“Dead people are harmless. The dangerous ones are the living.”
Remakes are a constant in the world of cinema with the horror genre being home to an unhealthy percentage of them, but while perception paints most of them in the negative there are more than a few good to great ones. Even better, some remakes are of films you’ve most likely never heard of let alone seen. And then there’s the remake of an Indonesian film from 1982 that itself is an unofficial redo of Phantasm (1979). Welcome to the creepy world of Satan’s Slaves.
Illness is rough on the sick and every bit as traumatizing on their loved ones, and Mawami’s family knows this better than most. She’s years into a mysterious illness that sees her wasting away, and while her death should be a relief it instead brings only terror. When their father (Bront Palarae) goes out of town in the hopes of securing work he leaves behind his four children — the eldest Rini (Tara Basro) who’s left in charge during his absence, the teenage Tony (Endy Arfian), the energetic Bondi (Nasur Annuz), and the youngest Ian (M. Adhiyat) who’s both deaf and mute.
The four begin experiencing supernatural events that leave them harried and horrified at the realization that something is after them — and that something may be their dead mother.
Writer/director Joko Anwar‘s redo of Sisworo Guatama Putra’s Satan’s Slave dials in the plot a bit more to focus on the family and their relationships, and the result is a film that delivers oodles of atmosphere and a general sense of dread. Individual scares are often less successful due to an overuse of music/sound stingers, but a blanket creepiness sits over it all.
Ghost, zombies, and possession all come into play once the film finishes its introduction and gets the horror ball rolling. Dreams portend death, the mother’s bell she used to ring for help chimes again after she’s gone, and not even a child’s plaything — in this case a Viewmaster — is free of Satanic influence. Some of it feels reminiscent of past films, but the pacing (aided by Arifin Cu’unk‘s stellar editing) allows little time to wallow in disappointment. Anwar also crafts some killer gags involving a sheet, a sequencebuilding from Ian’s habit of using wall vibrations to find people, and a terrifically messy meeting of a moving truck and a stationary human body.
Like most Asian countries, Indonesia is a far more spiritual place than the U.S. meaning characters move more quickly to accepting a supernatural threat. It eliminates the hemming and hawing of western horror films and gets right to dealing with the issue. Here outsiders offer varied recommendations to help the beleaguered family ranging from a need to immediately and boldly invite God into their home — “Houses in which the inhabitants don’t pray will be easily occupied by Satan.” — to the more practical realization that a Satanic cult is en route and a far bigger threat than ghosts.
The film is busy with various threads and elements, and some of them fall by the wayside to point where they fail to find closure or explanation. The big things are clear, though, meaning there’s a steady pull from the calm and creepy beginning through to a frenzied finale as attacks on the family shift from otherworldly to threats far more tangible. Anwar’s clearly familiar with films like The Wicker Man (1973), Race With the Devil (1975), and the very 70s-ish The House of the Devil (2009), and his feature carries a similar vibe of paranoia and fear.
The pieces that make up Satan’s Slaves feel familiar, but Anwar applies them with a vibrant and energetic style that keeps the film and the fear moving forward with thrills and enough concern for the family to hold our attention to the very end.