Indonesian Horror: A Beginner's Guide

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Indonesian Horror: A Beginner's Guide

After years spent as the horror community’s best-kept secret, Indonesian horror is enjoying a breakthrough moment.

The Queen of Black Magic, released to Shudder last week, marks a high-profile collaboration with two of the filmmakers responsible for putting Indonesia’s genre cinema back on the map in recent years: Kimo Stamboel (who directed) and Joko Anwar (who wrote the script). A sort-of remake of the 1980 film of the same name, it follows a group of adults who reconvene at the orphanage they grew up in, only for a bloodthirsty presence to emerge seeking retribution for a past ill. Swirling together twisted limbs, haunted family histories, gross-out gore, and creepy-crawlies into what can only accurately described as a symphony of supernatural sadism, the film embodies the gruesome excess and breakneck craftsmanship that’s come to define Indonesian horror.

The Queen of Black Magic’s arrival also follows a banner year for the country’s nerve-jangling output (much of which is being faithfully championed by premier horror streaming service Shudder), from Timo Tjahjanto’s gore-soaked sequel May the Devil Take You Too to Anwar’s unsettling folk horror Impetigore. The latter has been a particular breakout success, critically and commercially. In addition to winning multiple prizes, including best picture, at the Indonesian Film Festival’s Citra Awards, Impetigore currently serves as the country’s official submission to the Oscars’ best international feature category (nominations for which will be announced next month).

The quality of Indonesian horror is by no means new; worthy genre offerings have been coming out of the country for decades. 1971’s Beranak Dalam Kubur (Birth in the Grave) focused on a struggle between two sisters, one good and the other evil. In 1981, Leák (Mystics in Bali) told of an American woman introduced to black magic by a Balinese witch; it terrified with its central image of a flying, fanged head with vital organs dangling from its neck (a mythological figure known as a le-ak). More widely regarded classics, like 1979’s The Queen of Black Magic and 1980’s Satan’s Slave, have already been remade by the generation that grew up with them. Especially in more recent years, muddling elements of the New French Extremity’s no-holds-barred brutality, J-horror’s spectral mystique, and Hollywood’s decadence together with Indonesian filmmakers’ own inimitable sensibilities, the country’s horror has represented a uniquely exciting voice in the cinema of fear.

Before checking out The Queen of Black Magic on Shudder (as this writer strongly suggests doing), here’s a quick introduction—or a beginner’s guide—to the distinctly diabolical, often delirious pleasures of Indonesian horror, as represented by six of its finest outings.

1. Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan) (2017)

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At the forefront of the recent Indonesian horror boom is Joko Anwar’s masterfully terrifying Satan’s Slaves. A remake of Sisworo Gautama Putra’s also excellent movie of the same name, it broke box-office records in Indonesia, was embraced internationally, and now thrives—especially on Shudder, where it’s become a flagship film for the service—as a particularly potent gateway drug for English-speaking horror hounds in search of superior, subtitled scares. Anwar delivers on those, employing all manner of jangling bells, shadow-soaked hallways, and creaking floorboards to enliven his story of children cursed by their late mother’s pact with the devil. Ghosts, demons, zombies and sinister cultists also factor in, as they are wont to do. No mere jump-scare generator, though, Satan’s Slaves is also a rich and emotionally devastating narrative about guilt, grief and the weight of a dark inheritance. In an Indonesia still coming to terms with the costs of its 32-year brush with authoritarian rule under president Suharto, Satan’s Slaves explores the tensions of a new generation asked to atone for the ways they’re the products of their elders’ sins. It captures through its festering dread and allegorical density some sense of the political currents from whence it was birthed.


2. The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam) (1979)

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With Stamboel’s remake burning up Shudder, there’s no better time to catch up on Liliek Sudjio’s original, distinguished by the impressively all-in performance of its lead actress, known only as Suzzanna. After a treacherous ex-lover enlists his loyal friends to throw her off a cliff, Suzzanna’s titular Murni learns witchcraft in order to return and exact revenge; convincingly portraying her character’s chilling turn toward empowerment, the actress at times appears spellbound by some mystical force, but her obsidian eyes are full of fire. Flying entrails, crawling insects, skin bubbling as it boils away at the behest of a supernatural reckoning: The Queen of Black Magic has it all, and the craft of its filmmaking has only grown more visible with age. (It’s worth noting that, in scripting the remake, Anwar took the same approach he did on Satan’s Slaves, keeping the basic premise but reimagining the story that spills out from it; while this original foregrounds the Queen herself, the remake focuses more on her victims.)


3. Macabre (Rumah Dara) (2009)

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Tjahjanto and Stamboel (known collectively as the Mo Brothers) first swept onto the Indonesian horror scene as a co-directing duo with this crimson-colored splatter-fest, a feature-length expansion of a short previously featured in six-part anthology Takut: Face of Terror. The premise follows a group of friends ensnared by a family of cannibals after picking up a mysterious hitchhiker, suggesting a brazenly ultra-violent paean to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But in this early collaboration, the Mo Brothers are less interested in originality than trying to outdo their influences. Macabre dumps buckets of blood into that pursuit, but it’s the playful energy of their filmmaking—adopting the chainsaw’s point of view in some shots, veering into vicious slapstick in others—that made the film such a formidable calling card.


4. Impetigore (Perempuan Tanah Jahanam) (2019)

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Javanese shadow puppetry provides the grisliest grist for Anwar’s hauntingly emotive horror hit, selected as Indonesia’s entry for this year’s Oscars international feature category. (Whether it makes the shortlist will be revealed Tuesday, but the significance of a horror film representing Indonesia in the awards race speaks for itself.) In Impetigore, two young women travel to an isolated village in order to uncover family secrets, which seem to include a massive house the few remaining locals eye with as much suspicion as they do the out-of-towners. Weaponizing elements of Indonesian folklore and history, Anwar’s never-more-confident direction captures the slow-mounting dread of a restless dream, before plunging into a properly nightmarish third act full of hypnotic flashbacks and gleeful carnage. Scares aside, the film’s a loaded, thoughtful exploration of mass hysteria, financial desperation, corrupt leadership and intergenerational trauma—albeit one that sets the tone upfront with a brutally tense stand-off between a toll-booth employee and the machete-wielding maniac outside.


5. May the Devil Take You (Sebelum Iblis Menjemput) (2018) and May the Devil Take You Too (Sebelum Iblis Menjemput: Ayat Dua) (2020)

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Drawing heavily from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films, Timo Tjahjanto’s May the Devil Take You duology is possessed of a similar dime-store ingenuity and gory, go-for-broke irreverence. Both films center young Alfie (Chelsea Islan, also the star of Headshot, a Mo Brothers-directed action brawler) as she struggles to survive an onslaught of demonic terror aimed, at least initially, at wiping out her entire family. The joy of Tjahjanto’s horror so often lies in its viscerally revolting details, and both films offer plenty: fingernails splitting against floorboards, characters peeling away their own faces, geysers of black bile erupting from open mouths, skulls smashing into door frames. Keeping his cleaved tongue firmly in cheek across these two entries, though the second’s more ruthless in its scare tactics, Tjahjanto delivers barrages of supernatural brutality that entertain most through their abject refusal to rein it in. (As a side-note, May the Devil Take You may be his best-known work, but also make time for Tjahjanto’s bone-crunching action-epic The Night Comes for Us, on Netflix.)


6. “Safe Haven,” V/H/S/2 (2013)

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It might be cheating slightly for this primer to include this 29-minute short, co-directed by Tjahjanto and The Raid: Redemption’s Gareth Evans, given that it was conceived, shot, and released as part of the American-Canadian horror-anthology sequel V/H/S/2. But there’s frankly no better (and definitely no quicker) introduction to the relentless energy of Indonesian horror at its finest than this found-footage freakout, in which a film crew is granted access to an isolated commune and comes face-to-face with its enigmatic leader, who believes the apocalypse is imminent and might know something we don’t. Packing more twists and terrors into its half-hour runtime than most horror films manage in three times the length, “Safe Haven” rips along with a kind of devil-may-care ebullience that would leave most horror directors winded (though, granted, maybe not the ones from Indonesia). With his acclaimed Raid films, Evans cemented Indonesia as a site for balletic, bruising action extravaganzas; with “Safe Haven,” he and Tjahjanto reaffirm it as a reliable hotbed for unhinged horror excellence.


Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.

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