Often when a family member dies, it can sometimes appear that we may not have known that person at all. Clearing out their possessions can unearth interests and secrets unbeknownst to anyone else and unfamiliar faces at a funeral can point to chapters of their lives never discussed.
Mawarni Suwono, a once famous singer, is the mysterious family member at the centre of Indonesian filmmaker Joko Anwar’s Satans Slaves. Her looming youthful portrait hangs in the corridor of her family home, overseeing her husband and children as they take care of a home in a financial crisis. Bed-ridden and extremely ill, Mawarni is attended to by her husband, her daughter Rini (Tara Basro) and her eldest son Tony (Endy Arfian).
Using a bell to notify her family when she needs help (she is unable to talk), Mawarni’s health is in rapid decline when one night Rini hears ringing and goes upstairs to see the figure of her mother standing in the corner of the room, seemingly a miracle, but then also still laying in the bed. Within a few moments of panic and fear, Mawarni is pronounced dead.
During the funeral, middle brother Bondi has concerns about his mother. He has heard that after 40 steps, the last family member to leave the funeral will wake the dead. From this moment on the family are plagued by poltergeist activity and apparitions of Mawarni around the house. While any vision of a long dark-haired woman in a white nightgown is sure to conjuring terrifying images of Ringu and Ju-On, Satan’s Slaves relies far too heavily on non-diegetic sound to deliver its scares. Every turn of a shoulder to reveal a gawping character feels repetitive and mundane and lends itself much more to the tired format of American horror cinema than the incredible genre films coming out of Asia.
While its original moments may be lacking, Anwar’s technical abilities are never debatable. The atmosphere he creates is readily unsettling as he scans the house, pausing on empty spaces and the portrait that ominously watches over the children. The wide-shots used to create tension and distance between characters in some of the films more chilling scenes are particularly beautiful. It’s a shame that this sense of lurking restraint wasn’t utilised more than his chosen jump scares.
As the family begins to unravel the mystery behind Mawarni’s aggressive spirit presence in the house the theme of familial secrets and guilt becomes most prevalent, a topic deftly tackled in Ari Aster’s Hereditary earlier this year. Similar to Hereditary, Satan’s Slaves’ dealings with the occult and family connection derive great performances and some fully fleshed out character work. This is a family you truly care about and root for, youngest brothers Bondi and Ian (who is mute) are and absolutely heart-warming addition to an otherwise dark film.
Anwar’s blend of both Americanised scares and Indonesian culture sometimes feel disconnected in a film that does possess both the technical style and character substance to be an impressive piece of work. Satan’s Slaves’ issue is that it isn’t scary enough, depending on momentary moments of shock instead of something that could have truly gotten under the skin.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her lifesource is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here