Indonesian writer/director Joko Anwar has stuck his feet into different genres – the rom-com, the noir thriller, the superhero movie – over the span of his career, but I first became aware of his name with the release of 2017’s “Satan’s Slaves,” a remake of a 1982 horror film that ended up becoming Indonesia’s fourth-highest grossing feature of all time. Of the few friends who saw it, their thoughts were relatively the same: the movie scared them half to death. So when I pressed play on his latest horror venture, “Impetigore,” which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to similarly high praise – it currently sits at a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes – I was stoked.
This movie’s got a wonderfully tense opening sequence, set in a toll booth where Maya (Tara Basro, who also starred in “Satan’s Slaves”) works as a collector alongside her best friend, Dini (Marissa Anita). They’re brusque and sarcastic, shooting the shit about their dead-end jobs and dreams of opening a clothing store.
Suddenly, a fear for many women working a service job takes a turn for the worst.
Every night for two weeks straight, the same man leers at Maya through her booth. However, this night is the one where he decides to step out of the car. The movie traps me in the booth with Maya, often only revealing just enough of the outside world to reflect what she can see at any given moment. I’m less than a foot away from the stalker when he peppers Maya with questions about her name, parents, ancestral village. When she doesn’t give him any answers, he does what any respectful anti-masker does and retaliates violently. Wielding a machete, he chases Maya out of the booth and just before going for the kill, apologizes, saying “we just don’t want what your family left behind.” Maya’s saved at the last second by a bullet from a highway security officer, but the stalker’s words lead her to investigate her past.
After finding a lost photo of her as a girl with her late parents, whom she’s never met, standing in front of an expensive house, the two friends return to Maya’s ancestral village to see what, if any, inheritance options are available, but the dark secrets surrounding Maya’s family don’t stay hidden for long.
Much of “Impetigore” is spent building up the mystery, as the women ask different villagers what the deal is with that gigantic abandoned house. If you’ve seen a ghost story before, the rest of the first half may seem familiar: people walking towards distant sounds, spectral visions hidden to the character, but not the audience and of course, the bread-and-butter of paranormal horror, the fake-out jump scare. Anwar stages these sequences well, often using a long depth of field, minimal lighting and a wealth of negative space to lean into the paranoia of Maya feeling like an outside, but I find the results to be too similar to other films in the genre to amount to much more than filler.
Anwar’s strength is in utilizing cinematography and blocking each scene to sustain a claustrophobic atmosphere. The cities are congested; each frame is stuffed with people and objects moving in directions contrary to Maya. When she travels to the village, she’s often the smallest object in the frame, engulfed by trees, grass or shadows. This makes me feel, like Maya, I can’t breathe or relax for fear of becoming consumed by the societal pressures of the exterior world. Anwar will flip that similar technique to put me in Maya’s shoes when villagers will stare at her. Instead of feeling the pressure of the exterior world closing in, she feels the pressure from the inability to escape because the only other person to look at is looking at her with a glazed, almost animalistic expression. Maya never feels like she belongs in the environment, so regardless of which tension-building purpose Anwar has for using this claustrophobic style, I feel uneasy, because I can’t predict which particular danger is coming for her next.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Ario Bayu, who plays the village’s elder, Ki Saptadi. Towering over every actor, Bayu’s presence means business, and though his first impressions are courteous, there’s a hesitation in his line delivery that always holds back some form of aggression. For a movie where Maya can’t properly place how the village feels about her, his presence further contributes to that uneasiness.
People may get the wrong impression with a title like “Impetigore” that the movie’s a splatterfest. This film owes more to movies like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” which left much of the grotesque to the imagination, making the violence that was visible more shocking. These characters don’t spray blood out of severed limbs like a hose. They don’t take 50 stab wounds to the gut and remain viable. The characters that do engage in violence do so out of conditioning; it’s more terrifying to see murder become normalized than see murder through the extraordinary point of view of a monster or demon caked in makeup.
This is my first excursion into Anwar’s filmography, so I can’t say for certain where “Impetigore” ranks among his films, but for me, it’s a mixed bag. I find the work well-made and effective at times, but the effect of the story comes off like paint-by-numbers horror. The ending reveals are dumped in two extended flashbacks and the movie doesn’t give Maya or Dini time to delve into how these reveals affect their emotions or worldviews as a result. “Impetigore” understands what goes into a horror film, but not necessarily how to influence the characters and their stories with those elements. If you’re scrolling through Shudder looking for a first film in a Friday-night marathon, this wouldn’t be a bad appetizer.
Featured image credit: Shudder
Daniel Berrios watches movies in Dallas with his wife and three meowing children. When not watching movies, he’s likely writing about them or discussing them on his YouTube channel. Outside of film, he enjoys “Borderlands,” cooking and playing a guitar that desperately needs new strings.