Cults. Devil worship. Vengeful ghosts. These tropes are so often seen in horror that it’s become hard to parody them. Director Joko Anwar proves that they still retain the power to scare, however, as long as they’re done well. A remake of the Indonesian remake of Phantasm, released in 1982 under the title Satan’s Slave, Anwar’s vision found impressive success in its home country last year, and a New Orleans screening at the 2018 Overlook Film Festival showed American audiences why this might be. The winner of the festival’s Jury Prize, Anwar gives horror fans something to be excited about—and scared of.
The family at the center of Satan’s Slaves is having a bad week. Their matriarch, a once-famous singer, hasn’t earned royalties in months—and on top of that, she’s bedridden with a morbid illness. Her death kicks off a chain of supernatural occurrences, pushing the family into a horrifying situation, one that they can avoid as long as they care for each other. As their torments escalate, however, the family faces truths that threaten to rip them asunder.
Anwar has clearly scoured the classic horror films of this era. His camera’s slow zooms and crisp, moody lighting harken back to that familiar style, while the atmosphere broods toward its climax in the same manner as The Beyond, Poltergeist, or The Omen. The homage shows its seams almost constantly, and the recycled beats can feel silly, but Anwar appears to be aware of this. While the film has plenty of laughs, that doesn’t lessen its ability to chill us, either. The imagery is simple and fascinating, often terrifying, but the film really holds our attention by creating characters.
Like It or The Conjuring, Satan’s Slaves centers its scares on genuine characters: a family who cares about each other and will die for each other. Anwar gives the film time to set up the protagonists’ goals and challenges, so even if the actors can seem overly performative at times, their characters are real. This is a rare gift for genre fans—we need to relate to the people we see on screen, or the horror that they experience won’t touch us. The final theme that Anwar seems to present is a little saccharine, but that only feeds into the film’s classicism—and hey, a little positivity can’t hurt.
The dialogue merely serves the purpose of explaining the mythology (though its occasional clumsiness seems the fault of the subtitles), the acting can be frustratingly direct at times, but all of this works toward the film’s purity of vision—it really does feel like a lost cousin to Phantasm. The twists will likely lose some viewers, though horror lovers should already be used to this sort of Grand Guignol madness. Endings are hard to stick in this genre, and Anwar might not please everyone, but the mayhem hardly lets up. There are a few moments of violence that earned horrified shouts from the audience, too.
Though it has yet to break into the mainstream stateside, Satan’s Slaves marks itself as one of this year’s most entertaining horror films. Is it a perfect work? No, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful, or any less fun. Like the films to which he pays homage, Anwar shows us a good, nerve-jangling time, without cheating or dehumanizing his characters. These are the horror films we come back to, the ones about good people who encounter true evil and fight back.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
Check here to catch up on our previous coverage of the 2018 Overlook Film Festival.