Damn Terror – Jelangkung

Fikri Jermadi went undercover while watching this film (as in, he got under his sheets).

The media on which we watch something has a chance of influencing how we receive that one thing. That seems obvious, but it’s a point worth remembering. In watching ‘Jelangkung’, I’m watching a horror film made thirteen years prior. My review will take that into consideration.

Why? The viewing of films, of texts of any kind, really, should always contextualised. A movie is neither truly good nor bad. A lot of it depends on the audience, the forewarning had beforehand, and the actual medium through which the film is enjoyed (or not), as mentioned above.

"Scooby, where are you?!"
“Scooby, where are you?!”

‘Jelangkung’ is an important film in Indonesian cinematic history, part of a slew of titles that restored the faith of locals in the industry’s ability to provide entertainment in competition with foreign flicks. Upon its release, it quickly made back its money (and then some), remaining on top for quite long enough to be the highest grossing Indonesian film of all time (until it was usurped by ‘Laskar Pelangi’ some years later).

The film tells the story of Ferdi (Winky Wiryawan), Gita (Melanie Ariyanto), Gembol (Rony Dozer) and Soni (Harry Panthya), four friends from Jakarta who has a tendency of visiting strange places with weird stories. We see them in an empty house near the film’s beginning, engaging in activities that one can only describe as ghost hunting. Quite frankly, it’s the sort of thing that I don’t really understand or encourage, though I suppose there’s a thrill factor that has to be considered in such endeavours. This is important, and we’ll come back to this later.

Of course, whenever such stories are told, you have the characters themselves pushing things a little too far. In visiting Angkerbatu, a small village in West Java, Soni, who wants to attain a higher level of spiritual knowledge and empowerment, plants a small doll and performs the jelangkung ritual. Things start to go horribly wrong for them, even after they return to Jakarta. The story developed, but before things got better, they became worse…

E.T.'s little brother.
E.T.’s little brother.

…which is what you’d write if you were writing the film’s tagline. Does that seem obvious? Again, perhaps yes.

For some, this quite possibly is one of the scariest cinematic experiences they’d encounter. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for me. A part of that could well be the hype that surrounded this movie and its spin-offs. I do still get quite scared by horror films, ranging from flicks such as ‘The Conjuring’ to…err, ‘Paranormal Activity 2’. I know the latter is not exactly considered a classic, but the fact remains that after returning from the cinema past midnight, I could not sleep the whole night, thinking that Katie might just be around the corner with a knife.

I just turned and looked behind me. It’s nearly 9 o’clock at night as I write this. Nothing there…for now.

I didn’t get any such feelings from watching this movie, but again, the exposition of certain conventions should be considered. We see, for example, a scene with Gita at home, and being somewhat spooked by her teddy bears, even during daylight. I suspect that at the time, the playing out of such horror in daylight scenes helps to break some taboos. Horror has always been associated with the dark night, so something that runs against that grain was possibly quite effective at the time.

The first kiss.
The first kiss.

At the time of its release, Indonesian cinema was not at a particular high. Though films have been produced for a number of years, the kind of commercial success experienced by foreign affairs remained elusive. ‘Ada Apa Dengan Cinta?’ helped to reverse a little of that the following year in 2002, but ‘Jelangkung’ opened the eyes of the public to the potential of the film upon its release.

Previously, my wife mentioned watching this film in the cinema in its first public screening. Many watched it without knowing for sure what they were in for (including her), which meant that many also watched it while covering their eyes with their hands; the kissing scene between Ferdi and Gita was greeted with wolf whistles. I’m told it’s the first kissing scene to not be censored at the time.

Going beyond that, I always find horror films within the Southeast Asian context to be interesting. Speaking in very broad strokes that does not account for every film ever released, the texts produced outside of the region, particularly from the Western-influenced world, is little more than two-hour joy rides that does not last much further beyond the cinema hall for most of its audience.

Spider hands...spider hands...does whatever a spider can...
Spider hands…spider hands…does whatever a spider can…

Within a more local context, however, the impact is quite different. Given how a fair number of people have a tendency of believing more than just a little bit in such tales, the making of films like this becomes a way in which such beliefs are validated to an extent. Thus, horror films become not only a site of entertainment to be consumed, but a battleground of ideologies, between the modern and the pre-modern.

This was quite evident in a number of ways in the film, but none more so than in one of the first scenes. After a brief segment that hints at the reality of the story, we are in Jakarta, as Ferdi and friends tell ghost stories of other supposed haunted hotspots in and around Jakarta.

It is with these characters that I must finish this review. I mentioned the Western influence briefly earlier in this review, and the Scooby Doo influence seems obvious: four friends who drive around in a van looking for mysteries (one of the characters even hinted at this by whistling the theme tune whenever he had to answer the call of nature). They appear to be young and upwardly mobile young people, and it made me wonder why on earth they went looking for such thrills in such a way.

I suppose it’s fine if they want to, but the fact is these are characters who wanted something and actually got what they were looking for. Though the film was entertaining in large parts, and somewhat scary in more minor ones, I failed to garner any sort of sympathy whatsoever for Ferdi, Gita, Soni and Gembol. It was due to this that I failed to be truly involved in the film, and I think ultimately that was why this film didn’t really work for me.

Fikri didn’t notice Katie behind him before, during and after writing this review. Check out what friend of the site Dr Norman Yusoff wrote about horror films.

Featured image credit: Be Noted

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