By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Tara Basro, Ario Bayu, Christine Hakim
Directed by Joko Anwar
Written by Joko Anwar
Produced by Base Entertainment, CJ Entertainment, Ivanhoe Pictures, Rapi Films
In my opinion, IMPETIGORE rivals the likes of “Tigers Are Not Afraid” as the best thing Shudder has ever picked up.
That probably won’t shock those of you who have been following the column; I have a well-known soft spot for folk horror, cults and the like. But I wasn’t expecting to love IMPETIGORE quite as much as I do, and I never could have predicted that the film would blend the folk horror and paranormal subgenres together with a precision and heart that rivals the best work of Guillermo Del Toro. That is NOT a compliment I offer lightly, by the way.
But that’s enough of a preamble; let’s get into it.
IMPETIGORE opens on Maya (Tara Basro) working a low-profile job as a parking attendant alongside her best friend Dini (Marissa Anita) when an otherwise slow night is interrupted by a machete wielding madman. The man is from Harjosari village, and after asking her if Maya was her real name and if she was from the same place, he chases her down with a machete only to be shot by security: his last words are “We just don’t want what your family left behind! Please, take it away!” Naturally this inspires a bit of curiosity, as Maya never knew her parents and was raised by her aunt; her curiosity mounts when she finds a scroll written in ancient Javanese rolled up in a cut in her leg. So Maya and Dini resolve to travel to Harjosari to find out who her parents were and if they left her anything, unaware that the village is suffering from a curse that has driven them all to the point of desperation; and they’re willing to do anything to lift it.
“IMPETIGORE blends the folk horror and paranormal subgenres together with a precision and heart that rivals the best work of Guillermo Del Toro.”
First thing’s first: IMPETIGORE is a tightly plotted masterpiece riddled with poignant social commentary, cross-subgenre scares, and characters that feel real enough to inhabit our world, not just the world of the film. Harjosari village is haunted by a deeply disturbing and complex history that has left a permanent scar on each and every one of the villagers, and their desperate desire to cling to anything appearing authoritative, to do anything to ease their misfortune, is both deeply terrifying and heartbreakingly relatable. The terrifying heart of IMPETIGORE, however, has little to do with the villagers themselves, but more the authority figures they put trust in and how they abuse that trust; being of a “higher class,” they view the poor as dispensable, using them as pawns in their power struggles and even (in one case) as a… resource. It’s hard to get into that without spoilers, but the ghastly nature of what I just implied says everything I need to say. Moreover, this film also has quite a bit to say about narrative; the old adage of “history is told by the winners” definitely rings true here, as characters obfuscate and manipulate the true history of Harjosari to take advantage of the villagers’ desperation and cover their own mistakes. And the film is perfectly paced, teasing one narrative enough to draw us in before broadening and deepening our understanding of how that narrative is shaped; of course, it does that by tearing that narrative to bloody, ragged pieces to reveal the truth beneath, and the complicity of each of the characters in Harjosari’s traumatic past.
That actually brings us to Maya, who is one of the more compelling characters I’ve had the privilege to follow for this column. She is by nature subject to a kind of awful privilege, having directly benefitted from the suffering of this entire village, and the question of her culpability and how she will make things right is asked throughout the film. Ki Saptadi (Ario Bayu) and the villagers believe the way she can make it right is dying for her parents’ sins, an eye for an eye, as it were: but the film’s answer is so much more complex than that. Ratih (Asmara Abigail), a villager who does not believe killing Maya is the answer, says that “if someone made a pact with the devil, and a curse is born, it can never be reversed. It will only transform into another curse.” Nothing can undo the horrible things that happened in Harjosari; perhaps the way to heal and move forward is to uncover the truth, to honor the memory of those lost and bury the products of their suffering.
Of course, not everyone wants that truth to come out, and as to whether it does… well, you’ll have to see. In the meantime, viewers will be treated to a number of gut-wrenching shocks, from a little ghost girl ripping her face off to skinless babies being drowned immediately after birth. IMPETIGORE is folk horror at its best, featuring an isolated community haunted by a wealth of mythology, ritual sacrifice, a charismatic cult leader, and some truly bone chilling set-pieces that compete with the best in the genre. And as a side note here, the ending actually made me full on scream at my screen, with one of the grossest, most gut-wrenching things I have ever seen. On top of that, the ending challenges the film’s own resolution in a brilliant way, suggesting that perhaps, one way or another, the past will always come back to haunt us.
I cannot think of a single way IMPETIGORE could have been better. I hate giving out so many perfect scores (the column has really hit it’s share of highs and lows lately), but there is no possible way I can give this anything lower. It’s a ten out of ten from me. This just became one of my favorite films, and I will be closely following Joko Anwar from here on out.
Check it out. You won’t regret it.