Satan’s Slaves (2017)
Director: Joko Anwar
With such a strongly characterising title as Satan’s Slaves you would be forgiven for assuming that Joko Anwar’s film is just another generic horror at the bottom of the bargain bin, but instead it possesses both subtle and effective scares more in line with the likes of It Follows, and House of the Devil, than any Rob Zombie gore-fest.
We join Rini (Tara Basro) and her siblings in an arduous time for their family; their mother, Mawarni (Ayu Laksmi), a former famous Indonesian singer, passes away after a lengthy period suffering from a strange and debilitating illness. While there is no doubt that her family are devastated in their grief, they’re also somewhat relieved, because fear of their mother had begun to disseminate amongst them in the latter stages of her life, as she was haunted by unseen forces, rendering her a specter of her former luminosity. The strong familial bond between the siblings, which Rini struggles to keep together, as they remain under the constant shroud of their mother, even after her death, mitigates this terrible juncture. Because their ordeal is not over yet, as Mawarni is coming home for her children, and she’s not coming alone.
A remake of the 1982 occult classic of the same name, on the surface this Indonesian film may be a slightly stereotypical horror and hence marginally unoriginal with its tropes, but it uses these horror tools so effectively that it renders any pattern imperceptible; a Viewmaster is employed yet again in this genre, but in a manner so as not to detract from the films potent unease, there are well scenes that put even Ringu in the shadows, and the tinkle of a bell will never sound quite as sinister as it does in the hands of Anwar. But its cultural specificity is what makes Satan’s Slaves so unique to a Western audience, as the Javanese culture is heavily rooted in spiritualism, making it all the more plausible for characters to reach for supernatural conclusions for the strange goings on. Even if Rini doesn’t initially buy into it, you’ll be whimpering through gaps in your fingers, willing her to believe.
Surprisingly, Anwar manages to maintain an equilibrium, despite throwing everything bar the kitchen sink at his film; from a typical ghost story, to family discord, occultism, comedy, right through to its evolution into a zombie film, it still works. The casting is also impeccably balanced in terms of talent and character, and the speckles of humour throughout are suitably placed in a manner so as not to cheapen the scares. Visually, one of the finest aspects of Anwar’s film is his employ of a pendulant style camera effect somewhat reminiscent of David Robert Mitchell’s 360 degree turns in It Follows. But here the angle pans a room switching from first to third person perspective, forcing us to examine every facet of the frame, rescanning for elements which may or may not be there, and ensuring that the audience is fully immersed in the horror. What’s more, mirrors and glass are constant factors of fear, reflecting what is sometimes not always visible to the naked eye, extending this visual guessing game.
It’s not uncommon for horror films to make caring for characters difficult due to focusing more on scares rather than dialogue and narrative, but this is unequivocally not the case here; Satan’s Slaves had me constantly spasming skittishly and covering my eyes in concern for all those involved, especially for the two youngest children, Ian and Bondi. There was very little reprieve from the tension; it’s so packed with genuinely terrifying moments that you not only have to fear the dark, but the daytime can’t save you either. Being a horror cinephile, it takes a lot to scare me, but Satan’s Slaves left me in a state of gut wrenching dread.
“Dead people are harmless. The dangerous ones are the living.” That’s definitely not the case here though; so do not watch it alone!