by her family, her loving husband hastening her death now that she is no longer economically useful and has become an unbearable burden, the only way to defeat this curse is to reverse it through unconditional familial love and solidarity even given what Rini now knows about her history. Oppressive in atmosphere yet filled with an eerie beauty as shadowy figures slowly colonise the misty Indonesian forest, Satan’s Slaves challenges the idea of “the family” in the face of strict patriarchal social codes and finds that in order to survive it must salvage itself through acts of defiance and self identification.
Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)