For What It Is: Steven Kostanski’s Manborg

They say that when you dissect a joke, it just isn’t funny anymore. And in my mind, “funny” comes from “fun.” That is the best adjective I would ascribe to Steven Kostanski’s 2011 film Manborg.

I’ve taken on the guise of a mad, false doctor and scientist as a writer of this Blog. And in the vein, if you will pardon the pun considering that the movie is all about rendering infernal, fascist vampires into pulp, of such — and in remembrance of the late and lamented Doctor Scorpius — I would like to put this cinematic creation on the table, and look at it in the following manner.

Imagine a pulp film utilizing a combination of early Mortal Kombat digitization and Ray Harryhausen claymated monstrosities created by Troma Productions, and you might get something like Manborg. Maybe. You can also make a compelling argument that it also feels like a spiritual bootleg version of the id software Doom game universe. Seriously, I almost wrote this entire article just to have an excuse to make that sentence, but there is more to it than that.

The main protagonists themselves look like they can belong in a Mortal Kombat game: the awkwardly cybernetic Manborg himself, the sassy Aussie-accented Justice, the incongruously voice-dubbed #1 Man, and the short-tempered Mina (and clearly no relation to Mina Harker) are all fighters in an arena where Hell’s minions — having conquered the Earth — force humans to fight one another, and their technologically-augmented demons. You can even, loosely, argue that this film is a Dracula-based creation in that the leader of the forces of Hell is a monstrosity named Count Draculon who kills Manborg’s brother and himself as a human soldier at the beginning of the movie and during Earth’s War against Hell: which it loses. And hey, one of the female protagonists is Mina who is lured by the Count back to the arena to rescue a former friend or … sister of hers (totally not Lucy Westenra) who has been made into a demon-human hybrid, I guess?

Right. I am being very generous.

But I really like this film. The jerking, even janky movements of the camera and the figures against the Chroma key backdrops makes this world truly nightmarish, and unrealistic. It’s like watching someone dreaming various composites of characters and situations, and making it into a narrative. The sound effects sound like something from Power Rangers or the 8-bit era of video games. There are various skips in logic and character development, but the film knows that — and it knows how lampoonish and parodic it truly is.

The characters are all true to what they are. Manborg is a former soldier wanting to avenge his brother’s death, and has no idea how to survive in his altered state until a hologram of his creator — or his soul, or something — finally does so. #1 Man just wants to makeup for his cowardice in saving his own life and training the Count’s minions in martial arts to fight for something more. Justice wants to protect his sister Mina, and battles either illiteracy or dyslexia to do so, and Mina desires to fight, and save Shadow Mega from being a slave of the Count. Even the antagonists are straightforward: the Count wants a challenge in fighting Manborg, Shadow Mega desires to defeat Mina, Doctor Scorpius seeks to recant his past mistakes and aid Manborg, and the Baron — another vampire and general asshole — has a crush on Mina, his prisoner, and awkwardly attempts to flirt with her.

What you see is what you get, and yet those little touches show genuine love of the story and characters. A long time ago, I used to only want to read and watch serious works. I didn’t know what to think of something that was just strange, and campy, and over-the-top, and weird as all hell. But then I went to the Toronto After Dark and watched RoboGeisha for the first time, and even before that was Bubba Ho-Tep. And there is just something about watching these silly elements at play that still manage to manifest genuine feelings and a story that is just … inspiring. It’s like high school or college friends sitting down, and making a narrative they want to see and be as ridiculous as ever, and very clearly demonstrate a knowledge of the craft they parody even if it’s for the first time. It’s just … inspiring to see someone through stuff at that wall, like explosions, Nazi vampires, weird cyborgs, martial artists, arenas of doom, and just … ridiculous moments that makes things fun.

Manborg is fun. It is one of the things that I look at to see what is possible, and it’s something I genuinely enjoyed watching. I bought the comic back at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival years ago, and I always meant to watch this movie. In fact, as fun as the film is, I love the comic as it makes fun of its own nostalgia. Think Ninja Turtles comics that were adapted into cartoons and the films, or hellishly faded and septia-coloured dystopian G.I. Joe, He-Man, and She-Ra stories except Manborg‘s adventures are fleshed out, and actually continue with his group of friends.

Also, Bio-Cop, the “preview” Astron-6 has at the end of the film — whose quality is already made to look faded and grainy like it’s an old VHS tape rental — is utterly hilarious. Again, think The Toxic Avenger, but in chronic agony and body horror and seriously to die … in a buddy cop parody.

I mean, someone calling themselves the Horror Doctor has to have a twisted sense of humour.

The Cut of My Jib: Inspiration, Not Aspiration From The Last Drive-In

I wrote this back in May of 2020 for MutantFam.com. The plan was to have it posted on there, and then work my way into creating The Horror Doctor. It was originally an appreciation letter for Diana Prince, or Darcy the Mailgirl from The Last Drive-In, but it became something else. It began to encompass my whole feeling towards The Last Drive-In and Joe Bob Briggs. I can’t even begin to overstate just how glad I am that I found, and made a point of watching it, and interacting with people in the horror community during this time. 

If you’ve been following me, or this Blog, you will see many familiar — and some personal — things in this article. And some things have changed since. For instance, I did get to see Darcy’s beautiful Prom Night after all. But, like my Creepshow Commentaries, this writing belongs here, and I will give you all another cut of my jib, as it were. Take care, and Happy Horror Days, and Great New Fears to you. 

It came together. 

I’d been watching Cinemassacre for a number of years, mostly Angry Video Game Nerd videos until I ran out of those and began watching James Rolfe’s Monster Movie Madness series, and in particular some of his interviews. Both James Rolfe’s retrospectives, and his interview with one of his childhood heroes is how I was introduced to Joe Bob Briggs for the very first time. 

I didn’t know what to think of him. He had the Texan stereotype persona on, and I knew he was a host for long-running horror and weird movie commentaries. I even had this sneaking suspicion I’d seen him in passing, once or twice, on his lawn chair in the dark with his cowboy hat, getting sass from the Mailgirl Rusty, on TNT but to this day I still can’t confirm it: much like how creepy stories and nostalgia all begin in half-remembered or even retroactively imagined memories. But I remember James Rolfe talking about Drive-In Theater and MonsterVision, and how it influenced his multimedia work of games criticism, weird film, and blood and guts gross 90s horror. I thought about all the people that watched these commentaries when they suddenly stopped one day on Cable television, and thought it was a shame: how would have been nice to watch horror films then, with some good, erudite and silly commentary. I thought nothing further about it after a while.

I was on Twitter one day. That’s always a great sentence to start off another paragraph. I don’t know how I found it, but some Followers of mine were commenting on a person’s account. They were showing her great solidarity. Apparently, Twitter had banned her account due to nudity or breaking some other terms of service. And it had been a long-running situation. I came in and saw a picture of Diana Prince, looking at the Tweet that was banned, at a shot of her from the waist up wearing nothing but black skull pasties. I thought the picture was amazing, and I’d seen far more graphic things on Twitter that didn’t get any strikes at all.

Then I went onto her website and realized this striking woman with the awesome skull pasties was an absolutely avid horror genre fanatic who liked really bad Crypt Keeper puns. Not only was I taken with her zombie pictures in red and black lighting that made me feel strange things, but I was fascinated with her takes on classical horror films, and by the fact that she was — or was going to become — Darcy the Mailgirl on Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In Show: what was going to be a one-shot revival of what he did years ago.

A lot of things happened to me during that time period, and even though I got Shudder once it was released, I didn’t really get into The Last Drive-In. I always meant to come back to them later, to view them all at once, but I was too busy dealing with the loss of relationship, anxiety, depression, and going back out into the world again.

That’s not completely true, however. One time, on Twitter, I live-tweeted a little bit during one showing of The Last Drive-In. They were showing one of the Halloween films live, and Diana asked us to provide theories as to why Michael Myers had supernatural abilities to resist pain and death when there was no explanation for them. She also mentioned how Dr. Loomis always creeped her out, and she thought he was almost as much a bad guy as Michael, or so I remember it. I remember that night because I tweeted to her, as she had started Following me some time before — which made my day — and I posited that Dr. Loomis was the one that made Michael: that he used someone with a psychological condition and experimented on him to the point of being comatose. And the real reason he was out to kill Michael was to cover up evidence of his crime of creating a psychopath from a tormented child. Diana apparently really liked this, and had been tempted to read it on the show. It didn’t happen, but the charm was already there.

I lost track of the show after a while. I’d read about it in Fangoria, and all the effort it takes for Joe Bob and his crew to make the magic happen: to line the cameras up, to set the stage, and for Joe Bob to read through and communicate clearly his vast encyclopedic mind through long takes. In retrospect, looking back, the interview and article in Fangoria Vol. 2 #2 by Samuel Zimmerman and Preston Fassel — the second issue continuing the return of another horror staple, the magazine itself  — it almost seemed like a prelude to the inspired Week Four of Season Two.

But hindsight is 20/20. And it really is. As of this writing, it is May 2020, and I have been along with many others two or three months in quarantine. I always meant to catch up with The Last Drive-In, but episodes have disappeared due to AMC no longer having the rights to the films that Joe Bob and his crew review: something that will hopefully be remedied, or at least his commentaries can be saved, like the prom segment from Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II.

I’ve always been attracted to horror. I would go into Hollywood Movies at my strip mall, and go through and just look at the covers of the films my parents wouldn’t let me watch. I’d hear my friends talk about them, and both ask questions, and retreat in terror at ever seeing them. I was always on the edges of darkness, reading the classics, watching films like Gremlins and Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight but not getting too close.

My friends used to live above a store at Eglinton in Toronto called Higher Ground. They would invite me over, show me their endless library of zombie books and movies, and we would watch some of the more graphic horror films. They were my first experience with such films as the Lovecraftian Re-Animator — the Director’s Cut — and the weird movie with a suede heart Bubba Ho-Tep. The DNA foundations of me watching The Last Drive-In as an experience watching ridiculous yet detailed horror films with friends were planted there, at that time and place, and when they moved away it was never really the same.

It wasn’t until I met Kaarina Wilson, however, that my true appreciation for horror evolved. Kaarina was my partner for a very long time. She was the one who, in addition to introducing me to Clive Barker, also brought me to the Toronto After Dark Film Festival: a dedicated gathering of fans that love to watch independent horror and weird films. Kaarina would go to this event every year whenever she could, and I would go with her on a few nights. I saw films riding the gamut between the epic Super Sentai sensationalism of RoboGeisha and the disturbing, twisted horribleness with moments of tongue and cheek comedy like The Human Centipede, and watching them with a crowd that reacted to everything with laughter and horror completely changed me.

Before my friends at Higher Ground, and Kaarina at the After Dark, I always took things so seriously: especially horror. I didn’t think it should be silly, or multi-genre. I also wasn’t very much for crowds of people. But when Joe Bob, in an interview with Patrick Cavanaugh on ComicBook.com mentioned how there aren’t many Chopping Mall films anymore, nothing lighthearted or wacky in the mainstream horror cinematic medium in our time, it reminded me of the charm of events like the Toronto After Dark, and what I value about it.

It is all coming together. I realized I was missing a few episodes of The Last Drive-In, especially the last one, but as of Fangoria and other magazines I knew the show was coming back for another season. And then, the pandemic hit. I began to miss my friends. I thought about the films I hadn’t seen yet.

And I thought about Kaarina a lot.

Kaarina had a series of autoimmune diseases. In the last years of her life, she was in and out of hospitals. She had eventually gotten a much-needed lung transplant. I hadn’t seen her — personally or at the After Dark — in a long time, but I was going to visit her the weekend before quarantine was officially declared. We hadn’t had a movie night in ages. The last film we saw together ourselves was Jovanka Vuckovic’s all-women horror XX anthology. When she had other surgeries, and was in a medically-induced coma, I bought her a Shudder account and curated a whole series of films: including ones we saw for the After Darks of many years. I was already watching many horror films on Shudder, thinking about her. I always hoped we could watch them together, or that she could enjoy them.

Kaarina passed away in April. I couldn’t go see her. The slow encroaching diseases and illnesses in her body, her zombies, finally got her. There was more upheaval in my life too. My pet died, a relationship ended, and my friends and I couldn’t interact as much anymore because of their own personal tragedies all happening at once. Hindsight is 20/20, and 2020 is a stone-cold bitch.

The long and short of it is that I needed something to focus me. To steady me. I needed a routine. And, one day, I’d heard that The Last Drive-In was coming in. So I did an experiment. I decided to try to sit and Tweet through a whole live show. It was hard at first. I have anxiety and I needed to move around, and there were no breaks then. But I got retweeted and loved. And I realized I could pace myself. I didn’t have to stay for both films if I didn’t want to.

It’s now been four weeks. I’ve not only sat through the whole five hours each time, but I have Tweeted and interacted with the fanbase. I do take breaks, but I make sure to listen to as much of Joe Bob’s segments as I can. And I didn’t feel alone anymore. I feel like I accomplish something every time I finish a show, or make a witty comment, or realize I am more savvy in the genre than I thought I was. Kaarina always believed I could write for, and review horror. I didn’t believe her. I didn’t have the confidence then. 

But after writing for the comics scholarship magazine Sequart, and the now defunct Torontonian popular cultural publication Geekpr0n where I covered the After Dark, here I am now. 

The Last Drive-In is reminiscent of the days of watching television together where there were set times, and you could lose those episodes forever if you weren’t careful. At the same time, the online element has a sense of camaraderie to it, and sharing both my reactions and my thoughts in small sentences makes me feel important and that I am participating in something living: or something that we are, all of us, bringing to life. It also reminds me of the After Dark, of its Director Adam Lopez being our commenter, interlocutor, and guide like Joe Bob taking us through the pulp of horror and weirdness, of the sublimely mad and corny, but the literary and the sophisticated — through the guts of the thing like armchair augurs — and having us truly appreciate the ancient tragedy and comedy that is life that truly makes horror so multifaceted, and a shared experience. There is a reason these stories were told and performed around campfires. 

I found it all fascinating. And in watching these films, knowing that Kaarina is gone, I feel like sometimes I am watching them for the two of us.

But what truly won my heart? What impressed the most? Aside from the interview with the Kaufmans? It had been seeing One Cut of the Dead, and then the last segment of that episode with the jib — a moving crane or “arm” that moves the camera — panning out and Joe Bob walking around as everyone cleaned up that night, as Diana had make-up put on on another screen, and Joe Bob explained that there is no such thing as an aspirational creator: that you are a creator. That you don’t need industries or contacts. You just need to make something.

“Fuck aspiring.”

It’s funny how “fuck aspiring” is so inspiring to hear. Realizing that I was sitting through this — live — during a pandemic, during people afraid of speaking out, of losing what they love, of social turmoil, and upheavals we have yet to face, during all of this profound non-consensual suck, I realized I wasn’t just witnessing something special. I was becoming a part of it. I was a part of it. I am a part of it.

With all of you. When I watch something like The Last Drive-In, and I engage with it, I’m not just watching it for me, or Kaarina, or the memories of my friends, or Joe Bob, or Diana Prince, or the people that love the show, or the people that love it but find the courage to criticize the parts of it and the industry and community of which it is a part because they love it and want to belong, I’m watching it for … something magical. Something unique. A thing that can be manufactured, but never truly replicated. For a moment. 

And I got to be a part of a moment with all of you. Moments don’t last forever. They’re not supposed to do so. There is a lot of suck around them, and different perceptions. And simple things. But that makes the essence of them, despite or because of the suck, more valuable: because they happen. This is what The Last Drive-In means to me: a journey through different kinds of reality and weirdness, and inspiration. I’m mindful of the fact that I am not a longtime fan, and I don’t agree with everything being said. I mean, I love A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Joe Bob. Sorry, not sorry. I’ve been at the peripheries of many different communities, groups, cliques, and scenes. You can argue that I’ve aspired to all of them in some way, aspiring to life, even aspiring to be a horror fan.

But yeah. Fuck aspiring. I am a horror fan, period. I am a creator. I am going to make something from all of this. I already am. And Joe Bob, and crew, and friends, despite everything and because of it, thank you for this space — even if it’s just another moment. I will treasure it with you all — Mutant Fam — for as long as I can, and I will make sure that it continues to inspire me.

Another Halloween

I’ve meant to do this for a while.

Originally, I was going to make something of a Toronto After Dark retrospective: specifically an account on how I was introduced to the Film Festival, and how it made me deal with the horror genre in a different way. And the person who brought me to this Festival in 2010 was Kaarina Wilson.

It always comes back to her.

I’ve talked about Kaarina before, and not just on this medium. I feel like sometimes that is all I ever do: talk, and write about her. Autumn, or Fall, is a time of year in many cultures where the veil between the material and the spiritual worlds, the living and the dead is supposed to be at its thinnest. The Harvest is often reaped in Fall, before Winter. And people go around wearing the likenesses of their favourite fictional characters, their celebrities, or their personal demons and their nightmares.

This was Kaarina’s favourite time of year. She got to dress up and be as unapologetically camp as she wanted. And she also got to wear her fears and terrors on the outside for a change, of the creeping, inexorable march of the body’s hunger and decay overtaking the rational and feeling human mind.

She was so much more into the horror genre than I was. Before her, I had read the Classics like Frankenstein, Dracula and H.P. Lovecraft’s main Cthulhu Mythos stories. I’d watched some camp and horror movies with my friends before they moved from their apartment to Barrie so many years ago. I learned, there, that horror is something that should be experienced in a group setting. I can’t even begin to tell you the difference between watching something terrible happen to someone, or an utter bastard of a character getting their comeuppance alone, and then hearing other people gasp, or applaud, or cackle beside you as it all happens on the big screen.

Kaarina cackled. That was how she laughed. It was this wicked, pleased with herself reaction of dark joy, and it was one of the reasons I was so insanely in love with her. It was her that had me read Clive Barker and made me realize that horror isn’t just a fear of the unknown, but also the realization that you often what scares you is — deep down — what you ultimately desire when you strip away human niceties, conventional morality, and common sense. It also set the stage for the fact that, aside for the potential of public catharsis — the purging of emotions caused by pity and fear often attributed to ancient tragic plays — horror can have its own twisted logic, an orange and blue morality that even in its own alien mindset still has a human component that makes sense.

I think about the fact that Kaarina was the one that made me read “Dread” and “The Midnight Meat Train” and then had me see the film adaptations, but not before we watched May together in the basement apartment she called her Wonderland — after Alice’s — or what I thought of at times was her Underground. Quaid just wanted to overcome his fear and help others do so. Leon Kaufman had a terrible need to fit into something bigger than him, to find an assured and foundational place in New York: to belong somewhere. And May, in the midst of humiliation and confusing and deceptive human actions she just wanted to make a friend.

I learned a lot, then, even as I related to it. I’d even read “The Forbidden” and got to see how that short story changed in the better known Candyman adaptation. It also helped that Kaarina had been taking a Ryerson course on Gothic Literature that gave me the excuse to read her online copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that a lot of what I learned about horror, which had been scattered between University courses, bored movie channel watching at my parents’ place, and the times with my zombie-fanatic friends, started from Kaarina. And she was definitely the one that encouraged me to write something about horror in film: to the point of her arguing with me when I didn’t believe I could focus enough to do so.

The truth is: I never thought I really fit into this genre. But Kaarina challenged that. She made me watch ridiculous films, weird films, creative films, erotic films, and enjoyable films. She showed me movies that made me use my critical brain, and others that I just sat back and enjoyed. I realized it didn’t always have to be serious, or stick to eclectic small things that were the result of my own crippling perfectionism.

It was actually okay for me to have fun.

This was important, especially given that when we met I was still struggling to finish off my Graduate Program. I didn’t think I could do it, get through my Program, write again for myself, or even engage with these weird independent movies, and have something to say. I know for a fact I used to drive her utterly crazy with my doubts, and my stubbornness.

Perhaps it hit a little too close to home, even as I encouraged her to write more reviews and stories herself. Like the seasons, like birth, death and rebirth, or life, death, and reanimation everything was a cycle. It still is.

For example, if not for the Pandemic this year would have been the first After Dark without her. And there is something almost fitting about the fact that on the year of her death, the Toronto After Dark Film Festival — her favourite event — didn’t happen. But either way, this is the first Halloween without her in it.

And grief is a cycle as well.

So I find myself, in the midst of 2020’s utter misery trying to compensate, to live twice as much as I can in these limited circumstances, to feel that abundant life force and need to live in the middle of so much death and stasis, and to enjoy horror for the two of us. I bought her a subscription to Fangoria while she was in the hospital which I had to cancel after she was gone, and I have to read that for her: to succeed this time, one day, in actually being able to submit something into its pages. I got her a Shudder account while she was in a medically induced coma to shave the damaged parts of her lungs away — and I curated the films in there to match the ones we’d seen together, or that were at the After Dark Festival, or anything I found interesting, but now that she’s gone it still exists there, having never had the heart to close it. Some part of me imagines, in some liminal space between sleep and the Internet, that a part of her watches those films to this very day.

I know there are some things, like this Blog, which she would be proud of me creating, but it’s hard to think about how she will never be able to tell me that herself again. So that is why I watch all these horror films, so many more than I used to. That’s why I want to celebrate Halloween with friends, to enjoy the movies with others and not be alone. That’s why I look forward to the Hallow’s Harvest table-top roleplaying game I’m playing with my friends before I have to return to this reality.

In the early summer, still reeling from Kaarina’s loss, I finally decided to sit in on a live watching of Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-In on Shudder. I’d only been there in passing when they were watching some of the Halloween series having found out about it through Diana Prince: or Darcy the Mailgirl on the show. When I watch the show on Shudder TV, and live-tweet with Diana, and the rest of the MutantFam it reminds me of all the times I watched horror films with my friends, all the moments I wished I had someone to watch them with in my house, every occasion I watched them at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival in the Bloor, and Underground Cinemas, and ScotiaBank Theatre.

Watching strange and weird films with “blood, breasts, and beasts” with the MutantFam of The Last Drive-In reminds me of all every night I watched movies with Kaarina, and it takes a little bit of that edge of the jagged Jack-o-Lantern hole in my heart off.

I had a lot of plans for this Blog. I was going to write alternate endings to films and stories. I was going to reconstruct one movie in particular. And I was going to write about weird things, unique perspectives and experiences and experiments. Most of this has been reviews, like the ones I would write for GeekPron or Sequart. But sometimes I can still get personal. Perhaps next time, I will tell you all about the writings that actually led to the making of this Blog: my proto-articles that tried to link themes and ideas together in a series I was watching which would provide the basis of what I do — or try to do — on this Blog. I wrote them when Kaarina was still alive, but she never saw them. But I think she would have approved.

So let me just say to you all, before adopting my Horror Doctor half-mask persona again, have a safe and happy Halloween. I will do the same. It is the least I can do now.

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 a matched set.

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.