Movie Review – Satan’s Slaves (2017)

Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves [Pengabdi Setan] (2017) is a loose remake/prequel to the classic Indonesian horror film, Satan’s Slave, released in 1980. The new film presents a family struggling with personal loss and financial strains. The mysteriously ill mother, who was once a popular singer, dies and soon after the family is beset by malevolent supernatural forces. The more the family searches and uncovers about the mother’s past, the more the plot twists and turns in compelling and frightening ways. However, before discussing the inner workings of the film further, it is worth taking a detour into Indonesian cinema and culture. For Satan’s Slaves is a fine horror film, but deeper historical and cultural context will reveal why this film stands apart from others in the country, and why it deserves both attention and respect from foreign audiences.

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Asian horror cinema, at least when it reaches the United States, is generally dominated by the products of Japan and South Korea. These nations produce some masterful works, but they also present a skewed version of Asia to American audiences. Both nations are among the most monoethnic on the planet, with Japan being 98.5% and South Korea 96% the same ethnicity. There is a diversity lacking within these countries that, when one begins to look at the horror films of other Asian countries, may be falsely projected onto these other nations’ films.

Which brings us to Indonesia, a country very unlike either Japan or South Korea. It is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, with over 87% of its population identifying as Muslim. The Indonesian constitution grants religious freedom, and is officially secular, but it recognizes only a small handful of religions. Nevertheless, Indonesia is incredibly diverse – it has more than 300 distinct ethnic and linguistic groups, and its people speak over 700 languages. It has a population of more than 250 million, nearly twice that of Japan.

Indonesia is also a country with an interesting film history, an understanding of which will allow us more context into Satan’s Slaves. In order to make sense of their film history, one must recognize Indonesia’s political climate as it existed for several decades. From 1967 to 1998 the country was ruled by President Suharto, a man who many outside the country regarded as a dictator. During his tenure the nation’s film industry was strictly controlled, especially regarding the restriction of free political speech, but interestingly enough the government largely ignored genre films, which included horror and martial arts. The 1970s and 80s saw an enormous creative boom in exploitation films for this reason, and they proved to be immensely popular among the lower middle class. Today many of them are sought out for their unintentional camp and the creative ways in which the filmmakers approached special effects.

The horror genre of this era was generally supernatural, and it largely followed a predictable pattern of good versus evil, like a simplistic morality tale, where good was religion and the evil could be vanquished by reading a verse from the Quran. While most of the horror films were filled with over-the-top blood and gore, a notable exception was 1980’s Satan’s Slave, which relied more heavily on generating an unsettling atmosphere. The film has been compared to Phantasm (1979), and it certainly borrows from other Western films. Because it was so different, it stood out from the pack when it was released, and it served as the chief inspiration for director Joko Anwar to become a filmmaker.

The Indonesian film industry largely collapsed during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, in which several Southeast Asian countries, beginning with Thailand but spreading to several other countries, saw their economies go into freefall and their currencies lose considerable value. It was this crisis that also led President Suharto to resign from office.

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Beginning in 2001 the Indonesian film industry began to resurge, and horror films played a substantial role in this resurgence. The genre, mostly dominated by evil ghosts, is hugely popular. My own experience with these films is limited, but from what I’ve gathered from articles and blog posts, a lot of these films are of fairly low quality, packed with poor CGI, and made to turn a quick buck. Here is an excerpt from an article from the Jakarta Post about 2017’s Satan’s Slaves, which it reviews favorably when compared to the rest of today’s Indonesian horror, which it describes in less than glowing terms:

Local horror films tend to attract condescension and skepticism from the Indonesian public (rightfully so) due to the fact that horror films on the market in recent years usually reek from the stench of amateurism or poor craftsmanship. With commercial success being the goal of many Indonesian filmmakers and large film studios, the horror genre is often toyed around with and disrespected in the quest to obtain high audience turnouts, thus embarrassing everyone that is involved in the process.

Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves, on the other hand, represents a true artistic achievement. This should come as little surprise as Anwar had already proved himself to be an accomplished filmmaker who created several highly regarded, award-winning films, and received substantial recognition outside of Indonesia. He has been rightly regarded as one of the country’s top talents for well over a decade.

It is worth taking a look at another excerpt from the same above article, as it brings up some interesting ways in which Indonesians may view the film which an American audience would likely not consider:

The horror in this film is authentically true to the 1980s, relying mainly on the story events and incidents to scare the audience, instead of relying on CGI effects. Because the film deals with the classic battle between God and Satan, there is no doubt that the events in this film will lead viewers to either question their faith in God or try to self-righteously scold others for not having faith as strong as their own.

I predict that in conversations all over the country after the film, there will inevitably be some of those unbearable self-righteous people who will reference Pengabdi Setan [Satan’s Slaves] as a way to criticize fellow Muslims who do not follow the five-time daily Islamic prayer schedule. Or maybe there will be parents who accompany their kids to the cinema and then use the old “if you don’t behave, the devil will get you” line to make them behave.

The film is presented in such a way that one can either feel incredibly good about their faith or really bad about it.

It is this battle between good and evil that makes the film so entertaining to watch. It’s presented in a way that you might want the devil’s side to win. But maybe that’s how Joko likes to mess with our moral identities.

This religious and moral ambiguity with which Anwar toys should not be regarded lightly. One way in which Indonesia has changed since the heyday of 1980s exploitation films is the growth of conservative Islam within the country, and this has led things that would have once gotten a pass to no longer being tolerated (i.e. movie posters featuring nudity).

Anwar appears more comfortable walking a grey area when it comes to religion and morality, and this too seems to set him apart from the other genre offerings being released in the country today. In an interview with Vice, he said: “In the original movie, people thought they were terrorized by the demons due to their godlessness. In my movie, people were terrorized not because of their lack of faith, but because of their ignorance, their general ignorance of life’s essence.” Anwar’s explanation is not entirely clear, but it’s worth noting that the family we see beset by satanic forces are viewed as skeptics who struggle with faith, saying lines such as, “We don’t pray,” and, “Our family isn’t superstitious.” When we see Rini (Tara Basro), the eldest sister, attempt a prayer ritual, she is clearly unpracticed and does not appear altogether comfortable with the act. Whereas an act of prayer may have served as a repellent to evil in earlier Indonesian films, it proves useless in this situation.

Just as a lack of religion is not seen as a hindrance, the presence of religion is not presented as an advantage. For instance, we see the ustaz neighbor, who is an expert in Islam, also vulnerable to being attacked, and his faith makes no guarantee that when it counts his morality will not fail him.

Anwar’s screenplay presents a family that is likable and relatable. The family is also big enough where he is able to craft scares that are, in ways, tailored to different age groups, from a young boy trying to relieve himself a night to a teen listening to a radio in bed. The horror set pieces are on par with what we’ve seen in The Conjuring films, but they exist within a more coherent framework than what we’ve seen in those big-budget American films, which too often forgo internal consistency and logic for their set pieces. For this reason, I consider this film a superior offering. In Satan’s Slaves we see effective scares wrapped in an intriguing plot that morphs as a film progresses, taking unexpected turns that nevertheless follow a clear internal logic. All the while we get a sense of the different pressures and responsibilities facing each of the characters, and we empathize with them as they endure their travails. It helps that the film is so well-cast, with each actor delivering convincing performances, and that it’s filmed with exquisite cinematography.

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For veterans of supernatural horror films, Satan’s Slaves doesn’t present anything groundbreaking, but for fans of the haunted house sub-genre, it is one of the best offerings in recent years. It holds its own even in a sub-genre bloated with spectacles like The Conjuring films, which pair superior directing with, unfortunately, a general lack of sophisticated writing. Satan’s Slaves excels in both.

Joko Anwar deserves credit for creating a film of atmosphere, tension,  and nuanced morality in an environment where audiences are accustomed to expecting far less from the genre, both in terms of artistry and storytelling. He eschews temptations to preach to the converted, and instead asks his countrymen to question their deeply held certainties, and to look to and to recognize a common humanity as a way to triumph hardships. Anwar’s fictional family isn’t compelled by faith or blood to save each other, but through devotion and love. That, to me, is worth writing an overly long review for.

Grade: B+

Satan’s Slaves is available on streaming.