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-[Film Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema

‘May the Devil Take You’ (2018): A Look Back at Indonesian New Wave

Directed by: Timo Tjahjanto || Produced by: Sukdev Singh, Wicky V. Olindo, Abimana Aryasatya

Screenplay by: Timo Tjahjanto || Starring: Chelsea Islan, Pevita Pearce, Samo Rafael, Karina Suwandi, Ray Sahetapy, Ruth Marini, Hadijah Shahab

Music by: Fajar Yuskemal || Cinematography: Batara Goempar || Edited by: Teguh Raharjo || Country: Indonesia || Language: Indonesian

Running Time: 111 minutes

Timo Tjahjanto’s career trajectory looks like the inverse of Gareth Evans; the former Indonesian writer-director established himself in the late 2000s and early 2010s as a proprietor of horror filmmaking, directing short film segments of various horror anthologies like Faces of Fear (2008), The ABCs of Death (2012), V/H/S/2 (2013, co-directed with Evans), and the feature-length project, Macabre (2009), most of which were co-directed with his longtime colleague, Kimo Stamboel. Together, Stamboel and Tjahjanto formed the “Mo Brothers” and transitioned to thriller (e.g. Killers [2014]) and later action (e.g. Headshot [2016], The Night Comes for Us [2018]) cinema, with Stamboel gravitating toward producer roles while Tjahjanto commanded lead writing duties. This career arc dovetailed with Evans’ shift from popularizing modern Indonesian action cinema (e.g. Merantau [2009], The Raid [2011, 2014]) to his return to his native Wales and Great Britain with the English-language horror epic, Apostle (2018). As these Indonesian New Wave filmmakers cross-pollinate their genre tastes and recurring castmembers across disparate film industries, their evolving filmographies illustrate how contemporary auteurs adapt their audiovisual styles to different narrative formula.

Top: Ray Sahetapy (right) meets with a demonic priestess (Ruth Marini, left) in the film’s prologue. Bottom: Years later, the same priestess haunts Sahetapy’s daughter and our protagonist, Cheslea Islan (right).

Killers is a great example of a cinematic hybrid by multiple definitions, both in terms of national (the film’s running-time is split evenly between its Japanese and Indonesian storylines) and genre (its serial-killer narrative feels informed by both action and horror aesthetics) identity, a halfway point between Tjahjanto’s transition from cinematic violence as disempowering, oppressive spectacle (i.e. horror) to cinematic violence as competitive spectacle (i.e. action). Tjahjanto still has roots in the world of horror, however, as evidenced by 2018’s May the Devil Take You, an unabashed, unapologetic homage to Western horror in the vein of Sam Raimi and, to a lesser extent, William Friedkin. Elements of Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy (1981, 1987, 1992) are plastered all over May the Devil Take You (henceforth, Devil), from its supernatural possession-inspired premise to its macabre, Occultist visual overtones to its limited, Cabin-in-the-Woods (2012)-style production location.

It’s unclear which film is gorier, however, this or Killers. It’s also safe to say that only fans of scary movies need apply to this Indonesian take on classical horror, in particular those forgiving enough to recognize how imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Devil’s biggest strengths and weaknesses are a function of its endearing respect for old-school Western horror tropes, namely those established by American filmmakers from the late 1970s through the 1980s (e.g. John Carpenter). Its inciting incident and setting are fine (a struggling businessman makes a deal with an agent of Satan, then his family suffers when the check comes due), but its conservative, imitative format struggles when its inconsistent cast and vanilla characters fail to impress. Unlike all the Mo Brothers films I’ve seen, from the bizarre Killers to the wild yet inconsistent Headshot to the bonkers The Night Comes for Us, Devil doesn’t take enough chances.

There remains much to like in this Indonesian cabin in the woods, however. The film’s prologue and opening act are near perfect, utilizing minimal exposition and great visual storytelling to establish a family patriarch’s (Ray Sahetapy) pact with the devil, set up his daughter’s protagonist (Chelsea Islan), and foreshadow their impending doom as the primary antagonist (Ruth Marini), a “priestess of the devil,” stalks them. In terms of both imagery and cinematography, Devil is near immaculate, with gorgeous lighting techniques, clever blocking tricks, and precise yet never unmotivated camera movements. Much of what irritates me about supernatural horror and ghost stories on film, their arbitrary, inconsistent narrative rules and over-the-top special effects, is toned down during the first hour of Tjahjanto’s latest scary flick; a sequence midway through the movie involving our main cast opening a basement to the principal haunted house set is terrifying thanks to this precise execution.

Tjahjanto runs into problems when he abandons this deliberate pace around the one-hour mark, whereby our demonic villains begin to show themselves too often and weaker castmembers (in particular, a cringe-worthy Pevita Pearce) are elevated to supporting villain status. Multiple scenes overstay their welcome and crank the gratuitous violence past eleven; dialogue also grows more plentiful in the second act, further overstuffing numerous sequences that, in hindsight, either should’ve been cut or replaced with quieter scenes.

The second weakness of Devil is its complete lack of levity, its utter humorlessness, which ties into the aforementioned exhausting pace of its second half. While the story’s conclusion is satisfying and Islan’s final confrontation with Marini and Pearce, entertaining, Devil showcases Tjahjanto’s total inability to not take his movies 100% seriously 100% of the time. I don’t believe Tjahjanto has a whimsical bone in his body, as all his films, both good (Killers, The Night Comes for Us) and mediocre (Headshot, this film) lack any sense of humor or self-awareness, whatsoever; one only ever laughs during his films in spite of their tonal severity, like watching a charismatic yet self-serious boxer demolish his opponents with bemusement. Almost nowhere else in the Mo Brothers filmography does this hardnosed, tonedeaf quality feel more prominent, which is ironic given how devotional Devil feels to Evil Dead in every way except its absurdist humor.

During the final act, Marini terrorizes our principal cast with help from cinematographer Batara Goempar’s stellar lighting.

All things considered, May the Devil Take You demonstrates how interconnected the Indonesian New Wave’s horror, thriller, and action styles are. Perhaps the foundations laid by Gareth Evans, from the distinct horror tones of The Raid to the epic crime ballad of Berandal (both correctly labeled as action films), impressed upon his contemporaries the benefits of mixing the extremes of multiple genres. In some ways, this is not a groundbreaking idea (see the genre-blending comedy works of Edgar Wright, for example), but the incredible violent intensity of modern Indonesian genre filmmaking, its hyperstylized, almost grindhouse quality, is as identifiable as any movement in current world cinema. May the Devil Take You, to its credit and fault, exemplifies modern Indonesian filmmaking’s strengths (unforgettable neo-noir visuals, purposeful long takes, hardcore violence) and weaknesses (inconsistent characterizations, rocky pacing, a baffling absence of humor) in equal measure.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: As unsettling and stylish as it is stuffed with unlikable, uninteresting characters, Tim Tjahjanto’s latest horror effort is an unabashed love-letter to 1980s American horror, but is unable to replicate the best versions of all its elements. May the Devil Take You has a first half of impending dread to die for, yet stumbles in its second half as a result of its nonstop rhythm and uncut weak scenes bumping against its derivative narrative structure.

—> ON THE FENCE; horror aficionados and fans of Indonesian New Wave should give it a try, but all others will be turned off by one feature or another.

? How did that possessed person not see the flashlight in the middle of the night?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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