There’s something special about foreign horror...
...The extra layer of unfamiliarity adds a unique kind of tension that horror from the US can’t quite manage for me. An American-set horror film by American filmmakers subverting my expectations is not impossible, but far rarer than a similar story in the hands and home of a non-American filmmaker. I often wonder if this fascination works both ways. Are Japanese or Korean horror fans, for example, as intrigued by the more uniquely American horror fare as we are with theirs? Regardless, this dissonance of understanding is exactly why I relish the opportunity to review movies like Indonesian writer/director Joko Anwar’s Impetigore.
Maya (Tara Basro) hasn’t had the best of luck in life. Her job as a toll booth worker ended in an encounter with a mysterious stalker intent on stabbing her. The clothing business she wants to run with her best friend Dini (Marissa Anita) isn’t doing nearly as well as they anticipated. So, when she finds out she might have an inheritance waiting for her back in her home village, she jumps at the chance to retrieve it. Dini won’t let her go alone, however, so the two set off together to a town so secluded even the carriage drivers who regularly travel with passengers have never heard of it, save one, who once transported the town elder. When the women arrive, posing as university students studying the traditional Indonesian shadow puppet art of wayang kulit so as not to reveal Maya’s identity too early, they find a town seemingly lost to time and enveloped in a stiflingly suspicious atmosphere. Everywhere they go, people look askance at them, inquire about their motives, and provide only cagey responses to the simplest of questions. It doesn’t take long for Maya and Dini to discover the curse on her village and just how sinister the icy hospitality truly is.
I love a lot of things about Impetigore. The cinematography is beautifully unsettling, the atmosphere is consistently tense from the get-go, even as it plays with our expectations. On more than one occasion a jump scare is lined up, framed through lingering shots that get ever closer to some part of Maya’s inherited sprawling but decrepit house, and there is no payoff. This is no fault in the film, but rather a tool Anwar and his team deploy to let us know our expectations on how we think the story will go have no comfortable place here. You expect the house that looks like it’s falling apart to be the most sinister, haunted place. And it’s not that you’re wrong, just that you’re not quite right. The plot turns on itself beautifully, such that I can’t talk too deeply about it for fear of spoiling. Luckily, Impetigore provides plenty else to discuss about the plot that isn’t the plot itself.
I couldn’t find anything about the story told in the film being based on some Indonesian folklore, but there are elements of Indonesian culture woven throughout to aid the story along. The most fascinating bit, however, is not just the intricate traditional shadow-puppetry style that forms the story’s backbone, but the origin of the idea for the story itself. According to Anwar’s statement on the film, he got the idea from a story his older brother told him when he was six years old about how the shadow puppets were made. It haunted him so much that he made this film as a love letter to all his early horror exposure. As fans of the genre, we all know how impactful such early experiences can be, and to see one planted as a child come to such vivid fruition as an adult with an already-formidable film career is inspiring if nothing else. Horror is never short of material. We are all scared of something, always.
The cast of Impetigore is firing on all cylinders, such that choosing any one performance as a standout is almost impossible. Basro and Anita shine at the center of the story. Every member of Java village plays the spectrum of politely sinister to unsettling perfection. Asmara Abigail steals every scene as Ratih, village whipping woman, with a perfect mix of righteous anger and kindness for Maya at her most vulnerable. Christine Hakim commands the screen as the ominous and irrepressibly rage-filled village witch Nyi Misni. Everyone manages to be so effortlessly terrifying I almost couldn’t be sure who was trustworthy.
One final aspect of note before I go. I don’t often mention violence on its own, but for Impetigore the violence becomes something a character all its own. It’s so casually brutal, at once quick and painfully slow, you can’t look away from it even if you wanted to. There is a moment, a little over halfway through the film, that epitomizes this dynamic. In two lines of dialogue, less than a minute of film, we see the way violence is used throughout the film explained. “My town is safe. The people are very friendly,” says a man who has guided a police officer to the village’s entrance, as he pulls out a gun and promptly shoots the officer point blank. The village is secluded and private and seems to want to keep it that way. I’ve barely scratched the surface of this frankly quite disturbing plot, but suffice it to say, if foreign horror filled with curses and folklore and secluded villages are your thing, Impetigore is one unmissable offering.
Impetigore comes to Shudder July 23rd.
By Katelyn Nelson
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