Sundance 2020 head-turner Impetigore is the latest horror flick to hit Shudder, written and directed by Indonesian filmmaker Joko Anwar. It is a gruesome and exceedingly sinister film, which should come as no surprise to those who are familiar with Anwar’s 2017 hit Satan’s Slaves. There is a lot to admire in the creepy and hair-raising atmosphere Impetigore creates, as well in its genuinely disturbing moments of violence, but the story ends up tripping over itself.
The film opens on two best friends, Maya (Tara Basro) and Dini (Marissa Anita), working a toll booth station at night. Life in the city is tough, and the two of them are just trying to get through another day. Maya has noticed that an off-putting man has driven by her booth every night for the past few days. As he arrives yet again on this particular evening, the friendly banter between the two friends (who chat on their phones in their lonely and tiny booths) comes to an eerie stop. Maya is obviously scared of this man, and we feel like we’re holding our breath right alongside her.
Anyone who is aware of the behavior and chilling perseverance of stalkers or creepy men in general will find this opening legitimately terrifying. Maya does her best to be polite as the man asks her questions, but the scene builds to a worst-case-scenario that becomes nothing but adrenaline. The event leaves Maya shaken and looking into her past, which leads to her and Dini traveling to the remote village she was born in. Maya was raised by her aunt and hopes to find answers regarding her parents, and whether they may have left her some kind of inheritance.
Spooky and hostile villages may be nothing new for Western audiences, but Impetigore‘s Indonesian setting allows for a unique aesthetic. The architecture is certainly different, and the backdrop of the dense rainforest makes the sweltering humidity feel very palpable. The two women take up residence in Maya’s childhood home and their initial exploration of the house allows for Anwar and his team to show off their mastery of cinematic visuals. The scene almost plays like a guided segment of a video game (in a good way); we only see as much as the two women see as each room is revealed. Each is deliberately designed – from dead, bleak grays to sickly yellows – and it solidifies that if nothing else, this film is a dark and satisfying feast for the eyes.
Naturally, the pair make the horror movie mistake of splitting up, and as Maya learns more about the home (“Devils used to live there and left a horrible disease” a villager tells her), Dini makes a huge mistake. Things quickly escalate. The first two acts of Impetigore are an excellent example of how to build tension and atmosphere, and even though it contains a couple of cheap jump scares, the film clearly doesn’t need to rely on them to be scary. Unfortunately, the third act fails to live up to the good faith it had gained before it.
The movie dissolves into overlong and tedious scenes of exposition in an effort to unravel the mystery of the village and Maya’s parents. Two montages of silent flashbacks only feel like they overcomplicate things and Impetigore winds up getting bogged down by its own story, losing its immediacy. Action ceases to drive the narrative. This becomes especially obvious and frustrating when the answers and possible solution feel like they are simply being handed over rather than earned in any meaningful way.
There still might be enough to enjoy here; the acting from the entire cast is exceptional and Anwar’s style is as impressive as its ever been. This is his latest collaboration with Tara Basro, who delivers a confident and compelling performance as Maya, solidifying her as a talent to be reckoned with. Her chemistry with Marissa Anita’s Dini – who turns in just as strong of a performance – is excellent as well. Horror buffs probably won’t want to miss Impetigore, but its lackluster ending leaves a good bit to be desired.