As an avid fan of Siswono Gautama Putra’s 1980 cult classic Pengabdi Setan (a.k.a. Satan’s Slave), Indonesia’s most versatile director Joko Anwar crafts a highly inventive yet highly respectful remake—a nightmarish love-letter to a nightmare—in his own version of Pengabdi Setan.
Mr. Anwar reinterprets the original phantasm, reconstructs the core elements and injects his cinematic virtue to create a déjà vu experience over his fresh concepts of nightmare. Some core elements from the 1980 film are reimagined to fit Anwar’s concept; a completely new backstories are added into the foray; but the whole terror remains there. Even, at some points, this remake appears to be more compelling and terrifying than the original.
Presented as a period horror set in 1981, Pengabdi Setan delivers audiences to an age-old house where an unreligious family lives. The father (Bront Palarae) mortgages the house to settle the medical bill for the mother (Ayu Laksmi), a former singer who has mysteriously fallen sick. When the mother passes away, the father leaves to the town; at the same time, a series of strange events start to terrorize the family and evil forces start to jeopardize the family’s children. In the time of crisis, the family’s first-born (Tara Basro) is sought to protect the siblings (portrayed by Endy Arfian, Nasar Anuz, and M. Adhiyat).
Pengabdi Setan streams carefully as it unravels the plot details by details and infuses it with creative horror. From the mystifying litany uttered by the mother, sign language used to communicate with the family’s youngest, to some iconic collectibles and nitty-gritties (to name a few: handbell, comb, View-Master, saga seeds, the mother’s song), there are myriads of horror source that dissolves into plot fluidly. Effective placements of jump-scares along with proficient camera works, harrowing character designs, and exquisite production designs add to the film’s neatly-built prowess which only breaks loose near the end. If there’s something to complain, that would be the film’s agitated attempt to create ‘scary moment’ which sometimes results in confusing art decision (e.g., the children’s sleeping position in one scene and the family’s lack of simple courtesy).
While the original film is straightforward, the remake isn’t. Mr. Anwar expertly fills the film with occult-ridden myth (which he expertly crafts like he once did in Kala) and sexual thread (which he once brought in Pintu Terlarang a.k.a. The Forbidden Door) to accompany the horror. Additionally, the director condemns religiocentrism-laden story of the original (powered by Indonesian New Order’s cinematic doctrine), in which any kind of supernatural abomination must be overpowered with divine intervention, only to create a more ravishing, humane horror and to pose a clever, subtle satire.
The film exposition might not be crystal-clear. At some points, it might be a little ambiguous as some clues are either blink-and-you-will-miss-it-ish or too obscure. Yet, similar to the director’s other films, Pengabdi Setan (2017) will trigger long discussions and fan theories for years to come. Even, it might inspire people to watch or re-watch the 1980 version with a new light.
As a horror piece, it’s a wickedly terrifying one. Aside from the director’s vision and proficiency, it’s the sublime acting delivered by the ensemble of the casts that gets the job done. The adult actors triumphantly deliver a terrific performance, although Tara Basro’s leading portrayal might be less restraint. Yet, it’s the child actors that win big in Pengabdi Setan sealing 2017 as the year of child actors. Nasar Anuz channels the terror from the eyes of a kid; meanwhile, Adhiyat plays with innocence and dread fluently.
Joko Anwar’s rendition of Pengabdi Setan gives a self-effacing love-letter from a fan to the horror of his life as well as a warning letter to those faint of heart.
Pengabdi Setan (2017)