Satan's Slaves

I love seeing other cultures’ takes on what we consider familiar stories. In the case of Satan’s Slaves, we have an Indonesian take on your classic ghost story. Creeky doors, moving objects, ringing bells, camera trickery. It’s all here. But what separates this from the traditional ghost stories the Western audience might be used to is local flavor. Each culture has their own demons and their own interpretations of the afterlife or the supernatural. And I find it interesting to see how they are similar and different from the movies I’m used to seeing.

Facts Are Facts

Writer: Joko Anwar
Director: Joko Anwar
Gayly: interesting take on a familiar subject
Dreadful: subtitle translation leaves much to be desired; meandering in spots
Pairs With: Hereditary
Availability: Shudder

Rini (Tara Basro) lives with her entire family in a house they can’t afford anymore. Her Mother (Ayu Laksmi) was once a well-regarded singer, but she is now succumbing to an illness that has plagued her for three years. Her Father (Bront Palarae) has mortgaged their Grandma’s house (that they all live in), in order to pay for his wife’s treatment. Tony (Endy Arfian) is Rini’s younger, teenage brother, who, as the movie opens, has sold his scooter to help the family. Two younger boys, Bondi (Nasar Annuz) and Ian (M. Adhiyat) round out the family. Ian is the youngest and is deaf and he and Bondi are attached at the hip.

You can tell the family cares about each other very deeply and yet find themselves in a tragic situation, waiting for the inevitable death. Additionally, Mother has been dying in her bed for an unknown amount of time; she rings a bell whenever she needs attention and the kids are growing scared of her and her aura of death. As the movie begins, Mother seems to be transfixed in fear of something in her room, that no one else can see. Very quickly, she passes but her presence doesn’t seem to want to leave. Something seems to be haunting the family and they must get to the bottom of it before it destroys them.

Satan’s Slaves is at its best when it focuses on the family. It definitely has a methodical and deliberate pacing, keeping the scares and the tension at bay for most of the beginning half. There’s a feeling of dread surrounding the early parts of the film, punctuated by some very effective little scares. The financial plight of the family can be felt the entire way; at one point there’s a blackout in the house and they immediate wonder if they paid the electric bill. Their situation is so dire that the Father leaves the family alone for a good chunk of the movie, as he goes on a trip to hopefully make money. Their financial strain also creates an excellent reason why they can’t leave the house.

For a large part of the movie, the plot kind of meanders from event to event as Rini starts to put together that something ain’t right. As the force grows more malevolent, Rini begins the investigative phase of a typical ghost story and, interestingly, the story goes in a different direction from what I expected. It’s interesting to see some parallels between this Indonesian flick and Hereditary.

The acting is also uniformly decent to good. Most of the movie’s emotional weight is carried on the back of Tara Basro’s Rini and she is quite excellent. Other characters aren’t as successful. When the Mother is dealing with whatever horrors are befalling her, her acting tends to err on the more exaggerated scale. And one of the kids has a spooky thing happen that requires acting a bit out of the realm of his age and it feels a bit more comical than scary. The story tends to go into a more conservative and moralistic direction that kind of took me back. It’s pretty conservative in its moralism. Finally, the translation is pretty bad. At times it works, but at others it feels as if the characters are speaking in broken English. Turns of phrases or even simple sentence structure took me out of the story as I was reading the dialogue.

But these are minor gripes. I was incredibly surprised by Satan’s Slaves. The cinematography and the editing are both uniformly excellent and the pacing picks up considerably as it starts to throw the kitchen sink in with the plot. The events leading up to the climax belied a completely different film than what I expected. I definitely recommend giving this one a chance.

MoviesTerrymovies, review, Shudder