Look, I get that horror movie characters aren’t especially known for their intellect but Jesus Christ, the characters in Impetigore take things to new levels of stupidity. The latest from Indonesian genre-auteur Joko Anwar arrived hotly anticipated this week on Shudder, following up the streaming service’s success with his previous international horror smash Satan’s Slaves, aiming to put us in a state of constant unease but really just sending your eyeballs rolling to the back of your head.
Right from the start, Anwar plunges us into trouble, as twenty-something Maya (Tara Basro, marking her fourth consecutive appearance in the director’s films) is attacked at her highway tollbooth job by a crazed stalker. After nights of pulling through her station, dead silent and eyeing her creepily, the man gets out of his car and comes at her with a machete. Thankfully, the cops arrive in the nick of time and shoot him dead, but not before he refers to her by her childhood name, Rahayu, and rants about the curse she’s put on her home village.
It’s an intense opening, with Anwar perfectly exploiting the slowly sliding dread of a banal day at work suddenly turning into a life-or-death situation. It also kicks off the film’s central mystery, as the attack gets Maya thinking about her parents that she doesn’t really remember, having moved away at the age of five to grow up with an aunt, as well as a potential inheritance she could claim. Lacking any sort of career prospects in the city, Maya and her best friend Dini pack up and journey to the secluded village deep in the Indonesian forest, in order to see what the situation is. It takes only an hour into the six-hour bus ride to their destination for Maya to start intermittently seeing a trio of ghost girls standing by the dark forest highways as they pass, which is never a good sign.
For me, that occurrence would send me immediately to the bus driver to let me off so I could walk home. But I also understand the lack of opportunities and poverty that most millennials face, where a family inheritance is literally the only potential financial lifeline to grasp on to. But things only get stupider once Maya and Dini arrive (after finding just one person nervously willing to show them the way from the bus stop), as it becomes painfully clear they have virtually no plan and no idea what they’re doing. Posing as university students doing a thesis on puppet masters, of which the village leader is apparently one of the best, the duo plan to camp out at Maya’s family’s old condemned house long enough to be able to slyly ask about the original owners. Never mind the fact that the villagers immediately seem to see right through this ruse or that there’s seemingly no way to actually leave this village once they’ve been dropped off except for by on foot or, you know, that Maya was initially attacked and almost brutally killed SPECIFICALLY because of who she is and her connection to the village.
I was surprisingly still ready to go with much of this, as Anwar creates a mood of unnerving anxiety about what’s going on in this village, as well as in Maya’s past. But then, at about the 40-minute mark of Impetigore, one of our heroines does something so incredibly stupid, so purely illogical from a story or character standpoint, that the film just entirely collapses under the weight of its own ridiculousness (not to mention an underlying misogyny). It’s at this point that we realize that there are no actual characters here, just hollow devices to be pushed around by the plot and its ensuing shock tactics.
For the next hour-plus, Anwar lays flashback after flashback on us, smothering us with exposition on the convoluted back-story of this village and the inevitable curse placed over it. All of this follows the same tired tropes of any number of recent horror movies obsessed with cults and bizarre ritualistic practices (always ready at the drop of a hat to use women’s bodies for horrific purposes). But it’s hard to get invested in any of this when the director clearly hates his own characters so much.
Anwar’s earlier horror efforts, like The Forbidden Door and Modus Anomali, were unique grisly mindbenders but starting with the generically effective Satan’s Slaves and now this, his work has become so much more depressingly expected. There’s no doubt he still knows how to craft a spooky moment or two, but in trading in psychological depth for a slicker surface veneer, he may as well just be directing the next Conjuring Universe movie.