We’ve all got some familial skeletons in the closet that would come rattling to life if we delved deep enough. It’s unlikely, however, that they would be as extreme as those unearthed by the heroine of creepy Indonesian horror Impetigore. The hidden history of a remote Javan village and the cultural specificity of its practices adds a zesty freshness to the familiar Deliverance template.
Maya (Tara Basro) survives a machete attack while working at a tollbooth station. It’s soon established that she has been targeted deliberately. “We just don’t want what your family left behind,” the assailant says before he’s gunned down by police. Having never known parents her, she feels a compulsion to visit the village she left 20 years previously to discover the secret of her heritage. What she discovers is more sinister than she could have imagined.
Indonesia isn’t particularly known as a hotbed of horror. Besides Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto‘s enthusiastically deranged “Safe Haven” segment of the anthology V/H/S/2, writer/ director Joko Anwar seems to be cutting a lone furrow. Impetigore is his follow-up to Satan’s Slaves, the highest-grossing horror of all time in Indonesia, and the welcoming arms of Shudder seem a snug fit for Anwar’s ebullient nastiness. For the most part, his meshing of recognisable horror tropes with a very Indonesian flavour is hugely impressive.
After the brilliantly tense opening attack, Impetigo settles into a slow-burn that sets up Maya’s central relationship, with her chatty, bubbly best friend Dini (Marissa Anita), and their journey to Maya’s home village, of which she has no memory. There are hints of Jacob’s Ladder and the eerie children that proliferate East Asian ghost stories in the unsettling visions that could be related to the trauma of Maya’s narrow escape or that may be signs that she’s being watched by others. It’s a significant downshift, but Anwar does a great job of keeping the atmosphere taut, and frequent collaborator Basro sells the tension between fear and curiosity with aplomb.
When they arrive at the village, things escalate quickly. It becomes clear that it’s in the grip of a curse that is the cause of the heartbreaking number of dead babies. It seems to have originated with Maya’s family, which immediately puts the pair in immense danger if her identity is revealed. The village is run by a literal puppet master (Ario Bayu), who specialises in the beautiful but ominous Wayang kulit (skin puppets). This gives a clue to what is going on in the village and relates to some deeply distressing scenes.
The traditional customs and beliefs add, as well as the horrific and very real nature of the village’s misfortune, add an element of empathy for the residents which means Impetigore is not entirely a clear case of heroes and villains. Anwar does however let things slip on a few occasions. Perhaps the most egregious is an instance of the single stupidest decision by a character that you are likely to see. Even for the notoriously dumb choices that riddle the horror genre, it’s a doozy and one that leads you to suspect Anwar may not have as tight hold of the material as it first seems. This becomes more apparent with some clumsy extended flashbacks that are a deluge of exposition at a time when the narrative had seemingly reached a gripping terminal velocity.
While the deficiencies in the writing undoubtedly hamper the film overall, there is still an uncompromising and controlled willingness to push the envelope. When the blood flows, it’s rooted in grounded reality, rather than the supernatural hysterics you might expect. It’s entirely likely that there’s an allegorical level to the story that is missed by a limited Western understanding of Indonesian history. Given that ethnic Javans were among the many victims of Suharto‘s mass killings of 1965-66, it’s reasonable to assume that the standard method of dispatch in Anwar’s film will likely shiver the bones of anyone alive during that awful time.
Impetigore is a well-made, suspenseful, and full-blooded horror that can be forgiven for some deficiencies in the writing (the dreadful punning title aside). Coming over like a brutal Indonesian amalgam of Pet Semetary, Kill List, and Deliverance, this is a deranged family history worth excavating; even if it’s one you’re unlikely to see on Who Do You Think You Are?
Available to stream on Shudder now