By Scott Dorward
Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan) (Indonesia, 2017)
“There are only dead people in the cemetery. Dead people are harmless. The dangerous ones are the living.”
A few months ago, I watched Joko Anwar‘s 2019 folk horror film, Impetigore. It was interesting and unusual enough that I pegged him as a director to look out for. When I noticed that there was another of his films on Shudder, I quickly added it to my list. While Satan’s Slaves is far from original, it is probably the scariest film I’ve seen this month.
Rini’s middle-aged mother dies after a long illness that left her bedridden, ringing a handbell when she needed attention. After the funeral, family members start to hear the bell ringing from their mother’s former room. Rini’s three younger brothers start to see manifestations of their mother, turned into some kind of monster.
With medical bills having bankrupted the family, Rini’s father heads off to raise some money in the hope of saving their home. In the days that follow, Rini and her brothers fend for themselves as ghostly manifestations increase. This reaches a crisis point when their grandmother dies under mysterious circumstances.
After finding a letter, Rini gets in touch with Budiman, an old friend of her grandmother, who claims to know the root of their problems. Rini learns that her parents made a terrible pact with a satanic cult in order to have children. Now, the price must be paid for this deal. The whole family finds themselves under siege by demonic forces, cultists and the living dead.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, one of the great appeals of watching horror from around the world is seeing common tropes reinvented, or at least given a local spin. While the basic story of Satan’s Slaves would work just as well in the USA or UK, it feels refreshing to hear characters talking about Iblis and djinn instead of Satan and demons.
At the same time, an awful lot of Satan’s Slaves doesn’t feel very fresh. This is a film that borrows heavily from greats of the genre. That’s not necessarily a problem — horror films are often riddled with nods to their influences. Here, however, it’s a little more blatant, with images lifted directly from The Grudge and Ring and arguably Night of the Living Dead, The Changeling, The Sixth Sense and Poltergeist. While it doesn’t ruin the film, it is a little distracting at times.
I can’t fault Joko Anwar’s ambition. Satan’s Slaves is a film bursting with ideas, if not always original ones. Unfortunately, this is as much a problem as a boon. The film simply tries to do much much, becoming muddled at times. It packs in ghosts, curses, possession, zombies, creepy kids, satanic cults, Faustian pacts, and ritual sacrifice. There’s even a throwaway reference to backmasking. Revelation follows revelation to the point that it’s difficult to keep track of what’s really going on. It’s a lot.
Despite all this, Satan’s Slaves is still hugely enjoyable. It’s one of the rare films I’ve seen in recent years that managed to creep me out. I found myself wondering whether I really wanted to keep watching it just before bedtime, which is usually a good sign. The tricks Anwar uses are simple, common ones, but he uses them well. Even before the end of the first act, we have scene after scene that builds a palpable sense of dread, drawing out our fear of what we might see next.
The only thing that undermines this is an over-reliance on jump scares. Far too many scenes end in a sudden musical sting and a brief glimpse of something horrible. Despite my usual animosity towards jump scares, I have to admit that Anwar executes them well. My main gripe is that so many filmmakers use them lazily, especially as gratuitous fake-outs, followed by the release of laughter. Every jump scare in Satan’s Slaves is earned, and all pay off.
I definitely recommend Satan’s Slaves. It is different enough from its obvious inspirations not to feel tired. And even when it seems like you’ve seen this film before, it still offers enough chills to be worth your time.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- 1 – Baskin (2015)
- 2 – The Bar (2017)
- 3 – The Editor (2014)
- 4 – The Beach House (2019)
- 5 – The Mummy (1959)
- 6 – The Wind (2020)
- 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
- 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
- 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
- 10 – Patrick (1978)
- 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
- 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
- 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
- 14 – The Hallow (2015)
- 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
- 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
- 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
- 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
- 19 – The Battery (2012)
- 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
- 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
- 22 – Evolution (2015)
- 23 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
- 24 – The Dead Center (2018)
- 25 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
- 26 – The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
- 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
- 28 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- 29 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
- 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
- 31 – In Fabric (2018)
Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!