Jakarta. Timo Tjahjanto’s new horror movie "Sebelum Iblis Menjemput," or "May the Devil Take You," has already attracted 500,000 viewers in Indonesia in less than two weeks. It will be released in Malaysian cinemas on Sept. 20 and has been selected for competition at L’Etrange Festival in Paris next month. So what's the schlock hype all about?
The film starts with a pesugihan (get-rich-quick) sacrificial ritual involving Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy), a female shaman and a goat's head. Fast forward some years later, and predictably Lesmana is now in his deathbed at a hospital, his emaciated body covered in black, deadly boils from a mysterious illness.
Lesmana's children – Alfi (Chelsea Islan), Maya (Pevita Pearce), Ruben (Samo Rafael) and Nara (Hadijah Shahab) – visit him at the hospital and were repulsed by his sorry conditions.
But things are more than a little tense between Lesmana's offsprings since Alfi, the only child from Lesmana’s first marriage, resents the other children for taking away her dad.
Lesmana's second wife, Laksmi (Karina Suwandi), also pays a visit and when she's presented with Lesmana's hospital bill, she immediately takes the children to her husband's old abandoned villa in Puncak to find the papers for the house, so they can sell it to pay for Lesmana's treatment.
Soon the palpable tension between the two branches of Lesmana's family is overshadowed by the horrors they find lurking inside his old villa.
Compared to previous horror movies Timo was involved in – "Safe Haven," which he co-directed with Gareth Evans, and "Rumah Dara," co-directed with Kimo Stamboel – Sebelum Iblis Menjemput has lees blood and gore, but way more technically refined.
Timo is still a sick puppeteer who goes to great lengths to torture his marionettes, but is showing more sophistication in doing so, especially in his storytelling and cinematography.
As far as influences go, traces of "The Exorcist" and "Evil Dead" are definitely there, but Timo told the Jakarta Globe recently his biggest influence in this movie is the 1977 Mexican horror classic "Alucarda," directed by Juan López Moctezuma.
Timo no longer relies on jump scares to frighten viewers, slotting in more random appearances of demonic creatures that viewers are not prepared for, more people vomiting blood, more people being burned alive and other kinds of bodily horror.
The devil (the iblis in the title) is never manifested as a crazed Baphomet running after his human subjects like in Safe Haven.
Here Timo teases the audience with more black metal-esque goat heads here and there and, just briefly, the devil's full figure. Iblis is not made manifest here, but turned into a symbol of pure evil.
Most Brutal of Them All
Many early reviews of Sebelum Iblis Menjemput have compared it to Joko Anwar’s critically acclaimed and commercially successful "Pengabdi Setan" ("Satan’s Slaves"), released last year, and Azhar Kinoi Lubis' "Kafir," which features a long drawn out battle between shamans.
One similarity between the three movies is its (liberal) application of occult themes. They also use old music as soundtrack and have over-the-top cinematography. In Sebelum Iblis Menjemput, it’s a series of close-up shots that make you feel claustrophobic.
However, Pengabdi Setan and Kafir still play it safe and often make us feel like we were watching a supernatural family drama instead of horror.
Sebelum Iblis Menjemput has a much less complicated plot, and more brutal torture of its leading characters.
At heart, it's a slasher flick that will satisfy people craving for gore and exploitation on the big screen.
Non-denominational Devil Figure
Another thing that makes Sebelum Iblis Menjemput unique is that neither the devil figure nor the human characters seem to be related to a specific religion. We're not given any clues as to what the characters believe or used to believe.
Indonesian movies featuring satanism or Satan himself normally features obvious religious figures – be they kyai (cleric) or pendeta (pastors) – who at the end of the movie would defeat the devil in a violent battle.
But Sebelum Iblis Menjemput refuses to make those correlations. It simply shows that if you do business with the devil without reading the terms and conditions, all hell will break loose.
Both Pengabdi Setan and Kafir, for instance, make direct references to Islam.
In the original Pengabdi Setan, a kyai saves the day, suggesting that Islam is the key to salvation.
Joko challenged the idea in his remake, featuring a puny kyai powerless against evil forces and rolling out the ghost whenever someone is performing shalat (prayer). Nevertheless, in both films the main characters are all Muslims.
In Kafir, Islam becomes a source for social tension: a Muslim community rejects burying a shaman since he was a "kafir" ("unbeliever") who practices black magic.
The plots of the three movies also revolve around the actions of a single family, but in Sebelum Iblis Menjemput sticking together and protecting each other no longer work to protect them from evil.
As it always is in slasher movies, survival is the the only way out. Timo told the Globe that all the horrors and gore in Sebelum Iblis Menjemput can also be seen as a metaphor for how the sins of the parents affect their children.
One criticism for Sebelum Iblis Menjemput is that, like many other horror films out there at the moment, it can be too mindlessly exploitative. Ninety percent of the film is filled with scenes of torture, mostly without a logical explanation.
Someone gets possessed by the devil and then becomes a zombie-like creature, who bites someone else who may never transform into another zombie, and so on. Remember that in Safe Haven, some viewers were also left perplexed why some of the cult members turn into zombies after killing themselves, but some just stay dead.
But then again, you'd be too busy reveling in this 100-minute torture fest or wetting your pants to care for its plot holes. Among all the recent commercial horror films, Sebelum Iblis Menjemput is the only one that doesn’t play it safe and dares to go too far to satisfy gore fans' twisted minds.