It has been a very, very long time since a horror movie made me say “What the actual fuck?” out loud. Impetigore managed to make me do it six times when it went to places that… well. Yeah. They were dark. Seriously dark. The latest release from Indonesian director Joko Anwar (Gundala, Satan’s Slaves), Impetigore is a twisted tale of curses, puppets and black magic, built on a veritable graveyard full of dead babies.
Our lead character is Maya (Tara Basro – Satan’s Slaves, Killers), who has a boring job working in a tollbooth. Her life becomes far less boring when a man with a machete tries to kill her. Curious as to why he knew so much about her, and what was worth killing her over, she ventures back to the village of her birth, accompanied by her best friend Dini (Marissa Anita – Gundala, Folklore), where they intend to try and find out more information from the master puppeteer and head man of the village Ki Saptadi (Ario Bayu – Headshot, Dead Mine). On arrival at the village they find it a strange, sad and quiet place labouring in the shadow of a terrible curse. But what does this have to do with Maya’s parents, or the abandoned house she grew up in?
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The first half of the movie is, machete murder attempts not withstanding, a somewhat slow and subdued affair. Joko Anwar takes his time laying the groundwork for what follows, giving the audience time to get to know the characters and be drawn into the story. There’s plenty of tension on offer here, and the violence on display is all the more shocking for often coming out of nowhere with little warning.
The movie does commit one huge, HUGE sin. Jump scares. Oh god, the jump scares. If sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, then jump scares are the lowest form of horror. You’re not truly scaring people by making them jump, all you’re doing is startling them, getting a cheap adrenaline rush, making them squeak and calling that horror. It’s the cinematic equivalent of someone sneaking up behind you and bursting a balloon. Hate them. Luckily there aren’t too many to suffer through here and the film mostly relies on genuine tension and atmosphere, but I couldn’t let these pass without comment when they stick a jump scare right in the opening credits. BOO on you, Joko Anwar. Boo.
Jump scares aside, Impetigore goes to some seriously unpleasant places. I’m a seasoned horror fan at this point, after over twenty years of watching everything from slasher flicks to Italian giallo movies to Japanese ghost stories. Horror involving children, though, has become harder for me to watch since I had a daughter of my own, so there were parts of this film that were… yeah. They were a slog to get through, leaving me unsettled even after the credits rolled, like a bitter emotional aftertaste. Joko Anwar doesn’t shy away from what he shows on screen and even if you’re only seeing it in silhouette it remains deeply unpleasant. A tip of the cap to the actors through all this, who give it their all and make these scenes utterly, viscerally real.
Tara Basro was great to watch in Satan’s Slaves, and here again she’s a relatable protagonist. Her relationship with Dini feels genuine, their banter natural, the two at ease with each other as long-time friends would be. Ario Bayou turns in another great performance as the stern leader of the village, determined to do what must be done to try and keep the village functioning as he searches for a cure for the curse… by any means necessary.
Soundtrack duties here fell to the trio of Aghi Narottama, Bemby Gusti and Tony Merle, accompanied by the vocal talents of Mian Tiara, and while I haven’t had a chance to really delve into it, there’s one track that really stands out, playing over the closing moments of the film. After everything the viewer has sat through, as the film winds down, a melody starts to play, one that’s oddly familiar. That is, indeed, the familiar strains of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. It’s a weird addition, though on reflection it does work given the context of the events beforehand. In a sort of backhanded way.
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Impetigore is another strong movie to add to the canon of Indonesian horror, and further proof that Joko Anwar is someone who deserves more recognition in the horror world over here in the West. Impetigore drops on Shudder later this month and it’s well worth checking out along with his previous film Satan’s Slaves (not to be confused with the 1976 horror called Satan’s Slave. Apparently Satan could only afford one back then).
Impetigore premieres on 23rd July on Shudder UK.