Comfortably familiar horror with an Indonesian twist…
Anyone who has kept an eye on the Indonesian horror scene in the past few years has undoubtedly come across Joko Anwar’s 2017 hit film Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan). It was a passion project long time coming; in fact, it was the film he wanted to make ever since he entered the world of filmmaking, but his devotion for the project started years earlier in 1983 when he saw Sisworo Gautama Putra’s Satan’s Slave for the first time. It is a film that made a lasting impact not only on Anwar but on Putra’s career and the landscape of Indonesian horror cinema. It may be heavily influenced by Western horror tropes but still maintains a distinctly Indonesian atmosphere, making for an innovative and entertaining piece of horror.
When a beloved wife and mother dies, busy businessman Munarto (W.D. Mochtar) is left alone with his two children, Tomi (Fachrul Rozy) and Rita (Siska Widowati). Trying to get at grips with the tragic loss, Rita busies herself with friends and parties, sampling everything the local nightlife has to offer, while the more introverted Tomi goes and seeks advice from a local fortune teller. This charlatan promptly tells him that his whole family is in great danger and the only way to protect them is to arm himself with black magic. Unsurprisingly introducing the dark arts into the situation does not help, but instead, the family soon find their lives invaded by evil forces beyond their comprehension.
At the heart of Satan’s Slave is a religious fable. The only difference to its Western counterparts is that even though the good old Angel of Darkness is the root of all the troubles, for once we are not dealing with the evil forces depicted to us through the lens of Christianity, but that of Islam. This devil is not here to make deals or collect his new-born son, but to simply take those who have strayed from the religious path. Apparently leading a secular lifestyle is a direct invitation for the devil to enter your life (but practising black magic really does not help either). It is all a bit black and white for modern audiences and as the film does not offer any deeper examinations on a crisis of faith or returning to god, feels slightly disappointing and overly simplistic. You kind of want the devil to have a little bit more of an excuse to be meddling with people’s lives like this. Like maybe their late mother was somehow involved in satanic activity (an idea that Joko Anwar grasped on with his 2017 remake), or Tomi’s little excursions to the world of dark arts was a bit more involved than we expected? Just something more than not praying often enough.
That being said, none of this spoils the enjoyment of the film. The oversimplified conclusion is simply a product of its time and similar tropes can be found in countless others, otherwise very decent horror stories of the era. Satan’s Slave is packed with eerie atmosphere and it is a shame that it has only become easily available in the West relatively recently, as this little gem of 80’s horror would have surely found its way to the hearts of many genre fans a whole lot earlier. It possesses all the same qualities of the Western horror classic of the same period and slots in with the rest of them with great ease. Special effects are pure 80’s and a joy to behold. The ghoulish entities present in the film bear more than passing resemblance to the bloodsuckers of Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979) and the grizzly deaths that these unfortunate souls encounter quickly bring to mind films like The Omen (1976), but rather than feeling like blatant rip-offs, these little nudges towards other genre classics seem more like a respectful homage. Indeed, when interviewed the screenwriter Imam Tantowi openly admits that rather than drawing from Indonesian folklore (which was very popular in the 1970s-1980s Indonesian horror scene), the film was heavily influenced by other horror films (although he does not divulge which ones), so picking up on these not so subtle references is not coincidental.
The cast do a respectable job respectively, but a special mention must be given to Ruth Pelupessi as the housekeeper Dharmina: the devil incarnate. Her quietly intimidating demeanour is perfectly suited for the role. Even with limited dialogue and her screen presence mainly consisting of Dharmina giving sly looks at everyone and eerily hanging somewhere in the background, there is no question on whose side she is on from the get-go. When she finally reveals her true colours, transforming from a quiet housekeeper to the devil herself, she embodies all terrifying qualities that a great 80’s horror villain should (including an insane hairdo and enough make-up for a whole season of RuPaul’s Drag Race).
Satan’s Slave is solid 1980’s kind of fun, containing all the horror magic of the decade. It is easy to see why filmmakers like Anwar have such great love for it and why he was so determined and passionate about remaking it. The special effects and slightly simplistic plotlines may feel somewhat outdated 38 years after the film’s release, but the ambience and the core of the story still hold up today. It is a fantastic piece of Indonesian horror history and something that any respectable fan of 1980’s horror should see at least once.
Satan’s Slave is available from Severin Films on region free Blu-Ray and DVD.
Home media details
Distributor: Severin Films (US)
Edition: Blu-ray (2020)
The Severin release includes:
- Satan’s Box Office: Interview with Producer Gope T. Samtani, in which he discusses the history of Indonesian film industry and his work with Rapi Films.
- Indonesian Atmosphere: Interview with Screenwriter Imam Tantowi, offering insight into the writing and making-off process.
- Satan’s Slave Obsession: Audio Interview with Remake Director Joko Anwar, with Anwar sharing his love for the film and the reasons for wanting to remake it.
- Short Films Inspired By SATAN’S SLAVE by Remake Director Joko Anwar: Jenny (2016)/Don’t Blink (2016)