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-[Film Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema

Joko Anwar’s ‘The Forbidden Door’ (2009), ‘Satan’s Slaves’ (2017), & ‘Impetigore’ (2019)

Directed by: Joko Anwar || Produced by: Sheila Timothy [1], Gope T. Samtani, Sunil Samtani, Priya N. K. [2], Shanty Harmayn, Tia Hasibuan, Aoura Lovenson Chandra, Ben Soebiakto [3]

Screenplay by: Joko Anwar || Starring: Fachri Albar, Marsha Timothy, Otto Djauhari [1], Bront Palare, Ayu Lakshmi, Endy Arfian [2], Tara Basro, Ario Bayu [1, 3], Marissa Anita, Christine Hakim, Asmara Abigail [3]

Music by: Aghi Narottama, Bembi Gusti [13], Gascoro Ramondo, Zeke Khaseli [1], Bemby Gusti, Tony Merle [2], Mian Tiara [3] || Cinematography: Ipung Rachmat Saiful [1], Ical Tanjung [23] || Edited by: Wawan I. Wibowo [1], Arifin Cu’unk [2], Dinda Amanda [3] || Country: Indonesia || Language: Indonesian

Running Time: 107-115 minutes || 1 = The Forbidden Door, 2 = Satan’s Slaves, 3 = Impetigore

Examining the most successful Indonesian films, one sees a healthier mix of genres, budget ranges, and auteur-driven films compared to Hollywood’s intellectual property (IP) obsessed, franchise driven, and major studio controlled film productions, as is often the case with national cinema cultures outside the United States that have any sort of film industry at all (for industrial blockbusters outside the US, I recommend Indian cinema quite emphatically and mainland Chinese cinema, not so much). I feel what saves Hollywood from pure cynical blandness are (1) its sheer size and breadth (i.e. independent and mini-major studios from A24 to Lionsgate punch well above their distribution weight), (2) its lack of government censorship, and (3) the occasional, random auteur, either homegrown or from abroad (e.g. James Cameron, Dennis Villeneuve, Paul Verhoeven, John Woo) drawn to Hollywood’s resources who manages to wrestle enough creative control from overbearing studio executives.

Satan’s Slaves is full of subtle, creepy visuals previewed from afar, but the film overuses this trick one too many times.

Indonesia doesn’t have those problems nor much in the way of sizeable film production budgets, but what it does have in common with modern American filmmaking is its penchant for effective, memorable horror films with considerable production values. Of the top twenty highest grossing Indonesian features as of May 2023, seven are horror films and two of those are written and directed by Joko Anwar. Anwar, a well decorated filmmaker with a wide range of feature credits to his name, is perhaps most notable for his work in the horror genre, three films of which are highlighted here. The Forbidden Door, Satan’s Slaves, and Impetigore all have to do with childbirth, fertility, and parental responsibility in some way yet approach those themes from different angles and to varying degrees of success.

Least successful of this trio is The Forbidden Door (Indonesian= “Pintu Terlarang,” a sort of thriller-horror hybrid that examines the FX of parental abuse on adult paranoia, which plays with its audience’s perceptions of reality in a myriad of interesting but also frustrating ways. Tense and well acted, The Forbidden Door explores the personal life of protagonist Fachri Albar, a lifecasting sculptor who copes with his and girlfriend (later wife) Marsha Timothy’s extramarital abortion by preserving said aborted fetus, among others, within his sculptures. His guilt over this bizarre, fucked up emotional response prompts him to see violent, depraved conspiracies around him in an increasingly abstract, convoluted adventure that recalls the likes of Alfred Hitchcock as well as David Lynch. 

Despite the stylistic ambition of those callbacks, from The Forbidden Door’s old-fashioned zoom lenses and sickly, pastel colors, the film’s script lacks a solid foundation and instead relies on one of the more ludicrous plot revelations I’ve seen in some time. Anwar embraces a notorious filmic storytelling cliché (spoilers follow… ) where the vast majority of The Forbidden Door takes place inside our main character’s head, where all the aforementioned narrative tension was a result of childhood trauma Albar suffered. The sloppiness of the film’s central reveal is on par with recent cinematic wet farts like Antebellum (2020) and Don’t Worry Darling (2022).

Faring much better than the 2009 film but still with its share of problems is Satan’s Slaves (Indonesian= “Pengabdi Setan”), a remake of the 1981 Indonesian classic of the same name by noted genre filmmaker Sisworo Gautama Putra. Western cinephiles will note stylistic similarities between Anwar’s remake and The Exorcist (1973), as well as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981, 1987, 1992) trilogy, via themes of possession, demonic rituals, and haunted house sets (no humor, unfortunately). Slaves is no Hereditary (2018), but Anwar orchestrates a diverse range of jump-scares and creepy imagery without devolving into over-the-top, Conjuring (2013, 2016, 2021)-style digital FX mayhem.

Slaves‘ main problems are, as with The Forbidden Door, its script. While its first act establishes the film’s primary nuclear family, lead by actress Tara Basro, and how they recover from the death of their household matriarch (Ayu Laksmi), the subsequent ghostly apparitions grow repetitive midway through the second act and become truly grating by the end of the third. Much of the film feels like it’s spinning its wheels until a nice homage to Night of the Living Dead (1968) dovetails with another narrative twist in the final set-piece I wish the film had leaned into more.

Creepy pig masks (top), tormented mothers (middle), and violent kidnapping (bottom) abound in The Forbidden Door, Satan’s Slaves, and Impetigore, respectively.

Last but not least is Impetigore (Indonesian = “Perempuan Tanah Jahanam,” or literally Woman of the Damned Land; I believe the English title is a reference to the skin condition, impetigo), which utilizes the classic premise where city slickers travel to the sticks and have to survive against hostile locals (e.g. Deliverance [1972], Southern Comfort [1981]). After a bonkers prologue that showcases returning lead actress Basro survive every tollbooth operator’s worst nightmare (come for the great cross-cutting between her and costar Marissa Anita, stay for the machetes!), the movie transitions from the urban jungle of Jakarta to the green jungles of rural Java. The film’s scares revolve around a neat mystery in a remote Javanese village connected to Basro’s family history, and this scenery comes alive thanks to a variety of stationary to handheld photography. Daytime sequences are bright, green, and vibrant, while the nighttime scenes feel dark and ominous, but without resorting to the extreme low-lighting setups common to many contemporary digitally photographed features.

Unlike Door and Slaves, Impetigore’s story holds up to its visuals thanks to smart pacing and great use of supporting characters. Most of the malevolence in this film stems from regular people rather than amorphous supernatural entities, which lends immediacy and relatability to the threats against our main characters. The film also sticks the landing if you ignore a predictable cornball epilogue.

The Forbidden Door, Satan’s Slaves, and Impetigore showcase a nice evolution of filmmaker Joko Anwar’s directorial execution regardless of my general distrust of his screenwriting abilities. They also illustrate, one could argue, the modernization of Indonesian horror filmmaking over the past couple decades in the wake of new millennium Japanese horror‘s (J-horror) decline, given the lack of a definitive regional replacement elsewhere in East Asia. Like much of Hollywood filmmaking, including popular American horror films (e.g. James Wan’s filmography) Anwar’s scary movies are too reliant on tired clichés recycled from genre movies of the 1970s-1980s, but his visual storytelling is competent enough to supersede his script’s old ideas.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: After my lackluster reaction to The Forbidden Door’s unimaginative script, I hoped against hope Anwar’s horror direction would improve throughout his filmography, and that was indeed the case. Satan’s Slaves’ demonic imagery is fun even if the film doesn’t take full advantage of its premise, while Impetigore puts the fish-out-of-water protagonist through unsettling adventures connected to their family legacy.

—> The Forbidden Door is NOT RECOMMENDED, I’m ON THE FENCE with respect to Satan’s Slaves, and I RECOMMEND Impetigore.

? Did Basro learn or gain anything of value for herself after that nightmarish visit to her ancestral village?

About The Celtic Predator

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

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