REVIEW: Indonesian Horror ‘Impetigore’ (2020) is a Gruesome Walk in the Backwoods

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“A grimly styled but visually striking foray into evil curses and tainted heritage”

Arriving on Shudder this week is Indonesian director Joko Anwar’s latest film, Impetigore, a grimly styled but visually striking foray into evil curses and tainted heritage. Moving between slow-burn mystery and slasher territory, Anwar’s film is a malevolent time in the backwoods that owes more to a sublime sense of place than cheap gore.

While nasty in places, Impetigore is not scary, and neither is it surprising on a narrative level. None of those things turn out to matter much. Aside from a clumsy third act that features an absurd fifteen-minute flashback, Anwar’s direction is solid, and the expansive cinematography from Ical Tanjung is quietly impressive. If a lack of confidence in the film’s revelatory moments threaten to ruin the experience, Impetigore always looks interesting, and the devilish location conjures up palpable dread. As a horror it doesn’t quite deliver on thrills, but this is still a well-crafted poison-thorn of a film, less concerned with current environmental anxieties and more interested in dredging up gravestones, where chosen daughter Maya (Tara Basro) inherits a world of doom.

Grounded by a very likable performance from Basro, you’re quickly invested in Maya’s situation, even when it stretches into a realm of implausible voodoo. She begins the film trapped – or working — inside a toll booth, chatting to her best friend Dini (Marissa Anita) on the other line; the distinction here is that she is alone on her nightshift and her friend isn’t. The two have natural chemistry and the film always feels moving whenever they’re on-screen together. It’s a testament to the attention given to their relationship – and the infectious energy they bring – that any absence of the two is immediately noticeable.

It’s not long before a car shows up beside Maya’s booth, and the creepy driver doesn’t look like he’s leaving. In fact, the machete in his hand suggests the opposite. “We don’t want what your family left behind”, he cryptically tells Maya as he chases her down the highway. A thrilling start and the beginning of a mystery that never really takes off, but, at least for a while, the journey is an interesting one.

Naturally, Maya survives her opening encounter of terror and the film restarts again a few months later. She and Dini are struggling for money, and think they’ve stumbled upon a solution with the discovery of Maya’s abandoned ancestral home deep within an isolated, perpetually weird village.

Once the two women reach Maya’s birthplace, the slow-burn and thoroughly enjoyable adventure slips into slasher territory, with genre references all over the place: the biggest recreating the most iconic scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). I don’t have a problem with Anwar’s reverence for the classics, and the references work within the familiar language of horror. The director’s own sense of style comes through clear enough, particularly in terms of the stunning location and interwoven Javanese culture that sees a fondness for shadow puppetry, although the latter doesn’t impact the film in a satisfying manner.

Without getting into the details, which are too convoluted to describe, Maya’s ancestral home has dark secrets and she’s at the centre of it all. It’s dense and darkly engaging in the way that Silent Hill (2006) is, with strange rituals, missing children, and ominous mist puncturing through the treeline.

But in terms of heart-pounding terror, Impetigore doesn’t really convince. There’s an over-reliance on false jump-scares and a trio of apparitions that flit in and out of the story. None of it raises the pulse and, actually, it’s the film’s moments of stillness that linger the most. When it comes to physical threats, this is also disappointingly relegated to a mob-mentality of the village men who spend the film chasing Maya and Dini from one point to another. With strong attention given to its female leads, and a witchy turn from Christine Hakim as the grandmother from your nightmares, the rest of the cast feel barely present, even when they are.

Although a little underwhelming on a spectacle level, Impetigore is a film to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. Stained with earthy tones and volcanic yellow flares, Ical Tanjung’s cinematography is a major highlight. Gruesome as it may be, the wide framing of skin hung like clothes on a washing line is the kind of nasty flourish that make horrors such morbidly entertaining escapes. With vegetation eating everything in sight and mist blanketing the entire village in misery, the visual design of Impetigore does wonders to raise it above your typical swampy horror fare. Supporting this is a heavy score that groans and wails throughout, conjuring an environment that feels distinct and aesthetically brutal.

It’s a shame that Anwar almost completely derails his film with a terrible handling of exposition, botching the pacing with an absurdly long flashback towards the film’s climax. It brings everything to a jarring halt. Given that, up until this point, the director has kept the story present with an emphasis on sustained atmosphere, this exasperating narrative detour is a lazy attempt to tie the film’s lore and themes of ancestry together.

However, in a last-gasp attempt to leave a mark on the audience, Impetigore does swing back in thrilling fashion with a deliriously grim closing shot. And after the messy handling of the third act, it’s a genuine relief that Anwar ends his atmospheric but uneven horror on a high-pitched scream.

Director: Joko Anwar

Producers: Shanty Harmayn, Tia Hasibuan, Aoura Lovenson Chandra, Ben Soebiakto

Cast: Tara Basro, Ario Bayu, Marissa Anita, Christine Hakim, Asmara Abigail

Release Date: 23 July 2020

Available on: Shudder

Featured image courtesy of Shudder