At the heart of horror movies centering on domestic crises is the notion that you never really know those closest to you. A skilled filmmaker will methodically turn the screws on the viever as characters serving as audience surrogates discover loved ones' unspeakable secrets. “Satan's Slaves,” an Indonesian production making its Florida premiere this weekend as part of the Popcorn Frights Film Festival, milks this premise for all its worth. At least until it overdoses on tiresome genre trappings.
But before it devolves into living dead overkill, writer-director Joko Anwar delivers modestly effective chills made all the more unnerving for being rooted in the disintegration of a nuclear family.
But this is no ordinary family. Its matriarch (Ayu Laksmi), once a successful pop balladeer, is now bedridden due to a mysterious illness. The once thriving clan has fallen on hard times, as Rini (Tara Basro), the singer's daughter discovers when the record company informs her that Mom's royalties have dried up. Rini suggests to her father (Bront Palarae) that they sell the house where they live with her three younger brothers, but he points out the rural property still belongs to his mother (Rini's grandmother), who's wheelchair-bound but very much alive.
And then strange things start happening in the bedroom where Rini's mom, her skin ashen, lies as if waiting for ... something. Sudden noises startle the children. The bell that their mother uses to call for them begins to ring in the dead of night. And a woman who looks like a ghostly version of the woman who gave birth to these kids appears on their View-Master, a nice retro touch. Anwar, who is adapting a 1982 Indonesian remake of “Phantasm” as a remake/prequel, crafts the spine-tingling thrills with an emphasis on shrewd camera placement and evocative use of lighting.
And the reason why it works as long as it does is that the director takes pains to depict the family going through their daily routine. He juxtaposes the supernatural disturbances with the banality of house work, making for a genre entry that feels at once lived-in and obsessively crafted. (It's hard to take issue with a horror film where a boy in his teens still wears pajamas to bed.) And when death enters the picture, the characters' sorrow is palpable and genuine. In other words, the first hour of “Satan's Slaves” plays like the movie the obscenely overpraised “Hereditary,” with its dull, patently false brand of calling-card mayhem, should have been.
Alas, Anwar is dead-set on stuffing everything but the kitchen sink in order to explain the malevolent force that lurks in Rini's house. The J-horror jolts that dominate the first hour give way to talk of evil entities that recall the (superior) Iran-set film “Under the Shadow.” And that's all before the prospect of zombies rears its undead head. The performances are uneven, the pacing too slack to generate tension, but what ultimately makes “Satan's Slaves” a curiously unmemorable experience is an overreliance on horror tropes. They seep into the narrative and suffocate the heretofore enagaging proceedings with their cliché-riddled tendrils.
The movie becomes repetitive as it continues its descent to B-movie silliness. The sequences of otherworldly torment wear out their welcome, and the more Anwar explains what's actually going on, the more two-dimensional the characters become. There's also a quease-inducing undercurrent of fundamentalist condescension simmering under the surface. Muslim characters suggest that it's a lack of religious devotion that has gotten this family in their life-threatening predicament. Secularism is the real enemy here, the film suggests, and meaningful prayer holds the key to survival. (Or does it?)
Anwar waits until the final 15 minutes to inject some momentum and hurdle viewers into haunted-house thrill ride territory, but by then it's too late. The bodies have piled up, and those who were supposed to be six feet under find their rotting bodies reanimated all of a sudden, but why should we give a damn about these damned souls?
The filmmaker has crafted a near miss where the whole amounts to less than the sum of its parts, even when those parts include a handful of effective jump scares and one deliciously gruesome kill. But don't dismiss this filmmaker outright. Darkness thrives in him.
“Satan's Slaves” screens Saturday, Aug. 10, as part of the 2018 Popcorn Frights Film Festival at Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale.
For more information, go to www.popcornfrights.com.