After remaking a cult classic (Satan’s Slave) and kick-starting the Indonesian superhero universe (Gundala), Joko Anwar returns with an original story—a folk horror called Perempuan Tanah Jahanam (trans. Women of the Cursed Land). The story that once was called as Impetigore revisits wicked elements that grant the versatile filmmaker his stellar reputation: a mixed bag of traditional horror and slasher with a deceitful plot. Only this time, the writer-director crafts a straightforward slasher with the most generic devices to present a nonstop thrilling ride.
Perempuan Tanah Jahanam follows two friends, Maya (Tara Basro) and Dini (Marissa Anita) as they seek fortune in a remote village, which they desperately believe to conceal treasures from the former’s past. Yet, the movie begins slightly before the fateful homecoming with a harrowing opening. Set in a contrived toll booth, Maya faces peril and only barely avoids an attempted murder by a stranger. Joko Anwar effectively sets the mood for the whole movie with a well-made scene focusing on how danger always lurks and targets the character, even in an open space. From there, the narrative swiftly lures audiences to the promised mayhem in the cursed village.
The village, as it turns out, unravels more dreads and questions than answers that Maya and Dini seek after. There’s nothing normal about the remotely located village, which looks as if it lives two decades behind the neighboring villages. Anwar takes no time to explore the village with excruciating details from the strange-looking villagers, high-rate of infant death, mystical shadow puppet show, and others. The movie’s initial title, Impetigore (coining the term ‘impetigo’ with ‘gore’), explains a pivotal element better than anything else.
Anwar adeptly exploits the lush yet murky setting as a scarehouse. As in Satan’s Slave, the terror relies on the dismal atmosphere, which Anwar carefully builds with remarkable art designs and precise cinematography. The terror is founded upon two questions of “what actually is happening with the village and its dweller” and “how the village connects to the protagonist eventually.” The pile of mysteries only adds up as the story progresses; audiences are led to question more with each discovery the protagonists make.
As relentlessly as the finest 80s slashers, Perempuan Tanah Jahanam proudly wears the sub-genre nastiness and boldness. The result is a non-stop thrilling ride with no safe haven in sight. The nightmare scenario includes the effective use of its xenophobic settings and hideous folklore, which attempts to distract the audience’s attention. Its most somber moments will leave your heart in your mouth, even when the gruesomeness never erupts.
What Joko Anwar offers strongly in this folk-horror is its premise. When we observe the whole picture, the story is a massive irony, which is precisely crafted. By amalgamating traditional mysticism and arts with a straightforward horror, Anwar has composed full-round folklore. The presentation, on the other hand, is a different matter.
It’s a straightforward horror but it refuses straightforward storytelling. Anwar, renowned for intriguing narratives (usually involving pregnant ladies and plot twist), insists on having complex backstories to fuel the terror-fest in Perempuan Tanah Jahanam. The cost, albeit not fatal, is a loose tempo which hits the movie’s major drawback.
The major drawback would be the prolonged flashback during the third act which induces the protagonist’s peripeteia. After exposing a mild revelation halfway through the movie, Joko Anwar seems to feel compelled in adding another revelation—not to debunk but to add more perspective. You can blame the deus ex machina element for manifesting at this point. Yet, given Anwar’s over-complicated backstory, the use of flashback as an explaining device is inevitable. There’s nothing sort of a more elegant way at this point (unless reconstructing Perempuan Tanah Jahanam‘s straightforward slasher trope). The filmmaker, however, seems to also acknowledge this; therefore, he adds more layers to the backstories, making it more ironic and bitter, as some sort of redemption.
It’s undoubtedly flawed, but Perempuan Tanah Jahanam is, at the same time, an enjoyable ride. Joko Anwar still delivers a clear-cut, nerve-racking terror, even when it’s not his prime. No holds barred.