The genesis of this film may seem strange to a Western audience. "Satan's Slaves" is an Indonesian remake (or prequel according to some sources) of the 1982 Indonesian film "Satan's Slave". Most likely, you never saw the original film, and it is apparently completely unknown outside of its home country other than to uber-collectors buying up $80 VHS tapes with Japanese subtitles. But the strange part is not that this is a remake; such a thing is ubiquitous these days. The strange part is that the original film was actually a knock off of Don Coscarelli's "Phantasm" with some Islamic elements blended in.
So, the question must be asked: do Coscarelli's plot lines and themes come through in this remake, or does it venture into new territory? The answer is simple: no connection exists whatsoever. Regardless of whatever the original source material may have lifted, it is completely erased this time around. No tall men, no silver balls. The use of a cemetery plays a role in both films, but that is hardly unusual for the horror genre. Near as can be seen, "Satan's Slaves" is its own beast.
The haunting, yet beautiful score really drives the film forward and keeps what could be a boring film alive, instead making it the perfect slow burn, not unlike "The Changeling" in pace and atmosphere. Some creepy, unsettling moments mixed with the simple ringing of a bell... viewers know they will jump, but the anticipation will keep them on edge. The promo literature says the film delivers "a sustained bombardment of scares that starts early and doesn't let up until the all-out Satanic madness of the climax", and they are not wrong (though perhaps relying a tad bit on hyperbole).
One has to be impressed by the rich cinematography from Ical Tanjung, and a great use of the Indonesian landscape, not least of all in the cemetery sequences. Not being familiar with Indonesian cinema, I would assume it is a fairly low budget affair. But one would never know that from the crisp colors and even well-chosen brown tints on screen. Perhaps technology is becoming affordable and the world is playing on a more even field, because this is Hollywood-grade art.
One key plot point involves a well that provides drinking water for the family. This inevitably had me thinking about Asian movies and wells, and more specifically "Ringu". Though there seems to be no intentional reference there, I cannot help but think this is a link some viewers will make. Which, frankly, only adds to the creepy feel of the picture. (I was also unclear why the kids were urinating near the drinking water, but maybe this is not as gross as it appears.)
All in all, "Satan's Slaves" has only two real strikes against it. The first is its being in another language. While that does not bother me one bit, it does mean the chance of it being a bit hit are slim unless some American comes along to remake it. The other strike is the title. Maybe the connotation is different in Indonesia, but "Satan's Slaves" sounds like something cheap or exploitative, a bad metal band or worse. And this is a shame because the film is really quite serious and lacks any sort of gimmick.
"Satan's Slaves" screened on June 22 at the Cinepocalyse festival in Chicago. Your mileage may vary, but for my money this was a beautifully-shot, musically perfect horror story that is well worth seeking out. An American theatrical run is unlikely, but if nothing else, hopefully it makes the rounds on Netflix. This is a true gem.