Sunday, November 1, 2020

Pengabdi Setan (1980)

... aka: Bila Dia Datang (When She Comes)
... aka: Mereka Kembali - Pengabdi Setan (They're Back: Servants of Satan)
... aka: Satan's Slave
... aka: Servant of Satan

Directed by:
Sisworo Gautama Putra

If you're a regular visitor, you already know I'll sit through a fuzzy, blurry, washed out, pixelated, too dark, too bright, scratched and otherwise heavily-damaged film with a screwed up aspect ratio taken from a crappy former VHS rental or cheaply pressed VCD with no subtitles granted these are obscure films we're talking about, there's not much information about them online otherwise and nothing better is available. And that's typically the case with older Indonesian genre films. Of the around 150 horror films made there between 1950 and 1990, only a small number of these have been restored. An even smaller number than that have been restored and released with English subtitles. So what a pleasure it is to see this one available as a beautiful, pristine-looking print in English. Hopefully distributors start picking more of these up and remastering them because there are a lot of entertaining little treasures just waiting to find a wider audience.

As far as Satan's Slave is concerned, the first version that was available here in America was a bootleg of the 1987 Japanese VHS release from Sony Exc!ting. Naturally, this release was in full screen, didn't have English subtitles and wasn't in the best of condition but it was all we had for several decades. However, this became a rare older Indo genre film to become available on DVD with English subs when BCI / Deimos picked it up for distribution in 2008. Joko Anwar remade the film under the same title in 2017, which was a big box office success (one of the highest grossing films in Indonesian history) and won numerous awards at film festivals. That prompted a 2020 Blu-ray release of this original from Severin Films. All of the above was enough to make this one of the easiest-available and most-viewed pre-1990 Indonesian genre films there is.

Mawarti (Diana Suarkom) dies, leaving behind her grieving husband Munarto (W.D. Mochtar), college-aged daughter Rita (Siska "Karebety" / Widowati) and younger teen son Tommy (Fachrul Rozy). Shortly after the funeral, Tommy is visited Salem's Lot-style by a pale, white-eyed woman in a flowing white gown who looks suspiciously like the dead mother and comes tapping on his window late at night. She leads him out into the woods where the two have a brief conversation about something but when he wakes up the next morning he remembers nothing. While the dad is able to bury himself in work and the daughter is able to run around with her boyfriend Herman (Simon Cader) and go to disco dance parties and such, poor Tommy has no real means of distraction and seems to be taking his mother's death the hardest. One of his friends recommends he visit a fortune teller to restore some hope in his future. Tommy ends up seeing a blind clairvoyant in sunglasses, who forecasts doom for him and his family in her cards. She recommends he study black magic in order to defend himself if need be.

Soon after, things start going to hell. A mysterious woman starts calling the home, asking for Tommy and then hanging up. The doorbell rings but nobody's there. Doors and gates open, close and / or lock by themselves. Tommy starts behaving strangely, gets nosebleeds, starts reading books on black magic (and horror mags!), tries strangling his sister and seems entranced much of the time. He also has an amazing nightmare where he's led down a white tiled corridor to a sacrificial altar by a red-robed Satan and guys wearing rubber monster masks. After seeing several ghosts lurking around, Rita suspects something evil is afoot. Her boyfriend notes that since her family isn't particularly religious and they don't pray on the regular, they may have left themselves open to dark influences. Though he says that jokingly, that's precisely what's happening.

Looking for a new woman to run the household, Munarto calls an agency and requests a housekeeper. The woman who shows up, Darmina (Ruth Pelupessi), is the same sinister woman who was posing as the fortune teller and has already led Tommy astray into the world of the black arts. Soon after Darmina's arrival, she's revealed to be an evil witch who chants at an altar with a smoking cauldron, candles and a skull. Asthmatic handyman Mr. Karto (H.I.M. Damsyik) is found hanging dead in the utility shed and then Herman dies in a motorcycle accident. After Rita is tormented by Herman's bloody ghost, the father relents and brings a shaman (Adang Mansyur) in to exorcise the evil spirits. That doesn't work out as expected when he's chased around the room by flying glass shards and then killed by a chandelier!

Darmina, who eventually gets crazy eye make-up and impressive teased hair, uses her powers to bring both Karto and Herman back from the dead, then heads to the cemetery to resurrect the mother's corpse. She and the three zombies then lay siege on the home and attempt to kill the family. Islamic ulama / cleric Kiai (Doddy Sukma), who kept showing up throughout the film attempting to warn the family only to be ignored, pops in just in time with an army of torch-carrying prayer warriors to help.

This is slower-paced, more atmospheric, much more serious (there's almost no comedy) and not nearly as jarring when it comes to things like editing and continuity than most other 80s Indonesian genre films I've seen. It's also somewhat better-made, with decent acting, camerawork (by F.E.S. Tarigan) and special effects (by S. Parya, who also has a small role) and a nicely subdued synth score from one-time composer Gusti Anom. The film was rare for its time in utilizing Islamic spiritual beliefs over Christian or Buddhist but the heavy-handed moralizing about the importance of religion / praying gets to be a bit much at times. This essentially functions the same way fire-and-brimstone preachers do: ironically enough, trying to scare audiences into religious servitude, which is basically just trading one kind of slavery for another!

I've read numerous places that this is a virtual remake of, or was heavily inspired by, Don Coscarelli's Phantasm and I'm scratching my head trying to figure out where the hell that all came from. Aside from a few minor similarities like both having a young male protagonist and there being a graveyard, fortune teller and motorcycle riding, the two films have virtually nothing in common. The most blatant borrowings are that one Salem's Lot copied scene I already mentioned and The Omen (the ulama showing up at the father's office to warn him; activities of the sinister woman who shows up from a nanny agency with her resume, etc.)

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