Realising that she might inherit a property from the rich family she’s never met, Maya returns to her home village with best friend Dini – unaware of the danger waiting for her.
Maya, the heroine of new Indonesian folk-horror Impetigore, goes on quite the journey – starting off a a classic horror victim, she tries to escape an attack by leaving her tiny bolthole and running right into the path of the man trying to kill her. It’s a terrific start, jarring and shocking, with Maya trapped and panicked. By the end she’s still running and shrieking, but considerably more focused, finally understanding her past and that sometimes roots keep you trapped rather than anchored.
The growing threat and actual attack, by a stalker who calls her Rahayu, take place before the opening credits. She and best friend Dini have been chatting about nothing over the phone between the motorway toll booths where they both work. Maya (Tara Basro) is on her own, while Dini (Marissa Anita) has colleagues near by, a prelude to her later outsider status when the two women visit her home village, and her isolation when she finds out about her past.
Before that they start their dream clothing business, though it’s not a success. They don’t have the funds to choose a decent location and their clients don’t want to pay. The two wome are trapped and aimless, hemmed in by their lack of money and with no way out, until Maya decides to go “home” in case she is due an inheritance.
Taken away to the city at age five after the death of her parents, Maya doesn’t remember them. She knows her aunt used to call her Rahayu too, but she only has one photo of her and her parents, standing in front of their huge house. Once she and Dini get to Harjosari village, and are camping out in the dilapidated property, she finds a stack of old family photos but none with her in.
The locals are wary of their visitors, when they’re not walking in procession to the village cemetery. (“I think someone just died” says Maya. “Again?” replies Dini, after witnessing two funerals in as many days.)
The local Elder Ki Saptadi (Aryo Bayu) is also an expert in Jarvanese shadow puppetry though his mother Nyi Misni (Christine Hakim) seems to be the one pulling the strings. Maya and Dini are unprepared and come up with hastily cobbled-together cover stories in order to speak to him; in fact all their actions are reactions, as Maya’s need for an identity and a home, however dangerous, is as unconscious as it is overwhelming.
Even before they get to Harjosari the sense of foreboding is rising, with Maya even finding a tiny note, an amulet, under her skin. The huge dilapidated house is imposing and oppressive as it looms the village. At night they hear the cries of women in labour yet there are no children, only numerous tiny graves.
Then Dini goes missing. As Maya becomes increasingly aware of the danger she’s in, of the living only Ratih (Asmara Abigail) is prepared to explain to her the horrific fate of all the babies and to help her escape.
Writer-director Joko Anwar’s film is deliciously atmospheric, its moody supernatural intrigue building through the first half. It then becomes more of a straightforward thriller, more bloody and more explanatory, though it remains visually arresting to the end.
Anwar asks questions about culpability down the ages, and whether we can escape our history. Are we responsible for our parents’ sins? Is it okay to kill one person to save many? What if destroying someone frees you from your own hemmed-in path? The fact that these ideas merge into one potential victim – or culprit – makes it harder to unravel. (Its original name Perempuan Tanah Jahanam translates as “Hell Woman”; who this refers to depends on which direction you’re looking from.)
Impetigore is indeed supernatural – expect black magic and ghostly children – though becomes less surprising as it ties up all the loose ends resulting from its myriad twists and turns. (Despite the blood and backtracks, it doesn’t play out as melodrama.)
Most characters are benign: ordinary people, looking for a way out, relieved to take sanctuary in what they’re told to believe. Persuaded to make decisions that they think show their agency, they end up digging themselves more holes than Harjosari cemetery.
The pregnant Ratih and her elderly great-grandmother are the moral backbone. Ratih refuses to let hate swerve her from her path even when she has someone to blame; her gentle great-grandmother is a shaman and knows instantly who Maya is. Ratih herself believes in other ways to resolve the curse the village thinks has been placed on their babies.
Ratih’s great grandmother is the reflected reverse of Nyi Misni and her black magic, while there’s symmetry between Maya and Ratih, who feels trapped by her birthright – she refuses to leave the village for the city, saying her life will not change if she does that.
Basro always has an air of troubled sadness as Maya clings to the hope of a past she doesn’t know. She and Marissa Anita make convincing best friends, rootless and always the two of them against the world.
Dini is a hoot, and could be all of us as we watch horror films. Devoted to Maya, her curiosity battles her sarcastic voice of reason which in turn cloaks her concern for her friend: “they look like they’re going to eat us alive, and someone dies here on a daily basis” she tells Maya once they’ve been in the village overnight.
Much of the horrific backstory is told to us in flashbacks, which sometimes feel overused. Maya’s wealthy father Ki Donoswongo married her beautiful mother even though she was in love with someone else. For years they had no children until she unexpectedly became pregnant with Rahayu.
Whatever happened in the past has led to nearly the whole village wanting to kill Maya to save themselves, and to avenge the deaths of three little girls who went missing 20 years before, whose disappearance they blame on Maya’s father.
The villagers stalking through the forest at night, torches blazing, are not just after revenge but salvation, and a new start. In that way they differ from the vengeful mob in, say, Frankenstein, after the Monster has accidentally killed a small girl.
In films, unlike real life, good and evil are often easily separated. Impetigore is instead more akin to that old saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
Maybe Anwar is saying there really is no escape from history, for an individual or a society; you can only go forward by carrying the past, and all its mistakes, with you.
Impetigore is available on Shudder in the UK, US and Canada
Read my very, very spoilery article What’s the skinny on Impetigore?