At a time when religion is glorified to the point of vulgar and non-believers are cast in negative lights in popular culture products, film director Joko Anwar dares to take a different route in his latest horror flick, Pengabdi Setan (Satan’s Slave).
Unlike the original 80s blockbuster in which non-believers face horrible consequences, the much-anticipated spine-chilling film launched last week tackles the issue of religiosity in a more nuanced and less patronizing manner. In the old version, the main antagonist was a female devil posing as a new maid who preys on a wealthy family whose members are non-believers. Religion is the explicit resolution to the problem. Instead of rehashing the typical plot line, i.e. punishing the non-believers, Joko provides the context and reasons to humanize the non-religious family.
The story departs from a financially struggling family of six who has just lost their mother and breadwinner, Mawarni Suwono. Soon after Mawarni’s death from a mysterious illness, the family begins to get haunted by a female ghost who appears in her physical form.
In her quest to find out why they are haunted, eldest child and the movie’s female lead Rini (Tara Basro) discovers that her mother used to be a member of a cult that worships the God of Fertility because she could not bear children. Soon after the mother joined the cult, she became pregnant and eventually gave birth to four kids after she had sex with the cult members.
This premise is incredibly sharp in addressing the problem of, first, womanhood and second, the dynamics of personal faith. A scientific research done by Arthur R. Greil, found that when it comes to infertility issue, women tend to feel the most responsible even when it is known that the husband has sexual dysfunction problem. This corresponds with the way society defines the essence of a woman as a “child factory.” A woman is not a woman enough if she’s incapable of reproducing.
In the Indonesian context, a man is typically justified to divorce his barren wife or – for some Muslims – take up a second wife. In other words, a woman’s infertility threatens her sense of womanhood as well as her very own existence. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t explore this narrative enough.
We only find out about this backstory from Budiman the shaman (played by Egy Fedly), who briefly tells Mawarni’s side of story – of how her mother-in-law had not been particularly fond of her because she could not bear children. We don’t really get to see the extent of Mawarni’s desperation that has led her to joining a fertility-god-worshipping cult. Still, the relevance of this backstory is commendable. We are, of course, not entirely alien to cases of women who are exploited for sex in shady cults, or to the way “faith” or hope is used by fake gurus to exploit people.
Though religion is a main plot driver in the movie, unlike its original version, Pengabdi Setan doesn’t turn to it as an automatic problem solver. Praying doesn’t ultimately stop the terror and an ustadz isn’t exactly an invincible ghostbuster who saves the day. This shift is significant as the former version strongly emphasizes the role of a chanting prayers ustadz as devil burners.
The plot focus on family is another strength of the movie, particularly when depicting their economic struggle in some tender moments that left me teary eyed. Well, it was touching at least up until the plot-twist. I genuinely think the plot twist has ruined a very solid message that “family should always look out for each other.” Random savior can be a weak resolution, and it doesn’t actually give a satisfying closure to the family we have invested in throughout the film. It almost seems like after the plot twist, the film simply unleashes a bunch of ghost appearances just for the thrill of it, sacrificing the substance and derailing the plot from its initial objective.
Despite the lack of narrative focus and the “cause-and-effect” consistency, however, Pengabdi Setan remains petrifying and addicting, for it refuses to conform to the typical Indonesian horror movie formula.
Title: Pengabdi Setan
Director: Joko Anwar
Release Date: September 28th, 2017
Duration: 107 minutes
Casts: Tara Basro, Ayu Laksmi, Bront Palarae, Egy Fedly