Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan) (2017)

Satan’s Slaves first published by SciFiNow

There is a scene near the beginning of Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves where 22-year-old Rini (Tara Basro), responding to the ringing of a bell, enters a bedroom and walks past a mirror to her ailing mother Mawarni (Ayu Laksmi) whom she is surprised to see out of bed and on her feet. Rini then turns to see, to her horror, that her mother is still lying in bed and that the figure before her is a sinister imposter. Then Rini is woken from her nightmare by the ringing of a bell, and goes to her mother’s bedroom, only for the scene to repeat itself (with variations). 

These mirrorings, repetitions and doppelgängers are fitting images for a film that is itself a reprise (with considerable variations) of Sisworo Gautama Putra’s 1980 film of the same name – the very film that inspired Anwar to become a writer/director of genre films. The apparition that Rini has seen is said to be a demonic lookalike, living parasitically off Mawarni – and that also reflects the relationship of Anwar’s film both to Putra’s original, and to many other spookfests (from The Omen to The Shining to The House by the Cemetery to Ringu to Lights Out to Under The Shadow). Indeed, as a film moving from a matriarch’s death to the legacy of cultic diabolism bequeathed upon her family, this also feels like an Indonesian prelude to Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018).

Putra’s original was a moralising film about the dangers of abandoning Islamic values in Suharto’s modernising, increasingly secular Indonesia. Anwar’s remake, though still set in the early Eighties, complicates everything. It raises the number of Rini’s siblings, lowers the family’s socioeconomic status (their house is being foreclosed as well as haunted), deepens the characters and elaborates the supernatural plotting – all to confound our expectations and disorient our moral compass as we are kept guessing what is happening and who exactly is accommodating the resident evil. And by a pleasingly self-conscious irony, this remake’s solution involves reproduction.

Strap: Joko Anwar radically reimagines a classic of Eighties Indonesian diabolism.

© Anton Bitel