Setan Worship (Or Love for a Classic Horror Film)

Photo taken from Bintang.com

So, the news has been out for a while now, that acclaimed Indonesian director Joko Anwar is remaking the 1980 horror classic Pengabdi Setan (which was not quite accurately translated as Satan’s Slave for the American DVD release). This is very exciting news indeed. It’s Joko’s dream project that he’s waited 10 years to (re)make.

While Joko’s feature films are mostly psychological thrillers with a hint of horror (the HBO series Halfworlds is more fantasy than horror, although it features all the famous supernatural beings in folklore), his short film, Grave Torture (2012), shows that he has a deft hand for supernatural terror. Grave Torture is one of my all-time favourite horror films, for the fact that Joko uses audio to create an effect akin to something behind the door waiting to pounce on you. The mood is unbearable and crawls all over your skin. If he applies this kind of scare tactics to Pengabdi Setan, we can be sure of an instant modern classic. (You can watch Grave Torture on YouTube. Go ahead, if you dare!)

CNN Indonesia reported a while ago that Joko is using only practical effects for his remake to get that “organic feel.” The film stars Tara Basro, Dimas Adutya, Ayu Laksmi, Egy Fadly and Fachri Albar, and Malaysia’s very own Bront Palarae who was also in Halfworlds (who’s made quite a name for himself in Indonesia now, along with Chew Kin Wah).

Joko with a … um, toyol. (from Joko’s Instagram)

In my Five Easy Pieces interview with Joko back in November 2015, he mentioned Pengabdi Setan as among the films that he grew up watching that influenced him as a filmmaker, along with Bayi Ajaib and Cincin Berdarah. In fact, in the interview with CNN Indonesia, he revealed that Pengabdi Setan was the film that made him want to become a director.

Now, the thing about Pengabdi Setan and why it is such a classic for those of us old enough to remember soiling our pants as kids, is that it had everything from black magic to ghosts to zombies and everything in between. But the real interesting thing to note is that it had a strong Muslim angle. You see, while our own Skop Productions has been touting itself as a maker of “Islamic horror” with hits such as Munafik and Khurafat, the Indonesians have been making “Islamic horror” films since the 1980s. So, sorry, Skop, but you guys are a few decades too late!

It has always been noted that Pengabdi Setan‘s basic premise is very similar to the 1979 cult classic Phantasm. Like Phantasm, it involves a black magician who raises the dead to become zombies. And it also has a boy who tries to fight the evil. That’s where the similarities end. However, it’s very clear that the director of the original Pengabdi Setan, Sisworo Gautama Putra – the king of horror who made most of horror queen Suzzanna’s films – was heavily influenced by Hollywood films such as Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, Richard Donner’s The Omen and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

The opening scene where the boy’s dead mother appears at his bedroom window is very similar to the famous scene of the vampire boy Danny Glick appearing at Mark Petrie’s bedroom window in Salem’s Lot. And like The Omen where a priest tries to warn Robert Thorn about the devil’s child, there is a religious man who tries to warn the boy about the dangers of dabbling with the occult. “Sesiapa saja senang dimasuki setan jika tidak mengenali Tuhan,” he says. (“Those who do not know God are easily possessed by demons.”) There is also an evil maid not unlike Mrs Baylock.

And of course, everyone loves the zombies in Pengabdi Setan, them white-faced, white-robed walking dead. When the boy rides his bike to the graveyard and secretly watches the evil magician raise the dead, it’s a genuinely frightening and suspenseful scene, especially with the classic trick of having the bike unable to start as the zombies close in on the boy. There’s even a shot of the three zombies that strongly resembles a shot in the Bela Lugosi film White Zombie. Sisworo Gautama Putra really knew his stuff.

Like most of the horror films of its era, sometimes there are moments of unintentional hilarity, such as when the boy exclaims “Mak sudah jadi setan!” (“Mom has become a demon!”) But these often serve as much-welcome comic relief in an otherwise unbearable horrific atmosphere. It’s a fact that people tend to laugh when they’re scared.

Of course, by the end of the film, evil is trounced by the power of God. This is where I think it gets interesting with Joko’s upcoming remake. He has never been a filmmaker with any kind of religious inclination. (Grave Torture is the closest to some sort of religious/spiritual retribution.) It would be interesting to see how he handles the religious aspect of the original, or if he does at all. It would certainly be curious to see if he would replace the religious angle with something else altogether. Or perhaps he would even retain it out of respect and love for the original. Who knows?

I, for one, am waiting for the remake with bated breath.

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