Indonesian filmmaker Joko Anwar (“Modus Anomali,” “A Copy of My Mind”) continues his excursions into fantasy with “Satan’s Slaves,” an impressive remake of the 1982 occult thriller about a troubled family being terrorized by demons and zombies. Set in 1981 and executed in a style recalling both European and U.S. indie supernatural chillers of the late ’70s and early ’80s, the new film is a creepy mood piece that falters only by telegraphing some of its jump scares. Produced by venerable exploitation company Rapi Films, with assistance from South Korean giant CJ Entertainment, “Slaves” went ballistic at the Indonesian box office in its September release, with 4.2 million admissions, and has secured theatrical distribution in numerous Asian territories. Exposure at Rotterdam should help this nifty little scarer gain traction beyond the region.
Anwar’s screenplay improves markedly on the original by adding an intriguing wrap-around tale and beefing up the backstories of the main characters. The result is a much more suspenseful and emotionally engaging exercise that also benefits from well-timed shots of deadpan humor along the way.
A punchy pre-credits sequence establishes Mawarni Suwono (Ayu Laksmi) as a famous singer who was struck down three years ago by a mysterious illness. Hit records and royalty checks have dried up, leaving Mawarni to languish in her family’s creaky old house on the outskirts of Jakarta. Completing the excellent introductory set-up is Allan Sebastian’s spot-on retro production design and Ical Tanjung’s atmospheric photography of the dwelling’s musty, sepia-toned interiors. And just for good measure, there’s a cemetery situated within a stone’s throw of Mawarni’s home.
In the wake of Mawarni’s death, her unnamed hubby (Bront Palarae) heads to the big city in an attempt to revive the family’s ailing finances. Left in charge is 22-year-old daughter Rini (Tara Basro: “A Copy of My Mind”), who sacrificed her college education to care for her mother and is now responsible for younger brothers Tony (Endy Arfian), a lively 16-year-old who wants to be a gigolo; Bondi (Nasar Annuz), an inquisitive 10-year-old; and Ian (Muhammad Adhiyat), a mute lad about to turn 7.
It’s not long before Rini and the boys are visited by all manner of otherworldly entities. Leading the charge is the ghost of Mawarni, whose malevolent eye appears to be trained on Ian. Close on her heels is a pack of zombies that shuffles over from the cemetery and sets up camp outside the house. Anwar’s pacy screenplay keeps the frights coming with Bondi’s visions of ancient curses; Ian possibly turning into a “Damien”-like devil boy; and retro objects such as vinyl record players, transistor radios and a View-Master sending out spooky signals.
Although some shocks are diluted by music cues and sound effects that give the game away, most hit the mark. The “haunted house and demons running amok” scenario might be quite familiar but “Satan’s Slaves” scores high marks when it comes to the fundamental horror movie task of sending shivers up the spine and quickening the pulse.
Arifin Cu’unk’s editing switches snappily between scary stuff and Rini’s attempts to find answers. According to a local Islamic scholar (Arswendi Bening Swara), Rini and her non-religious family can only ward off evil by praying and “surrendering to God wholeheartedly.” Offering a different viewpoint is Budiman (Egi Fedly), an eccentric author of articles about Satanic cults whose knowledge of Mawarni’s checkered past propels the tale to a rousing finale.
Energetically performed by a uniformly fine cast, “Satan’s Slaves” benefits from a top-notch technical presentation, including a splendid score by Aghi Narottama, Bemby Gusti and Tony Merle. Genre geeks will be especially impressed by the main titles theme, which sounds like it could have been lifted from one of Jean Rollin’s sex-vampire movies of the 1970s.