Directed by Joko Anwar
When I first heard about Shudder, I assumed it’d be a place people could go to find schlocky, disposable flicks time forgot. While it’s got a lot of that too, since its launch in 2015 the curators have built an impressive library of timeless classics and, more recently, original content. Impetigore is among them: an Indonesian offering from Joko Anwar, whose remake of Satan’s Slaves is the most successful horror the country has ever produced. This time he holds back (a little) on the gore, for a moody trip to the woods.
Besties Maya (Basro) and Dini (Anita) are bored working dead-end jobs for little pay – particularly after a hell of a shift when a stalker attacks Maya. So it seems too good to be true when an old photo, gifted by her aunt, suggests she has a claim to a bloody big home belonging to her estranged parents. And, from the ravings of the person who came at her, she knows where it is: a secluded Javanese village. Only, when they get there, pretending to be two students, they find the house abandoned for reasons none of the locals wants to talk about. Not that they don’t have a lot on their mind: not least an ageing population. There are no kids around, save for three ghostly girls who show up every so often, and a hell of a lot of little graves. An epidemic has seen all new-borns enter the world in a state of pain, and need to get given a mercy killing moments after. The villagers think it’s a curse, which is somehow its all linked to her family place, and don’t take kindly to its new inhabitants.
There are some exemplary scares here. The opening scene by the toll booths is a masterclass in introducing then escalating tension, and there are disturbing images peppered generously throughout. For instance, the film doesn’t shy away from depicting the deaths of infants, and the more details we learn about the curse then the squirm-inducing it becomes. True, some of the jump moments are a little predictable – though they’re given new life with the atmosphere of dread and paranoia Anwar establishes from the start. As Maya and Dini take a bus from the city there’s a real creepiness to it. A sense of foreboding – they’ve left what little safety they have behind. People mutter, stare and outside spirits from the past line the road. There’s a strong sense of location throughout: the remote village, in the middle of nowhere, is creepy as hell and makes the perfect arena for a film about secrets. The infusion of folklore with classic horror makes for often outstanding viewing, and the film never fails to remind viewers how utterly stuck our protagonists are – isolated, with nowhere to go, and also nobody to help them. Meaning they spend most of the movie in a place few outsiders know about, and one those who do avoid like the plague.
What’s almost as impressive as how well Anwar handles the first two acts is how much he fumbles the third. Impetigore is a mood piece instead of a story one so, to an extent, I forgive some awkward plot devices and parts the rest on the main characters making silly decisions. Still, bits of it are downright bad, with a lot of the backing story filled in towards the end via almost comically long flashbacks. Most frustratingly, the first two-thirds introduce a fascinating moral dilemma that puts the audience in an unusual position. Only to undermine it by adding a third far more boring option. On the plus side, the nature of the curse itself stays exciting enough and, once we know its specifics, credit to Anwar for not sensationalising it. However, the more he tries to explore the human threat then the worse his film becomes, resulting in an uneasy transition from slow burner to potboiler.
None of this is enough to really ruin Impetigore, though it does prevent it from making my end of the year list – something I was confident it would do for a lot of its running time. Still, credit to Shudder for continuing to take us to places we’d never usually get to. Horror is a global thing – it always has been. With the industry slowing down right now there’s doubtlessly a wealth of foreign films from the last few years we’re yet to hear about. What they need is a platform, and I’m delighted to see that, lately, this is what the streaming service has become. A hub you can see Tigers Are Not Afraid, Terrified, One Cut of the Dead and now Impetigore. In other words, this month, I’m glad to have paid my subscription.