Joko Anwar made waves overseas in 2018 when his ghostly familial horror Satan’s Slaves hit the festival circuit. Such success was cemented when the film became the highest-grossing horror film ever in his home country of Indonesia, cementing him as a dominant genre voice for the country. Anwar is now back with a similarly themed familial tale.
Impetigore wrestles with the struggles of rural communities upholding tradition but also embracing modernity. The art of Javanese shadow puppetry is Anwar’s significant cultural pillar within this story, giving not only a visual style to communicate plot elements but also a motive for grisly happenings. Most importantly, the study of the puppetry—also known as Wayang, is the perfect cover-up for leading lady Maya (Anwar regular Tara Basro) to travel to her ancestral village after she learns that there might be property for her to claim.
With best friend and comic-relief perfection Dini (Marissa Anita) by her side, the pair claim to be university students on a research trip to Harjosari village, where one of the most skilled Wayang puppeteers’ lives. They decide to hide their true intentions as Maya has not been to the village in 20 years— she doesn’t remember her mysteriously deceased parents and a threatening encounter in the city raises her suspicions. Good thing too, as the villagers are less than friendly; it’s a community in decline and there’s not a single young person to be found anywhere. Maya’s birth home is no different, a decaying and unloved mansion resting amongst traditional huts and overgrown grass is a sore sight indeed.
Impetigore favours a slow build of mystery and dare I say, even adventure, in contrast with the frequent shrieks and jumps found in Satan’s Slaves. Basro and Anita’s impeccable pairing paints the two BFF’s as utterly charismatic leads. The film’s moody shots wind through forest and overgrown mansion corridor with all the energy of rampant spirits seeking a new host— and while the film does run quite long at 1 hour 47 minutes, Anwar successfully rouses a feeling of taking a hefty exploratory journey through this rural landscape and community.
The film dips into different villagers’ homes and lives, expressing what they believe to be a curse inflicted upon Harjosari that is affecting their community, a curse of which Maya is unknowingly at the centre. Anwar takes the film to some pretty dark places: blood draining, murder, skinless babies and curses. The village shaman Nyi (Christine Hakim) ties this all together into a believable package. As westerners its easy to dismiss the village’s behaviour as purely insane, but the concern stemming from villagers about the future of their people feels warranted. After all, a remote Javan village barely accessible by vehicle knows no other reality that inherited lore and superstition. It’s a fascinating conundrum: how does one keep their cultural heritage and sanctity alive but also ensure the health and well-being of its inhabitants without modern intervention? Anwar doesn’t get too deep into the intricacies of such topic, but it seems to be a running thread through his horror offerings.
When the film does start to reach terrifying points as Maya uncovers more about her place in the village’s history, Impetigore does unfortunately become lazy. A lengthy slew of fill-in-the-blanks flashbacks in the film’s final act is so long and tangled it almost feels like a short film within the feature. Not every detail of the backstory needed to be laid bare here, it would have done the finale a mighty justice to allow some of the grand reveals to be uncovered through interpersonal dialogue and reliance on the audience to connect the dots.
Impetigore does point to a more mature level of film-making from Anwar, my original criticism of Satan’s Slaves was its heavy reliance on non-diegetic sound and American-style jump scares. Impetigore throws all of that to the wayside. It feels like a sprawling story, and its easy to get lost in the sense of time that spans around the village’s history. You can see it in the vines strangling Maya’s inherited estate, the technical prowess of the frequently practised shadow puppets and the furrowed creases of mourning parents’ faces. The blend of mystery and horror is near-enough note perfect—in part thanks to the light relief of Maya and Dini’s relatable friendship, but also due to the Anwar’s studious build to a blood-shedding finale.
Impetigore is available to stream on Shudder now
by Chloe Leeson
Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She is a costume designer and trainee teacher living in the North East of England. She thrives watching 90s Harmony Korine Letterman interviews and bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. Find her on Twitter @sqchloe and on Letterboxd here.