Joko Anwar scored Indonesia’s highest-grossing horror hit ever with “Satan’s Slaves,” a remake-slash-prequel to Sisworo Gautama Putra’s beloved if campy 1980 original. Already another big success at home, his followup “Impetigore” is likewise a rebooting tribute to past celluloid horrors, given the familiar feel to its tale of a prodigal-daughter heroine returning to a native village that’s cursed by black magic.
Less dependent on jump scares than “Slaves” (though there are still a few), this handsome and atmospheric production is good, sometimes grisly fun that’s not terribly scary, particularly once hectic climactic events prove less suspenseful than the slow-burn buildup. Despite doing huge box office in Asia (where it opened after its premiere in Sundance’s midnight section), “Impetigore” probably won’t be Anwar’s breakout moment among Western genre fans, though he’ll surely have one sooner or later.
Tara Basro, who’s been in virtually all the director’s projects of the last five years, is back here as Maya, who’s first met as a toll-booth collector. Her cell-phone chat with garrulous BFF Dini (Marissa Anita) is interrupted when a previously noticed “creepy car” returns to give Maya the willies. Worse, its driver appears to know who she is, and things go downhill really fast when he exits his vehicle with machete in hand. By then the police have arrived, but before he’s permanently halted, the stranger mentions the village Maya came from, and cryptically says “We don’t want what your family left behind.”
This somehow leads to the two women leaving for that remote village, hoping that Maya — who was raised in the city by an aunt after her parents’ mysterious deaths — may have some kind of inheritance there. They do indeed find the imposing, long-abandoned house she lived in to age 5. But the locals are secretive and suspicious, their run-down community notably lacking any children.
Posing as college students doing research, the visitors poke around, meeting a few residents including the village leader (Ario Bayu, also an Anwar regular), his imperious mother (Indonesian screen veteran Christine Hakim), and a young woman (Asmara Abigail) who seems the only genuinely friendly face hereabouts. On their second day, the urbanites separate for what’s intended as a brief spell. Unfortunately, during that time, Dini makes a terrible tactical error. And not much later, Maya begins discovering why the villagers have no kids — none that are allowed to live, that is.
By the time she’s figured out that the locals think she’s the cause of their cursed status, “Impetigore” has ramped up its energy but lost some of its earlier, alluring promise. While the film does benefit from losing what had been an excess of wisecracking Dini’s comedy relief, the convoluted later mix of chase scenes and explanatory flashbacks feels more like an awkward pileup of miscellaneous genre tropes than an elegant (or terrifying) solution to a supernatural mystery.
Nonetheless, it’s creepy eye-candy, with a sumptuous yet ominous look to DP Ical Tanjung’s widescreen compositions and Frans Xr Paat’s production design (especially for the neglected house, which has semi-reverted to jungle). The original score and sound design are equally flavorful. Though the aesthetically accomplished film suffers a bit from eventual narrative-thematic clutter, one element that might have been incorporated more is that of wayang. The Javanese shadow-puppetry art form duly figures into the plot here, yet doesn’t quite become the pervasive stylistic motif it could (and probably should) have. One suspects prolific Anwar will return to that idea and exploit it more fully soon enough, however.