Joko Anwar is one of the most intriguing genre filmmakers working today. His last horror movie, the 2017 scare-factory Satan’s Slaves, is a can’t-miss for horror-buffs. And in 2019, Anwar released Gundala, an ambitious Marvel Cinematic Universe-style comic book movie — the starting point for a giant canon of sequels and spinoffs. The prospect of Anwar diving back into the horror genre left me giddy, and I placed his latest film, Impetigore, near the top of my Sundance must-see list.
Rest assured, Impetigore is all kinds of f*cked up. This means the filmmaker’s fans get more of what they love while newbies are in for a wild ride. Anwar has crafted an unsettling horror-thriller full of creepy characters, terrifying locations, and brutal violence.
Maya (Anwar-movie regular Tara Basro) isn’t where she wants to be in life. She works the night shift alone in a toll booth and passes the time talking on the phone with her best friend Dini (Marissa Anita).
A creepy man keeps hanging around Maya’s station, staring at the vulnerable woman like he wants to eat her alive. She is right to feel creeped out, though. The man attacks and wounds Maya while ranting about some random village.
After recovering from the attack, Maya realizes there is truth to the madman’s claims. After looking into her past, Maya learns that her parents were well-off, so she decides to go to her family’s village and claim her estate. Being a horror flick and all, we know things can’t go well. Before long, Maya and Dini find themselves all alone, cut off from civilization, and in a fight for their survival.
Impetigore is the most disturbing horror movie I’ve watched since Midsommar. The two films do bare more than a few similarities. Yes, the protagonists in both films escape the city only to find something sinister lurking in small villages. But the similarities run deeper than that. Both films don’t want to scare you so much as they want to ruin you and leave you walking away from the theatre a nauseous mess.
Anwar is a master at keeping his viewers off-balance. Horror directors don’t receive the same praise as filmmakers like Sam Mendes and Greta Gerwig. But make no mistake, it takes a great deal of talent to freak people out until they’re a quivering mess. As soon as Impetigore begins Anwar throws out his trademark anxiety-inducing vibes and doesn’t let up.
Impetigore’s eerie sets and immersive production design wallop viewers with the heebie-jeebies. The story begins in Jakarta, where the narrow roads and over-crowded markets are packed with people. Every time the camera closes in on someone, you notice they’re drenched in sweat. Anwar often frames Maya and Dini as though they’re exiled within the frame. One memorable shot sees the ladies wedged into a narrow toilet stall looking for a reprieve from the noisy gridlocked city.
When Maya and Dini arrive in the countryside, Impetigore takes on the feel of a classic haunted house movie. Maya’s family home is the type of creaky old house you couldn’t pay people to stay in unless they were desperate. Before the ladies step foot inside you already know it’s full of dust, cobwebs, and vengeful spirits.
Cinematographer Ical Tanjung and Anwar have collaborated for years now, and the duo makes a formidable team. If you’ve been following their careers you’ll notice that Impetigore has the tandem’s signature look and feel. The film is as moody and atmospheric as anything the Hollywood studios are churning out right now. If you’ve never seen one of Anwar’s movies, expect eerie lighting, creepy mists, and stark black shadows cloaking horrific threats.
Anwar takes this story to dark places, and this film isn’t for the faint of heart. Don’t be shocked when Impetigore keeps your pulse jackhammering for the entire 100-minute runtime. Just be warned, this film features horrific acts of violence that will leave your stomach in knots.
The filmmaker had more than scares on his mind when he dreamed up this idea and uses this story as a platform to explore some broader concepts. On a surface level, Anwar examines urban squalor and the lengths people will go to escape poverty. Impetigore is also a film about moral compromise and asks viewers what it takes to drive good people to do terrible things. While I’m all for films addressing complex moral arguments, the movie must stick the landing to drive these points home.
Impetigore works well until the third act when the story gets tangled up in its arcane mythology. It’s a case where the mystery’s answers aren’t as intriguing as the questions. The movie’s momentum screeches to a halt once it’s time to explain the convoluted plot. What a shame that things get bogged down because Anwar puts together two-thirds of a solid movie.
While Impetigore has its flaws, I’m certain Anwar will deliver a classic horror movie one day. His latest cinematic nightmare factory will creep you out, but it works best as a showcase for this horror auteur’s immense potential.