Satan's Slaves Review

Satan’s Slaves reminds me of Babak Anvari’s Under The Shadow – two piss-yourself-scary stories so deeply rooted in overseas culture and indigenous circumstance. Joko Anwar’s Indonesian monstrosity does not mess around, readers. Within minutes you’ll be hit with the first of many paranormal punches that land like Manny Pacquiao on a speed bag, one after the other with impressive stamina. Scares are executed via a madman’s blueprint, birthed from beyond the grave and traced from your gnarliest nightmares. I do not scare easy, but you better believe this impossibly proficient downpour of demonization turned me into Jumpy McScreamsALot. Carved by tools that have been sharpened, dipped in acid and blessed by Satan for good measure. Take no prisoners terror, make no mistake.

A Quiet Place and Hereditary have already been dubbed 2018’s scariest films to beat, but you can add Satan’s Slaves to that list now – the most horrifying film of 2018 you haven’t heard of yet.

Plotting centers around Rini’s (Tara Basro) maybe-or-maybe-not doomed family on the outskirts of Jakarta. Mother (Ayu Laksmi) is bedridden by a mystery disease that makes her look vaguely like a ghost. Father’s (Bront Palarae) monetary situation barely covers monthly bills. Rini and brother Tony (Endy Arfian) keep little brothers Bondi (Nasar Annuz) and Ian (M. Adhiyat) in line – Ian a mute who only communicates through sign language. Day and night Mother rings her beckoning bell whenever aid is required, but it’s not without a constant creep factor that begins to rule over Rini’s family. Is her once successful musician Mother medically sick, or are malevolent puppeteers trying to destroy this otherwise struggling family unit? Spoiler alert – it’s probably the latter.

Satan’s Slaves doesn’t hesitate to establish itself as immersive past-bedtime nightmare fuel. Anwar knows how to scare you – expected or not – through simple but sadistic thriller motions (the View-Master, hair comb, double-dream, etc). An ominous Haunted Mansion portrait that oversees on particularly “HELL NAW” stretch of hallway or the ding-a-ling of a servant’s bell (but wait, where’s Mother?). Saturated water cellar seclusion or wide-open graveyard views from a child’s bedroom. Expect nothing short of a middle finger to failed genre laziness that populates so much of today’s mainstream horror cinema. Dreadful atmospheres capitalize on ravenous tones that in-turn unleash a tempest’s fury of fangs-out fearfulness.

Translation: I hope you don’t scare easily, and if you do, record your in-movie reactions because it’ll be YouTube gold.

“But Matt, is Satan’s Slaves just a string of above/average jump scares?” Ha! Anwar’s command of simplistic traumas is surgical and downright ruthless. The macabre awareness of James Wan meets the wild absurdity of Ben Wheatley or Can Evrenol, as to not spoil specific movie references. Twists and turns shift from blanketed apparition spooks to Rosemary’s Baby inspirations to goofball side characters and gruesome realities. A veritable piñata filled with gooey gut-punches and unbearable imagery. But you know what the best part is? It’s all sustained so sensationally well – 100-plus minutes of pure laugh-in-your-face audience torment.

Satan's Slaves Review

Performances are key in this ceremonious crucible of character breakdowns, just as much as Indonesian culture grounds jolts in ritual chants and umbrella-holding watchers. With a family that spans numerous generations living in the same isolated home, Satan’s Slaves’ plays the creepy kid game enough to delay parenthood desires for a solid decade. To honor the intricacies in each actor’s journey would spoil certain twists and secrets, so that won’t be happening – but don’t expect a subtitled affair where credits roll without anyone paying attention. Anwar has every opportunity to let this midnight massacring of safety become the cookie-cutter Insidious rip so many filmmakers seem content in creating, but he never succumbs to them. The result is full commitment from the cast and an unbelievable vision that’s unfiltered in its satanic assault.

Cinematographer Ical Tanjung guides sightlines into perfect screams that go along with Anwar’s long, broody gazes. Such sequences can sometimes be a dangerous gamble – fixed lenses without tension – but Tanjung’s framing unlocks frequent situational panic attacks. Poor children left staring at a door that slowly creeks open, witchy undead hands reaching through a shadowed sliver of an opening. Deathly designs are responsible for jaw-slacked, white-eyed visitors who refuse to stay buried not only as a means of torment, but to tease power struggles from beyond the living realm. Linear haunt-and-ditch events are extrapolated by surprise guests (of the living persuasion), magazine exposés and more history lessons than Rini wants to understand. And just when you think it’s over? Anwar pays off every blood-red herring with one mangled and malformed snarling behemoth of a third act. Always evolving, growing nastier by the scene.

There’s a reason why Pengabdi Setan, aka Satan’s Slaves, is the best-selling Indonesian film of 2017 (as of November, assuming the record stood). You can even reference Joko Anwar’s debilitating family curse in debates about stellar remakes – his a reimagining of Sisworo Gautama Putra’s 1980 film of the same name. Every death-dealing aspect syncs so systematically well in this housebound horror story from the twang of screeching string instrumentation, urban legend undertones and downright insatiable thirsts for genre purity. Believe me, I wouldn’t churn such festival hype if it wasn’t warranted – Satan’s Slaves a full-service haunter with its finger on the pulse of fear incarnate.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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About the Author

Matt is an NYC internet scribe who spends his post-work hours geeking about cinema instead of sleeping like a normal human. He seems like a pretty cool guy, but don't feed him after midnight just to be safe (beers are allowed/encouraged).