'Sebelum Iblis Menjemput' director Timo Tjahjanto directs actress Pevita Pearce, who plays Maya. (Photo courtesy of Screenplay Productions)

New Names, Same Old Stories?: Indonesian Horror Movies


AUGUST 29, 2018

Jakarta. Joko Anwar’s award-winning horror movie "Pengabdi Setan," or "Satan’s Slaves," raked in over 4.2 million viewers in Indonesia last year and also became the highest-grossing movie in Malaysia. The remake of Sisworo Gautama Putra's 1980 B-movie horror classic was also screened in festivals around the world.

It was the first time director Joko – known for his psychological thrillers "Pintu Terlarang" ("Forbidden Door," 2009), "Modus Anomali" (2012), "A Copy of My Mind" (2015) – worked with Rapi Films, one of the oldest production houses in Indonesia.

Rapi’s roster already includes regular horror directors such as Nayato Fio Nuala, Findo Purwono and Rizal Mantovani.

But this year it chose to make "Sesat" with Sammaria Simanjuntak, a director better known for her comedy dramas ("Ci(n)ta" ("Love/Hope," 2009) and "Demi Ucok" ("For Ucok's Sake," 2013)).

Pengabdi Setan has set a new bar for Indonesian horror films in terms of quality and commercial success. Are Rapi Films and other production companies now looking for new names to match or top its previous successes?

Viewers Are Getting Smart

Rapi Films producer Sunil Samtani told the Jakarta Globe recently that Pengabdi Setan "set a new benchmark" for local horror flicks, so they have to find something different to match it.

Sunil also pointed out that viewers are getting smarter.

"I think Indonesian movie audiences are now much more selective about what they want to watch. They know what’s good and bad for them. We can now work out if a film will do well at the box office from the first or second day it’s in the cinemas," Sunil said.

He said Rapi Films is always open to working with new talents – filmmakers and actors – and even independent directors, Sammaria being one of them.

Sesat wasn't just Sammaria's big break in the industry, but also her first foray into horror. Sunil said the key to a director's success is having a clear vision and the confidence to execute it.

"Sammaria knows what she wants. That’s what gave me confidence [to produce Sesat]. I won't dare go into this with an indie director who's still finding his way. Joko and Sammaria assured me their films would be terrifying, so I said let’s do it," he said.

Sunil said Joko had actually been begging him for 10 years to remake Pengabdi Setan. As the director has said many times, Pengabdi Setan was one of his favorite movies, the one that inspired him to become a filmmaker.

"Every time he met me in festivals, the conversations always led to Pengabdi Setan. He kept pestering me for a remake. I didn't agree to it at first because he had never made a horror film. And Pengabdi Setan is a huge brand. But then Joko showed me two short horror films he had made on the side, 'Jangan Kedip' ('Don't Blink') and 'Jenny.' That's when I knew, this guy could pull it off," Sunil said.

Joko helped introduce Sammaria to Sunil and this time the negotiation didn't take a decade.

"I’m always looking for talented directors. Sammaria is amazing, she knows her chops. Our job is to give her the opportunity, bigger budget and just watch her grow. I was impressed with the film itself. Sammaria can really nail a good horror film," Sunil said.

Sammaria told the Jakarta Globe in a separate interview that she has been encouraging Sunil to recruit new talents to find fresh stories.

No Mo Brothers

Timo Tjahjanto’s currently showing "Sebelum Iblis Menjemput" ("May the Devil Take You"), has already been watched by over 950,000 people.

This is Timo’s third collaboration with Screenplay Production after action flicks "Headshot" (2016) and "The Night Comes For Us," which had actually been completed before Sebelum Iblis Menjemput but will be released later this year.

Timo – one half of The Mo Brothers with Kimo Stamboel – told the Jakarta Globe he was introduced to his producer Wicky V. Olindo by action actor Joe Taslim in 2015. Soon after, Timo and Wicky proceeded to make Headshot.

After two movies together, Timo was asked to do another action fare. But the director said he wanted to go back to his roots: horror movies.

As The Mo Brothers, Timo co-directed "Rumah Dara" ("Macabre," 2010), Indonesia's own The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

"I finally convinced Wicky to make a horror movie, something that can be welcomed locally but the quality is better. This was after Pengabdi Setan kickstarted the horror trend," Timo said.

The director said he is aware of public perception that horror films have become a cash cow for the industry since they are guaranteed audiences in the hundreds of thousands – even millions.

"I don't see it that way, though. It's a genre movie, but not easy to make or make money out of. If we see horror movies that way, we're never going to be taken seriously. Wicky knows I want to restore the genre's reputation with Sebelum Iblis Menjemput," Timo said.

Wicky told the Jakarta Globe in a separate interview that Timo was initially hired by his production company for his keen eye on horror.

"He’s really talented. His previous films were all independent but earned many acclaims at festivals. He’s a national treasure," Wicky said.

He said releasing Sebelum Iblis Menjemput wasn’t an attempt to jump on the horror bandwagon.

"Joko and Sammaria, they'd just started working with a mainstream studio. This is our third collaboration already with Timo, and he started out making horror films. So no, we're not following any trends," Wicky said.

From Indie to Commercial

Working in the indie scene allows filmmakers to be more idealistic. How do Rapi and Screenplay accommodate formerly indie talents like Joko, Sammaria and Timo?

"I gave them liberty [to make creative choices] but I reminded Joko and Sammaria that what they were producing were commercial movies for the average viewers. The important thing was to make sure the movie appeals to everyone because, at the end of the day, we want it to be a box office hit," Sunil said.

Sammaria said though Rapi is an old company, as a studio it's still relatively small scale.

"They only produce 3-5 films a year and the producers are still very much involved. The way they work is actually pretty similar to an indie production," she said.

Timo, a self-confessed "stubborn" director, said he now enjoys working with Screenplay after the success of "Headshot."

"There’s always a love-hate relationship between producers and directors. Producers have to think about budget, profit and so on. Directors don’t. But I’m glad that Wicky, after years of working together, understands me and knows that for some things I just can’t compromise," Timo said.

Wicky said he always lets Timo to experiment and be creative.

"We let him do his best, then we try to market the film the best we can. Sometimes there are bad films that do well with good marketing. But Sebelum Iblis Menjemput is simply a good movie," Wicky said.

New Directors, Same Old Stories?

The horror plot line du jour is a wholesome family terrorized by supernatural beings. The three aforementioned movies have this narrative. Also films like "Kuntilanak" by Rizal Mantovani and Rizal and Jose Purnomo’s "Jailangkung" franchise.

The plots in "Gentayangan" by Sham Rhamsay and "Kafir" by Azhar Lubis – now in cinemas – also revolve around families.

After the success of Pengabdi Setan, are horror directors trying to replicate its formula of "haunted family"?

Sammaria said no, and pointed out that family has been a theme in all her movies.

Timo said he wants to show the darker side of the family unit. The characters in Sebelum Iblis Menjemput have to deal with the deadly consequences of a satanic quick-cash ritual that the father gets himself involved in.

"To be honest, I never research if a theme has been used before. Perhaps yes, the theme of family is pretty common, but I’m more interested in the story of children having to pay for the sins of their parents. That’s the subplot I’m going for, and also depression and psychology. And I think the family element in Sebelum Iblis Menjemput isn’t as strong as in Pengabdi Setan or other horror movies coming out right now," Timo said.

Sunil said family might not necessarily be a trending theme, but it certainly provokes a lot of sympathy from the audience.

"We easily identify with families. If they face a problem, a terror, we feel pity for them and want to help them. And let's face it, if a film doesn’t have characters we can relate to, it’s useless. A film must feel like it's real. I think Joko [with Pengabdi Setan] delivered that message very well, because almost everyone who saw it immediately wanted the family in it to be saved from evil," Sunil said.