Interview

Joko Anwar Talks About Rebooting the Scariest Movie He's Ever Seen

The critically-acclaimed filmmaker looks back at the golden era of Indonesian movies.

by Rizky Rahad
15 September 2017, 6:30am

Illustration by Deidra Cavina

The woman's cries were enough to send shivers down my spine. It was the first thing I heard when I walked through the front door of Joko Anwar's sound studio in South Tangerang. The terrifying shrieks and cries sounded like something out of a horror movie. Which is exactly what they were.

Joko laughed as he tried to calm me down. The renowned director's production team was just finishing the final audio mix of his latest movie—a reboot of the Indonesian horror classic Pengabdi Setan, a film known in the West as Satan's Slave.

The film is the latest in Joko's rapidly expanding catalogue of films. He broke onto the scene in the mid-aughts with the hilarious Joni's Promise and the mystical thriller Kala. The early success of these films quickly cemented Joko as a name to watch—an adventurous filmmaker with his own visual style and a love of genre pictures and uncommon plots. In 2009, he made the bloody slasher-inspired thriller Forbidden Door. His later works, Modus Anomali and the TV series Halfwords continued to incorporate elements of horror and the supernatural into his films.

But Pengabdi Setan is something different. It's his first foray into straight-up horror and his first attempt at putting his own stamp on an Indonesian classic.

The original version, released in 1980, still haunts the nightmares of many Indonesians today. The film, a low-budget spectacle directed by Sisworo Gautama Putra, is still one of the best of the bloody, gruesome, and insane Indonesian exploitation movies made by production houses like Rapi Films during Gen. Suharto's New Order era.

Pengabdi Setan was a mashup of exorcism, zombie, and morality horror. In the film, the undead terrorized a household and an Islamic ulema was all that stood in the hell-hordes' way. It's the kind of movie that was made for working class Indonesians and later rewatched over and over again by academics, critics, and cultural theorists who saw it as a parable about the normalizing effect of the state when confronting a "disturbance of security and order." It's now seen as a symptom of the "spiritual emptiness" of the Suharto years by some theorists.

VICE sat down with Joko about the legacy of Indonesian exploitation cinema, the relevance of religion in horror, and his hope that the youth will start to look back at the country's classic films.

VICE: You've finally made a horror movie. Why start with a reboot of Pengabdi Setan?
Joko Anwar: It's a movie that's been stuck in my head for a long time. Back in the day, I never watched evening cinema because it was expensive. So I came to the 9 a.m. matinee showing to see a film. The day I saw Pengabdi Setan the first time, I wished the night would never come since I was so frightened. Watching the movie was a roller coaster of emotions. That's why I like horror movies, since they give us pure joy without pretension. Dramas normally have the tendency to convey opinions or political views. And I have never done a proper horror movie before.

Style-wise, Pengabdi Setan is really unique. At the time, Indonesian horror movies were dominated by gore and cheap, but passionate, special effects. Pengabdi Setan stood out because it totally relies on its atmosphere, from the makeup to all the stolen music. But somehow, it created this atmosphere of sheer eeriness. It didn't use Indonesian traditional music such as gamelan or gongs or whatever. It used 80s synths music. We can probably say that Pengabdi Setan is one of the very few of Indonesian techno horror movies.

What did you change in this reboot?
We tried to maintain its horror atmosphere elements. We tried to expand the plot since we wanted something more comprehensive. Audience these days are way more demanding than they were back then.

Do you keep the campy tone? Or did you make it more serious?
We didn't make it campy. We improved the makeup and made it look more convincing. Actually, the original movie wasn't made to be campy on purpose. The wanted to make a serious movie, and the audience at the time didn't see it as campy either. They perceived it as a serious movie. So we wanted to retain that, the audience's perception of the movie, not the campiness we see in retrospect.

The original Pengabdi Setan had a pretty strong message about Islam being the only savior of the country. How do you feel about it?
I think at the time, the filmmakers didn't intend for the film to be seen as Islamist propaganda. At the time, audiences were used to very simple ideas: bad against good. In horror movies, the bad were the devils, and the good was religion.

But it was presented in such a black and white fashion—evil is bad, religion is good. Does the reboot convey the message in a more complex way? Or does it keep it simple like the original?
It's a very good question, and I don't want to stir-up any controversy. But it's very interesting what you said since I can't also say that Indonesians today are not black and white about religion. If anything, Indonesians are more religious these days than they were back then. In the past, we would regularly see movie posters featuring naked or minimally-clothed people. Now, there's no way those would be allowed. So it's very interesting. In the end, I put my own opinion in it. I think that's the wisest way of saying it. I put my own perception of religion in the movie.

A scene from Joko Anwar's Pengabdi Setan. Source: YouTube

So what is your perception of religion?
Some people need it because they feel they want to be spiritual. And sometimes that need is used by other people in ways that isn't in the people's not best of interests. In the original movie, people thought they were terrorized by the demons due to their godlessness. In my movie, people were terrorized not because of their lack of faith, but because of their ignorance, their general ignorance of life's essence.

Did you keep the ustaz character?
This time around the ustaz has more personality and character. He's not just there to save the day, and he has his own struggles.

Older people tend to romanticize 80s exploitation horror movies while Millennials tend to ironically like these movies since they're so over-the-top and campy. Why do you think this is?
I think it's because a lot of young people haven't been exposed to much of these movies. Restoration of Indonesian movies is still very much a recent thing. Before that, there was absolutely no access to movies from that era. So I don't think they have any opinions of films from that era in general. They're oblivious of the fact it was the golden era of Indonesian movies.

Will this reboot attract Millennials to check out older movies?
I hope so. Even though it's not my intention to create a resurgence of things. I just want to make people aware that our own movies were once the king of movie industry here.

Another scene from Joko Anwar's Pengabdi Setan. Source: YouTube

Indonesian exploitation movies from the 70s and 80s are still in high demand overseas. A lot of underground movie communities abroad discuss them constantly. What is it that they see that we don't?
Westerners have a lot of access to mainstream movies, so they search for something different. Some of our movies are extremely different. In terms of technical ability, since we were behind, we made up our own, and it often resulting in some pretty extravagant entertainment. It's a 'this is so bad it's so good' kinda thing.

Perhaps the international audience is trying to find a new thing to spotlight, new sources of films. Or maybe our movies are beginning to have a strong identity. Maybe when people watch our films, they're able to recognize where the movies are from. Uniqueness is a good thing. It's refreshing.

So with this abundance of talent and creative ideas in the domestic film industry, what's still holding us back?
We haven't figured out the right marketing model for Indonesian audiences. Since our people are so diverse, so we haven't been able to come up with a single marketing scheme for everyone. We also need to have more executives with proper knowledge and taste in movies, so the industry can be sustainable. Because, right now, it's like we're all locusts, not filmmakers. Once a genre sells well, everyone is doing it. Once it's no longer trendy, everyone moves on. We need to have more executives and producers with class.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity. It was originally conducted in Bahasa Indonesia.

Want to watch the original Pengabdi Setan (and a bunch of other Rapi Films classics)? You're in luck. We've partnered with Rapi Films to host a film festival showing 13 Entertainment's newly remastered versions of Pengabdi Setan, Ratu Ilmu Hitam, and Sundel Bolong, as well as the original cut of Jaka Sembung. Join us this weekend at Kinosaurus in Kemang, and stop by Sunday for a special Q&A with Joko Anwar himself.