It Takes Two: Satan’s Slaves

Before I was a student of horror, I was a student of mythology. And when I say that, I don’t mean that I was just interested in Greco-Roman or other worldly mythology. More specifically, I was — and I am — fascinated with the construction or hybridization of a world-view: of a mythos.

In 2018, at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, I had the opportunity to watch a foreign film called Satan’s Slaves. It looked promising, taking place in Indonesia and drawing on the culture and mythos of that land and region. Subtitles have never warded me off, either, and I actually prefer to hear the original language and intonation — the emotion — behind the words as I read them. I also appreciated the premise: of a woman dying, and after her death her family being haunted by ghosts or demons. A few years before this point, I’d been examining the manifestations of zombies cross-culturally, and in the process I’d just touched on some Malaysian or Indonesian horror in the figure of the pontianak: seemingly the ghost of a woman who died while pregnant and could be juxtaposed between the figure of the zombie or a vampire. This being seemed to be central in this film.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to stay for that portion of the Festival, or I hadn’t been able to make it at the time. Perhaps, in the end, it was just as well. Time passed, and eventually after a lot of other life events, I got a subscription to Shudder. And there it was, Satan’s Slaves, with another opportunity for me to watch it.

Yet what I didn’t realize, until getting Shudder, was that Satan’s Slaves, written and directed by Joko Anwar in 2017, was both a remake and a prequel to an older Indonesian film called Pengabdi Setan, or Satan’s Slave, directed by Sisworo Gautama Putra and written by Putra, Imam Tantowi, and Naryono Prayitno back in 1980. Both films, in fact, are called Pengabdi Setan but the former title of “Slave” is singular and the other is plural. I’d be tempting to suggest that this the result of an English translation’s way of differentiating the original from its successor, but I think there might be more to it than that.

So I watched Satan’s Slave first and … wow. I know that if I had watched Anwar’s film before, and on its own, it would have stood out for sure, but watching Putra’s movie put everything into a different context. There were similar beats: a matriarch dies, leaving an affluent family in disarray, there are demonic forces at work, the presence of undead occur, occult and Islamic faith is sought out to deal with it, a male love interest dies for a young girl in the family in seeking out this aid, there are a few funerals — for people who are part of the family and have remained pious and faithful, for all the good it does them — and the family itself seems to be saved at the end … or are they? Now, there is one other common element — a character who appears in both films, though she appears towards the very tail end of Anwar’s film — but we will get more into that soon.

There are some differences. Let’s talk about those briefly. In Putra’s film, the narrative begins with the funeral of the mother and the antagonist is established fairly early on. The family is rich but no longer observant in Islam, and you see them embracing a lot of popular cultural elements, especially the young daughter and her brother: the former in dances and pop music contemporary to the period, and the latter in horror books and comics. Their father is a successful businessman who ignores faith and superstition respectively. He ends up taking on a housekeeper named Darminah who is the fortuneteller that manipulates the younger son into using black magic, and continues cursing the entire household. There is the recurring figure of the kyai — an Indonesian or Javanese expert in Islam — who keeps wanting to make an appointment with the father and, in the end with his followers, allow the power of prayer to exorcise Darminah and the possessed corpses of the mother, the girl’s boyfriend, and their pious and comically sick servant out of existence. In the end, the whole family is saved as they submit themselves, again, to Islam in something that seems like a great morality tale.

Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves, however, takes a different slant. The film begins with the eldest daughter attempting to get what is left of her ailing mother’s music royalties to help her family: with no less than three younger siblings, including the youngest named Ian, who is mute, her wheelchair bound grandmother whos is pious and coughs much like the servant did in Putra’s film, and her anxiety-ridden unemployed father who has to leave later to, apparently, find employment. We see her mother dying, and finally pass … and that is when everything goes to hell, almost literally.

There is more story in Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves. There is a sect that is considered by some to be Satanists, but they use an older Javanese language: which might mean they are a local religious or spiritual cult predating Christianity entirely. Apparently, the family’s matriarch embraced them in order to deal with her infertility, for an obvious infernal price: one that various forces seem intent on collecting. Here, the kyai — or the Ustad, which is the Persian Islamic term for teacher — is not effective at all. In fact, the demonic forces kill his father, the girl’s boyfriend, and it breaks him. Organized Islamic religion and piety, which seems to save the family in Putra’s film, doesn’t avail the family in Anwar’s story. In fact, it contrasts with the end of the first film in that waiting outside for the family isn’t a holy leader and his congregants to banish evil with a Quran but rather a group of cultists and their undead allies instead. Ironically, the only person who seems to know what is going on is an occult scholar who had been schoolmates with the grandmother of the family, his knowledge drawing on elements that may well have not been included in mainstream religious education. This is quite the contrast to the shaman in Putra’s Satan’s Slave, who is summoned by the family to deal with their poltergeist activity, only to not only be defeated by it, but become utterly destroyed. But we will get back to that later.

In Satan’s Slaves, there are many more undead servants.– far more than the three in Satan’s Slave. We find out that a child sacrifice is actually, for lack of a better word, an “Antichrist” who has been manipulating the family the entire time. And they only seem to escape because the spirit of the grandmother, who realized what this being was, who they truly were and was killed due to it, put herself between them and the undead.

These are some fairly bare and basic comparisons. If you want to have a more indepth look at these parallels, I would suggest Ghost Series’ Satan’s Slaves and Satan’s Slave: Indonesian Horror in Subtitles, as well as Paolo Bertolin’s SATAN’s SLAVES write-up in Far East Film Festival 22 (June 26-July 4, 2020). Yet what interests me the most is this theme that keeps coming up between the two films, and it potentially manifests in Anwar’s narrative is comparative mythology.

I want to look at the figure of the pontianak again. This is usually a female spirit, a malicious entity, that is the result of a woman dying during childbirth or while pregnant. However, this being can also result from a stillborn child, or from a woman that had been raped. This doesn’t seem to particularly apply to the slow-moving, plodding yet also immaterial spectres in Putra’s work. Not only are two of them men, but the only woman in the group didn’t seem to have suffered any trauma, or gone through pregnancy. In fact, aside from her extremely pale face and very long black hair, the only other sign that she is derived from the image of the pontianak is when the shaman, who fails to exorcise the household of its demonic presence, is attacked by flower petals: something reminiscent of the female ghost, whose presence is supposedly accompanied by the scent of the Plumeria flower. Furthermore, they seem to be animated by the power of Darminah: who is either a sorceress or a demon in her own right that preys on people with weak faith to become “demonic slaves.”

Then, we have the beings in Satan’s Slaves. They are more mobile, and there are many more of them than three. In fact, some seem to have been dead for a longer period of time before the events of the film. Even so, I can see a case for the mother being a pontianak in the sense that she had, technically, died as a result of her pact with the demonic forces that got her pregnant to begin with: either through their human followers, or through a demon itself. As a result of this, she is reanimated and she joins the ranks of the damned. Of course, both Putra and Anwar are probably taking creative liberties and marrying Indonesian and perhaps Middle-Eastern mythologies and folklore together, utilizing the imagery of the pontianak while adding Judeo-Christian aspects of demonology to the mix.

It is this dichotomy as well that fascinates me, and you can see it the most in Satan’s Slaves. Joko Anwar does more than simply create demons mashed from folklore that can easily be banished by Islam. He makes them more elemental, older, and the traditions that support are no less ancient and terrifying. He seems to intimate that there are indigenous — in the sense of local — groups or cults with ties that are more primordial than Islam, and they hide in plain sight. This seems to be a favourite theme of his, so much so that I almost believed that his 2019 film Impetigore — with references to ancient supernatural Javanese language, demonic rites, shamanism, curses, and ghosts — might have been a sequel, spiritual or otherwise, to his Satan’s Slave prequel, if nothing else. Of course, there is the possibility that even Sisworo Gautama Putra, while not as detailed as Anwar, may have also subverted the idea that submission to the tenet’s of Islam would ultimately defeat evil in Satan’s Slave.

I mean, who are Satan’s Slaves? This is the question, isn’t it? I mean, Darminah in the first film would say it is though who are spiritually weak and die unrepentant who can be recruited into the ranks of the damned under her command. Likewise, in the second film they could serve the interests of the cult and their demonic patron who may or may not be the Devil. They could the undead and the hapless families in both films, but then there is the question of who leads them.

In Middle-Eastern and perhaps Western mythology, there is the figure of Lilith and Asmodeus. Lilith, among other depictions, is the former spouse of Adam turned into a demoness that kills children. Asmodeus, however, is her new husband and the Angel of Death or an aspect of the Devil. I can easily see Darminah as a Lilith figure in Anwar’s mythos, even if she had been made by Putra. But what of a counterpart?

One thing that really bothered me at the end of an otherwise exemplary film like Satan’s Slaves was the inclusion of Darminah and someone else. The implication, of course, was that Slaves is tied into Slave and that the demonic worshippers are a web of sects and fertility cults in particular: harvesting families to create human-demon hybrids. It is implied that there was only one true hybrid or “Anti-Christ” in Anwar’s film, but I have a feeling the entire family — all of the children — are the result of that kind of breeding. I’ve seen it written that Putra’s Satan’s Slave was a remake of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, which is … a little hard to see and, if anything Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves with this emphasis on ritual and demonic genetics and eugenics shares a lot of beats with a film like Ari Aster’s Hereditary. This family lives in the city now at the end of the film, under the seemingly kindly auspices of a younger beautiful Darminah who dances with another man named … Batara. Both of them seem to be the leaders of this web of cults.

Now, think about this. Imagine coming into Satan’s Slaves raw, and you have never seen Satan’s Slave. You might come out of it thinking this was all orchestrated, but there would be something — some context — missing. Now consider going into it having seen Putra’s classic, and knowing who Darminah is, perhaps the music she and her counterpart are listening to is from that first film, which may have been made by the mother — who was a musician and singer — in this film, but then there is one question.

Who the hell is Batara?

This drove me nuts. There was something familiar about him, like I should know who he is. The two films have similar beats, so who was this new character added at the very end of the film? So I did some sleuthing, and while I am by no means exhaustive in this search, I recalled something from Satan’s Slave. At the end of the first film, we see Darminah — who had supposedly been vanquished — in a car looking at the family that recommitted itself to Islam. But, if I recall correctly, she is sitting next to someone. Perhaps a man? And then, I found the above article by Paolo Bertolin who claims that Batara is the name of the divine force that ill-fated dukun — the shaman — called upon in his failed attempt to banish the family’s house of demons. And perhaps, if you take Anwar’s story into continuity, the reason it failed is because Batara and Darminah were not only working together, but are part of a pair.

I’m not sure if the above is true. It is possible that Batara is part of the next film by Anwar that will bridge the gap between Slave and Slaves, but Bertolin’s explanation is immaculate and in my mind it works. After all, it takes two forces — the living and the dead, evocations to ancient cultures and monotheistic blasphemies, the old and the modern, two parents, Lilith and Asmodeus, Darminah and Batara and false cultural equivalencies aside — to truly create a garden of horrors. And it takes a village of the damned to raise a blasphemous family.