From Indonesia, Joko Anwar who brought the eerie Satan’s Slaves comes Impetigore a lush supernatural tale bathed in tension.
Dropping on Shudder today, this Indonesian story of cursed villages and dead babies leans heavily into Anwar’s signature style. While this won’t be the breakout hits for Western fans, it will help the talented writer/director further cement his name in genre canon. Impetigore is another step in the right direction.
Maya and her friend Dini who are both toll booth attendants, have decided to travel to Maya’s small isolated village to find out why everyone wants her dead. Dini is also convinced her friend could come into a sizable portion of money from the proceeds of a family home. Shortly after arriving, it is clear the village isn’t into strangers, and something is very wrong. In typical horror movie fashion, the girls split up, and Dini, the comedic sidekick, makes an abysmal decision that doesn’t go well for her. From there, the wheels really come off. When the action starts, it is nonstop save a few jarring flashbacks that suck the tension out of the chase instead of fill in gaps. All is forgiven though in the final act. It features a whole lot of blood and machetes, plus one spectacularly nasty final surprise.
Impetigore is a beautiful film. It’s stylistically stunning and full of slow-burning atmosphere. The premise is intriguing, and there are more than a few creepy elements like production design by Frans Paat. He curates a derelict estate and village lost in time. The large house that is partially reclaimed by the jungle sells the weirdness. Effective but underused wayang puppets that could have been mined for more scares are both pretty and chilling. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these puppets used as more of a focal point in his next film. Anyone who has seen the latest Candyman remake trailer knows just how unsettling shadow puppets can be.
Anwar gleefully frames one bloody shot after the next. He doesn’t shy away from the gore. There is one especially WTF moment halfway through that takes things from unsettling to downright surreal. I will never look at a clothesline again the same way. These shots are lovingly thought out, showing you everything in their widescreen excess but nothing at the same time.
Anwar’s particularly adept at choosing what to show the audience and when to keep the film moving forward. The village is lush and dirty. You practically smell the loam through the screen. This is a smoky, hazy place where people behave ominously as a course of action. The unrelenting amber hues and moaning chorus of spectral howlers never let up. Infinite haunting piano chords and whisper moans aid Impetigore in its overall tone. Even when miles of exposition is being dropped unceremoniously on the viewer, the wailing and fog continue.
The layers of the cursed village story lack some finesse in the final act that suffers from being about 15 minutes too long. The curse is overly complicated, with a few too many layers to be anything other than mildly frightening and confusing. It is enthusiastically gory, though, so that’s worth a watch. Two huge expo dumps deliver the reveal in information overload beats that leave you completely filled in and thinking this backwoods village, and it’s off his nutter leader need to die. For real people, did it never occur to you that maybe everyone has the same affliction because you might all be related? Here’s everything you need to know about that insane ending.
Both Puppet Masters Were Killers
Ki Saptadi and Ki Donowongso were both responsible for some horrific crimes. The older puppet master and the person everyone initially thought was responsible for the curse was not Maya’s father. He was responsible, however, for three young girl’s deaths. A deal with the Devil courtesy of his loyal maid Nyi Misni(Christine Hakim), who is Ki Saptadi’s mother, was struck. Nyi Misni is a practitioner of the black arts and had a vested interest in protecting her son’s secret.
Ki Saptadi went on a violent killing spree beginning first with Ki Donowongso and later with Donowongso’s entire production crew. He also killed Donowongso’s beautiful wife, Nyai Shinta, who happened to be Ki Saptadi’s secret lover and the mother of his child, Maya. Why he decided to kill everyone isn’t clear. The clunky flashback at the end explains in pictures that it was Ki Saptadi’s who killed both the band and Nyai Shinta. The most straightforward explanation would be Saptadi’s Mom made him do it with some kind of hoodoo.
We are led to believe that when uber obsessed mom Nyi placed the curse on Saptadi, he forgot everything about his affair with her. From the super inappropriate way she was touching his naked body, it’s possible she also placed the initial curse on Maya making her born skinless. The stress of having a child in pain drove Donowongso to kill the three girls. He needed a sacrifice to save his child. He wasn’t so much evil as desperate. For Saptadi, maybe having his Mom molest him and having his brain messed with was enough to make him feel stabby?
Who Was Responsible For The Curse?
There are two answers to this question. First, the three five-year-old girls Donowongso killed in hopes of “curing” his daughter cursed the entire town. Every child born from that point forward would be born with the same skinless affliction. The second answer is more a haunting than a curse. Nyi Misni, after being killed by her son in the end, got revenge on the town by returning from the dead and eating one of the villager’s babies. Presumably, she will eat every baby from this point forward.
When Maya buried the skin puppets with their bones, they were finally at peace, and they removed their curse. Mama Nyi takes things a step further and is flat out ripping babies from their mother’s wombs and chowing down. She is pissed, and I’m guessing there isn’t a lot that will appease her. Ratih explains that she doesn’t want to kill Maya because the curse can’t ever be lifted only transformed. That is precisely what happened. Nyi made a pact with the Devil, and now the curse is permanent.
Why Did Nyi Help Maya In The First Place?
Nyi kept the child alive because she knew Maya was her son’s daughter. Maya is also the tasty little byproduct of her magic. By whisking her away to some aunt in the city, she saved her creation and grandaughter. Nyi did not care about her employer’s wishes, only her own family. Bonus for her that she could send the child away and not risk her son, bestowing too much attention on Maya. She wanted to maintain her position as the one and only woman in his life.
It Might Just Be Bad Genes
Most of the time, the obvious answer is the right one. Sure ghost girls are running amuck, and old ladies with limps are eating newborns, but isn’t it possible it’s just a genetic thing? Everyone is related, and in a village as small as this one, there is bound to be some inbreeding. Ratih tells Maya she doesn’t believe like the others because her mother, who is a powerful shaman living elsewhere, knows the curse can’t be lifted only changed. That would indicate there aren’t a lot of newcomers to the village, so it wouldn’t be far fetched to assume there is some tainting of the gene pool.
Both the Ki’s are related through their father, so the lousy gene could be on either side. Saptadi produced a child without skin, and Donowongso couldn’t have children. Assuming Nyi didn’t curse her own grandaughter(which she could have), it is merely a bizarre hereditary anomaly.
There Are Conditions That Cause Humans To Be Skinless
Believe it or not, several things can cause you to be born without skin. They are very rare and vary in severity. One disease, epidermolysis bullosa, causes the skin to be so fragile it breaks and blisters with minimal provocation. With this condition, the skin is present, but because it sheds so easily babies born often appear to have no skin. Another condition is aplasia cutis congenita. In most cases, those afflicted only have a patch of skin, usually on their scalp missing.
Pacing is an issue with Impetigore. The first scene is excellent, and the final act is a whole lot of something, but it doesn’t deliver on the promise of the opening sequence. It does provide several way-out-there moments that you won’t soon forget. That final scene is the money shot. If the endless supply of throat-slitting hillbillies isn’t enough gore, make sure and stay for the final scene. It is good to the last bite.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.