Impetigore? It’s the English title of a horror movie whose original Indonesian name is Perempuan Tanah Jahanam, so if you’re aiming for authenticity, pile right in. The Trivia section on its IMDb entry helpfully tells us that the word is a conflation of “Impetigo (bacterial infection of the skin that is more common in young children than other ages), and the word Gore (which means violence and bloodshed).” So there we have it – Impetigore – and I can report that, yes, there is a skin condition and children are involved and, yes, there’s gore, plenty of it as this initally moody, sweaty and fascinating film winds towards its increasingly scary close.
Things start very techy, very 21st century, modern, in a toll booth where an official taking payments from motorists has her evening shift interrupted by a man with a large machete who looms out of nowhere and tries to kill her. In a clear case of taking a knife to a gun fight, the man is soon dead, having been shot by guards, but before he dies he explains himself to Maya (Tara Basro), or Rahayu as he calls her, the tollbooth employee he was trying to eviscerate – I just wanted you to take back what your family had left behind. Dies.
Intrigued, not least by the fact that that the man’s used the name she did indeed used to go by, Maya decides to return to the village where shadowy family lore suggests she grew up, where there’s meant to be a big family house… and who knows what else.
And so she arrives with sidekick Dini (Marissa Anita) in a village carved out of the jungle, one curiously devoid of children, to a welcome from the locals that’s cool to the point of hostility, and sets about trying to work out what it is about her family’s past that is so unsettling.
The modern and rational meets the old and the supernatural in the shape of these two young women and the people of the village. The frosty reception might be down to Maya and Dini being representatives of a globalising metropolitan elite, it might be down to the bad juu juu that they represent, writer/director Joko Anwar keeps us guessing on this count, at least for a while. Whatever it is, in the eyes of the village the young women are guilty of something, Maya in particular.
The village head man Ki Saptadi (Ario Bayu) is a practitioner of Wayang, Indonesia’s shadow puppet tradition, and Anwar borrows heavily from its stylistic moodboard – the big gloomy house that might have been Maya’s family’s is full of dark corners and Anwar repeatedly uses it to deliver particularly effective scenes shot almost in silhouette.
Loading up like a greedy man at an all you can eat buffet, Anwar throws in a class element as well, when it’s revealed that the head man’s mother (Christine Hakim) used to be a servant for Maya’s father, and that she might be involved somehow in the mystery of Maya’s origin and the disappearance of all the village’s children. The two things are of course linked.
On this frame of local superstition, missing children, mysterious origins, class relations, the march of globalisation, all presented in shadow-theatre hues, Anwar repeatedly shifts our sympathies towards and away from Maya and Dini, all the while demonstrating that he’s seen a fair few horror movies – the false shocks of Alien, and the sense of threat of a Jeepers Creepers, Wolf Creek or Wrong Turn pervade this film. At one point Anwar even throws in a reference to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. More barbecue wings? Don’t mind if I do.
For all that Impetigore has a distinctly Indonesian flavour, humid and bustling, with dark, sepulchral looks by DP Ical Tanjung. When it eventually becomes clear that Maya is this horror movie’s “final girl” it seems only right that the colour of the breast-enhancing T shirt she’s wearing – the final girl’s uniform – is not white but brown.
Moist jungly locations add extra atmosphere and the casting is absolutely right too – it doesn’t hurt that Tara Basro and Marissa Anita are both pretty, but they both also have range, and can switch from blithe and innocent to fearful and guilt-laden in a flash. As the head man’s mother – a Mrs Danvers figure around whom the whole village and movie spins – celebrated Indonesian actor Christine Hakim, in her horror debut, adds top-dollar glower.
Is it the bacterial infection impetigo that’s behind the mystery of the disappeared children and of Maya’s origins? What do you think? However, you might wish it were when the movie gets into its frenzied final lunge for a finish, which teeters on the edge of undoing so much good, mood-building work.
Impetigore is apparently the first of a three-picture deal Joko Anwar signed with Ivanhoe Pictures, with Ghost in the Cell and The Vow to follow. On the strength of this first one, that’s two movies worth looking out for.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021