The Joko Anwar film, Satan’s Slaves, which had its Canadian premiere at Fantasia 2018, has a wonderfully lurid title which could lure in fans of Satanic cinema. But while there is mention of Satan, and there are most definitely slaves, this is not your typical devil movie.
A remake of the cult classic, Pengabdi Setan, Satan’s Slaves echoes its predecessor by eschewing Christian imagery and iconography. Islam is the dominant religion in this film, but the power of Allah is not enough to compel the family of main characters in this version to prayer.
A secular family, they suffer in poverty, three generations in one home. Grandma (Ally D. Luthan) is wheelchair bound, while Mother (Ayu Laksmi) lies wasting away in her upstairs bedroom. Formerly a recording artist, there are no more royalties coming in from her music. The two older children, Rini (Tara Basro) and Tony (Endy Arfian) struggle to bring money into the family coffers before the bank forecloses on the house. Father (Bront Palarae) has difficulty finding work. Mostly oblivious to the financial problems of the family are the two youngest children, Bondi (Nasar Annuz) and Ian (M. Adhiyat). Ian is deaf and communicates through sign language. Bedridden Mother, her singing voice and power of speech gone, rings a bell when she needs something.
It doesn’t take long after Mother’s inevitable passing for things to get weird. Father is compelled to go out of town to raise money, leaving the oldest children in charge of the younger brothers and Grandma. Bondi’s bedroom window overlooks the cemetary, and he sees odd lights around his mother’s grave. Tony still hears the beckoning bell his mother used to ring, even after he places it in her grave.
Oh, that bell. That damned bell. It is practically a character unto itself in Satan’s Slaves. As the plot begins to unfold and the strange occurrences in the home ramp in frequency, the underlying theme of communication breakdown becomes evident. Mother could not speak, Ian cannot hear, and Father is absent, leaving the family unable to pay for a telephone. Their only friends are a Muslim man and his son, both representative of a religion they neither adhere to nor trust. At one point, Rini admits she knows how to pray, but has never done it. It is difficult to face cosmic evil if one does not know how to conceptualize ethereal good.
The scares in Satan’s Slaves start slowly. The ringing of the bell, the radio tuning by itself to one of Mother’s old songs on the radio, strange sights in the hallways and basement; it’s pretty standard haunted house stuff. But even these hoary elements, the stuff William Castle could base an entire film marketing plan around (“Listen! And beware the Bell of Fear!”), are given new life by Anwar’s skillful direction. His jump scares are actually frightening, not just startling. And those moments aren’t the extent of it. Anwar uses those jolts to build palpable tension. By the time the third act comes steamrolling towards the viewer, the crazy train is running at full speed.
It’s a shame the last few minutes introduce a couple of new elements that obfuscate the story. Conjecture is the viewer’s finest friend at this point. Certain objects suddenly become central to the plot, and the mechanics of those things are never fully explained. Horror fans don’t need everything spoon-fed to them, but a little more exposition might have been helpful during the final scenes.
According to IMDb, the film Satan’s Slaves is based on was an Indonesian interpretation of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. Anwar’s version bears little resemblance to the exploits of The Tall Man and Reggie. Well, there’s a sketchy graveyard, but that’s about it. What Satan’s Slaves does bring to the table is excellent direction, gorgeous cinematography, and a true sense of rising tension. While a more coherent ending would have been nice, the stylishness of Satan’s Slaves makes it well worth viewing.