Director: Joko Anwar
Writer: Joko Anwar
Producer: Shanty Harmayn, Tia Hasibuan, Aoura Lovenson Chandra, Ben Soebiakto
Stars: Tara Basro, Ario Bayu, Marissa Anita, Christine Hakim, Asmara Abigail, Kiki Narendra, Abdurrahman Arif, Zidni Hakim, Teuku Rifnu, Muhammad Abe
After a deranged man attempts to kill her, a young woman goes in search of her true birth history that connects a secluded Indonesian village to a terrible curse.
Put yourself in Maya¡¯s shoes. Now picture the sheer terror of being in her predicament.
Working a night shift alone as a tollbooth attendant on a remote road, Maya has her best friend Dini on the phone to keep her company. She also has an unsettling stalker who has been tailing her for several days. Tonight, the mystery man makes his move. Washed in the blood red glow of taillights and ¡®Do Not Enter¡¯ signs, the man asks Maya if she is actually a girl named Rahayu from Harjosari Village. Maya doesn¡¯t know what to make of the man¡¯s muttering. After a calm trip to his car¡¯s trunk, the man returns to Maya. This time he wields a machete.
Maya makes a break for it when her tiny tollbooth ceases to offer the security of an impromptu panic room. Music mounts to match the pace¡¯s accelerating pulse. Maya hits the ground. The attacker straddles her with his blade raised high. Police come to the rescue without a second to spare, though the man still leaves a wound on the leg where Maya already bears a strange scar. Meanwhile, ¡°Impetigore¡± makes a mark with this nail-biting prologue, ringing an unnerving bell that continues humming for the remainder of the runtime.
¡°Impetigore¡± isn¡¯t all about harrowing heartbeats and disturbingly gruesome sights. Much of it is, but not all. Thanks to Maya¡¯s casually caustic pal Dini, comic relief remembers to prick bullfrogging tension every now and again with snide humor. Dini is that funny film friend whose personality forms from sarcasm and sass. She also clearly cares a great deal about her BFF, because she¡¯s willing to hold her bladder on a six-hour bus ride, pay 1,000 rupiah per person to ride in a rickety horse-drawn carriage, and sleep inside a dusty old house to help Maya uncover the truth about her heritage.
It¡¯s not just her attacker¡¯s weird words. A lone photograph of Maya with her birth parents compels her to seek out Harjosari Village to find out who she really is, as well as why someone would want to murder her. So she and Dini make the long trek into the country hoping to find some new clue about Maya¡¯s former family.
It¡¯s probably because I recently replayed ¡°Resident Evil 4¡± that Harjosari vaguely reminds me of the Capcom classic¡¯s El Pueblo. Other video game vibes include Sony¡¯s ¡°Siren¡± spiced with some occult overtones transposed from ¡°Silent Hill.¡± Slow-rolling fog passes in front of thatched roof hovels. Grime-covered farm workers stare scarily at outsiders from the city. Harjosari exists in a hazy layer between a vintage Universal Monsters hamlet and a contemporary country corner off the beaten path. Secrets seemingly simmer beneath every dirty surface, and you just know rescue won¡¯t be quick to come should the town¡¯s creepy cabal decide to make you disappear to a dark dungeon somewhere.
It¡¯s definitely because writer/director Joko Anwar is at the helm that ¡°Impetigore¡± oozes this ancient evil. Anwar has put a hand in just about every category of cinema from drama to rom-com to superheroes. But his two feature film forays into fright, 2017¡¯s ¡°Satan¡¯s Slaves¡± (review here) and now ¡°Impetigore,¡± have pulled out his chair at the table any time the horror genre discusses promising modern maestros.
Joko Anwar shows a translatable fascination for family-related fears like those seen in the insidious suburbias depicted in Nicholas McCarthy movies such as ¡°The Pact¡± (review here). Anwar takes classic clays like haunted houses, cemetery settings, and vengeful ghosts and shapes them with a slick eye seasoned by years of consuming popular culture based on these tropes. The way he applies sharp editing, color, and rattling music to make them pop with freshness demonstrates an understanding of reinvention and simple filmmaking fun similar to styles employed by Ti West, James Wan, and Mike Flanagan. Even when Joko Anwar digs into well-trod soil, his shovel shines with the sheen of a reverential appreciator who is as much of a fan as he is a provocative puppeteer of skin-crawling horror.
A more progressive touch wouldn¡¯t be unwelcome. Call it a case of cultural difference that¡¯s perhaps a product of the fiction¡¯s time and place, but several sexist undercurrents make the tide choppy, particularly with regard to threatening rape and glibly addressing promiscuity.
While we¡¯re touching on potentially problematic triggers, the horror that butters the movie¡¯s bread may be overly bleak for easily sickened sensibilities. Drowned infants, flayed skin, and brutally butchered children play key roles in the film¡¯s frightening fiction. ¡°Impetigore¡± rarely dares to get more graphic than required, often dollying close to a wall to depict certain instances of slaughter in silhouette or through other creative means. Squeamish stomachs should nevertheless brace their bowels accordingly.
Lastly, ¡°Impetigore¡± piles on exposition like corned beef on Canter¡¯s Deli rye. It comes clunkily too, served in fatty slabs of flashbacks perfectly positioned for when the script needs a deus ex machina method of jumping to the next plot point. This presents more of a problem to people who ¡°hate reading movies.¡± ¡°Impetigore¡± needs a lot of words to set its various stages, which in turn necessitates subtitles coming fast and furiously.
Yet for those who choose to stay in step with the story after overlooking a few questionably convenient conceits, ¡°Impetigore¡± packs in plenty of satanic shocks to complement its exploration of terrifying tone. It¡¯s a movie whose punctuations of action match the macabre mood, creating and sustaining teeth-clenching suspense. Joko Anwar has some edges to trim in terms of taking storytelling shortcuts and tacking too many minutes onto a movie. Despite all that, he still stays in the center of the road on his path to becoming, if not already being, a top talent in horror.
NOTE: The film¡¯s Indonesian title is ¡°Perempuan Tanah Jahanam.¡±
Review Score: 80