Quality Screams – Pengabdi Setan

Fikri Jermadi saw Joko Anwar’s latest flick between his fingers, then tapped his fingers on the keyboard to write this review.

There was plenty of food for thought as I stepped out of the cinema, after having seen Joko Anwar’s ‘Pengabdi Setan’. There often is, especially after having witnessed a film in which you have a certain set of expectations, established largely because of the auteur’s own lofty reputation, that is not only met, but in some aspects surpassed; it’s a pleasant surprise to be putty in the hands of a good director. Having seen a number of his films in the past, I had a strong idea of what’s coming. In the Indonesian press, Joko’s enthusiasm for the original film (for this is a remake) ensures that the director would not be lacking passion. Yet, even in watching the film, even as the film itself strongly signposts the plot and its development, there is a masterful expression of film language that still left me peeking at the screen twixt my fingers.

It could have easily gone wrong. As mentioned above, ‘Pengabdi Setan’ is a remake of a horror film considered something of a classic in Indonesian cinema. Though I’ve not seen that one (and perhaps I will; a comparative analysis between the old and new would be interesting to behold), I believe there is little that differed between the two films in terms of plot. However, one must note the bit of mischief in the IMDB’s brief synopsis of this film: “After dying from a strange illness that she suffered for three years, a mother returns home to pick up her children.” Though not entirely inaccurate, it feels like it barely scratched the surface with its innocuousness.

Dig deeper, and you’ll meet Rini (Tara Basro), who lives in an old house with her family: father (Bront Palarae), grandmother (Elly D. Luthan), Tony (Endy Arfian), Bondi (Nasar Annuz) and the youngest sibling of all, Ian (M. Adhiyat), who also happens to be a mute. Additionally, their mother, Mawarni Suwono (Ayu Laksmi), is bed-ridden with a mysterious illness, as she has been for the past three years. Whenever she needs any kind of attention, she would ring a bell, and a member of the family would hurry along to attend to her. In (quick) time, she would pass away, leaving behind a bereaved family with little by way of material means (more on this later).

As a whole, the film plays out very much like the textbook horror film. If we are to carry that analogy further forward, Joko Anwar could have a case for having his name printed on its cover, at the very least as one of its authors. There are plenty of the shock tactics you would expect in a film of this ilk, with Joko using mirrors, out-of-focus entities and silence as key tools in scaring (and potentially scarring) the audience. Evoking much of the film language I mentioned earlier, some scenes also had the camera zooming in.

This is something of a staple in many classic films (and not only horror ones), but with tracking the camera becoming the preferred method of getting us closer to the action, simply zooming in and out slipped from the top of the podium, a secondary importance that, ironically, nevertheless engendered an unsettling feeling whenever it is used. Joko knows this, and he puts it to good use, along with the rapid but confident jerks of the camera; a simple scene of a young child flicking through an old school stereoscopes being particularly scary is a key example of this.

On that note, it’s also worth noting that the production design for this film is absolutely superb. There is a strong sense of quality I see with almost every scene, which is important as it is set in the early 1980s. This reflects the context of the first film itself, but that effort featured settings contemporary to its time. This film had to recreate much of that era, at a time when the relics of that era is probably not as common. Though I do not proclaim myself a particular aficionado of early 1980s Indonesian aesthetics, the quality of the film stands out all the same, and almost every aspect of the mise en scene (from the costume design to the props in the old house, and more) screams quality. To that end, it is a point I could correlate with the film, ‘The Conjuring’.

That brings us to the core of this review, and that of the film itself. ‘The Conjuring’ is a quality film in almost every respect, and one that this reviewer himself found a lot of the horror to be pleasant surprising. The shock tactics were indeed shocking, and the horrific parts did inspire fear, all without necessarily coming off as cheap. Many horror aficionados I know regard it as a key film in helping to elevate the horror genre. ‘Pengabdi Setan’ is a fine film cut very much from the same cloth, a quality fare in its own right that transcends its genre and geo-specific context, and a possible boon to both in the immediate and bigger picture future. This is a connection that can’t be an accident; some scenes, for instance, like the game played between Ian and his grandmother, echoes (in a literal sense) an identical one played in ‘The Conjuring’. As an aside, the use of a bell showcased how the simplest things can be very effective.

That’s not to say that it’s the complete film, however. One or two plot points weren’t, to my satisfaction, wrapped up as properly as they could have been. From a Malaysian perspective, it is also a bit disappointing to see Bront Palarae given relatively limited minutes, despite his second billing as the deuteragonist, at least in terms of his prominence on the poster and in the film’s credits. I would love to see him stretch his legs a bit more, but in the film he stretched them a little too much (in the sense that he went away for important bits in the film). From a narrative perspective, I understand its importance, highlighting the sense of threat in a more acute fashion, but all the same, I had expected just that bit more.

A deeper knowledge of Indonesian cinema and society may also elucidate a more critical reading of the film. The original film was filmed at a time when Soeharto’s power was at a high. While it is not the verified truth, perhaps an educated guess could hint at a more critical political reading. The first scene of this new film suggested that. Mawarni was a celebrated singer in her time, and while her songs remained somewhat popular, the royalty payment did not match this level, and Rini’s request to get them was denied. She even strongly suggested selling the old house, which their father opposed as it belonged to their grandmother. This hints at a strong economic undertone which probably captured the less-than-perfect zeitgeist of the time. Scenes set in the urban areas also depict Indonesians as living in more cramped conditions, a portent of things to come. Understanding that Joko Anwar’s mind is not idle when it comes to political considerations, I think a more learned interpretation could be made here by a more informed person about such matters.

Perhaps such an assertion is far-reaching at best, and is merely a superficial reflection of the time. Nevertheless, it is a part of my analysis of a film that appears to be very much the icing on the cake that is Joko Anwar’s career thus far. A friend recently bemoaned the lack of new ideas on show at the Jakarta Fashion Week, noting how many of the younger designers opted for safer, more conservative stylings. I suggested that this perhaps is mirrored in the film world, where new(er) ideas and new(er) voices are not as aplenty as one may have hoped. With the exception of ‘Cek Toko Sebelah’, it has largely been a run-of-the-mill for many of Indonesia’s filmmakers on the mainstream scene.

Joko perhaps proved me right on that front, but this is an example of how it is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a very good thing. He is having fun, working with talented people he knows well and like. Who could begrudge him from working again with Bront (with whom he had collaborated in ‘Halfworlds’)? Similarly, Tara Basro caught a lot of positive attention with ‘A Copy of My Mind’, Joko’s previous feature directorial effort. There’s also a lot of the eeriness that one associated with ‘Pintu Terlarang’, the first of Joko’s work which really put him on my map.

In that regard, there should be little about this film that is surprising, except for how pleasantly surprising the film actually is. ‘Pengabdi Setan’ is a quality film. Cinephiles should miss it at their peril.

We previously discussed the idea of Southeast Asian horror (and more specifically Indonesian horror) in this episode of the podcast.

Featured image credit: Berova Vintage

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