A great director can hook you from their movie’s opening scene. In Joko Anwar‘s latest Shudder-exclusive offering, we open on two friends, Maya (Tara Basro) and Dini (Marissa Anita), chatting via mobile phone. They are attempting to stave off the boredom of their jobs collecting tolls on the highway. The warmth of their banter belies the reality of the situation: in her booth, Maya is isolated and vulnerable, and when a mysterious and unhinged stranger attacks, she’s a long way from help. This is the explosive and nail-biting prologue to Impetigore, a film dripping with menace and atmosphere.
From the electrifying opening sequence, we shift tone into something a little more sedate. Maya (understandably) decides to leave the city, pursuing her family’s inheritance in a remote rural village. The villagers do not seem all that keen to welcome her, as her family is thought to be the cause of a mysterious curse that afflicts them. Pretty soon, Maya and Dini are being pursued by the villagers, headed by a leader whose mesmerising traditional puppet shows may have a sinister purpose.
Many recognisable folk horror elements are present. For example, the conflict between tradition and folklore on one hand, and cosmopolitan complacency on the other. Anwar is expert at making his protagonists feel isolated in an alien landscape, conspicuous and unwelcome. This sense of otherworldliness is heightened by the soundtrack, an interwoven choral score that becomes discordant and threatening at the drop of a hat.
Despite the promise of the title, Impetigore is light on claret, relying more heavily on the suggestion of blood and guts than on scenes of explicit gore. The effects of the curse are visceral and bloody, and although we are spared an eyeful of the results, the implication is still stomach-churning.
More than anything, Impetigore is an atmospheric piece. For folk horror to work, it really needs to focus on landscape and potential it has for harbouring evil. In an English folk horror, we might expect our horror to arise from a freshly tilled field, as in Blood On Satan’s Claw. Here, it’s all about vistas of dense woodland, hoarding shadows and ancestral secrets. It’s about natural light never being thrown far enough by lanterns and naked flames, so that terrors can lurk just out of frame.
The film is not without a handful of narrative stumbles. For example, an extended flashback sequence intrudes alarmingly into a chase scene towards the end of the film. Although integral to the plot, it’s a clumsy insertion and somewhat deflates the expertly ratcheted tension that the film has been building up to that point.
Visually stunning, with inspired performances and a deeply effective sense of dread evoked throughout, Impetigore is a great addition to Shudder’s stable of chillers. Joko Anwar’s eye for the macabre is second to none, and his ability to blend Indonesian folklore into a universally relatable story of generational guilt is extremely impressive.