In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on Cinema76.
The opening scene of Impetigore scared the shit out of me. In it, we meet two best friends, Maya and Dini, talking over the phone as they each work their respective posts as toll booth operators. Dini (Marissa Anita) is having a decently busy night, with a regular flow of drivers passing through her booth. Maya (Tara Basro) isn’t so lucky. It’s a very slow night for her, and a recent appearance from a creepy regular has her feeling unsettled, especially since she’s the only operator working at her location. The two young women are chatting about financial woes and their shared goal of opening a clothing store when Maya notices that her creepy regular is approaching her booth on foot…with a machete in hand.
Writer/director Jojo Anwar builds the tension of the scene masterfully, giving the audience a working understanding of the geography and mechanisms of the booth, allowing for a sort of miniature slasher film to kick off the story. A perfect terror concept executed with absolute precision. To add to the intensity, Maya’s attacker speaks in cryptic statements – statements which suggest a foreknowledge of Maya’s identity. You see, Maya moved to the big city with her aunt at the tender age of five. She understands that her parents are deceased, and that her life began in a village way off the beaten path, but not much beyond that. After having survived this attack, however, she has an idea: Maybe her parents had some wealth when they passed. Maybe she’s the rightful heir to some real estate. Maybe if she can take a trip to the village, she can gather enough information to obtain whatever assets she is potentially owed.
Maya and Dini decide to put their lives on hold and embark on a short adventure to said village. Posing as college students on a research outing, they poke and prod the locals while doing their best not to roust suspicion. What they soon find is that there is much more to the history of this village, and to Maya’s own past, than they could have ever expected. And then a bunch of super scary shit happens.
Anwar, whose previous film, Satan’s Slaves, made a notable splash in genre circles, puts forth his best work to date in mixing the pieces of a “fish out of water” thriller (think The Wicker Man) with more typical paranormal elements, albeit within his unique brand of cultural supernaturalia. While I can’t speak to the real-life cultural elements behind the ghosties, I can imagine that at the very least, the way Anwar’s ghouls present themselves is culturally resonant the same way that J-Horror beasties all have a similar look. Or, for example, how here in America, all of our monsters look like they just stepped out of The Conjuring (heck, even the latest American update of The Grudge feels more visually in tune with something like Insidious than it does with Ju-On). Whatever the mythological influence may be, there’s no denying that Anwar’s lens is an exciting one. The imagery in Impetigore is deeply unsettling. Tense moments where our hero must remain quiet to stay alive are just as effective as the many instances where something unsavory appears in a blink-and-you-miss-it moment. And by the end, when full-on terror is unspooling at an insane clip, the hairs on the back of my neck, having been standing at attention for quite some time now, were dripping with the cold sweat of a child lost in the throes of a nightmare.
The way Anwar arranges his jump scares is fascinating to me. He seems to know the exact formula that we’re all expecting, choosing then to subvert it. Just when the audience thinks that they’ve seen a trick before, and have steeled themselves for the most obvious jolt, it doesn’t come. Conventional wisdom states that the empty space in the frame should suddenly be filled with a creeping, eyeless beast, but it just isn’t there. Suddenly, the camera breaks convention and swoops to the side, revealing a terrifying image at the precise moment when we have no breath to hold. It’s downright masterful, and it’s a skill that Anwar has developed considerably since his last film. It got me every time.
Not so elegant is the way that plot details are given to us late in the game. In a hectic, clumsy third-act dump, our protagonist is given everything we, the audience, needs to understand the source of all the horror in the form of a hallucinatory flashback. It’s a ton of information, artlessly presented in between what appears to be the same shot of her reacting to it over and over again. Right at the moment when things are ratcheted up to peak intensity, the film slams on the brakes for way too long, deflating the tension and giving the audience a needlessly complicated sequence to spend the next few minutes untangling. Once the information is out, however, Anwar wastes no time getting the story back on its feet in time to cross the finish line with grace.
Already a prolific filmmaker (seriously, just look at his filmography to see just how many projects he’s got his hands in), Anwar is an exciting talent to keep an eye out for. As more of his work becomes available stateside, and more opportunities are provided to him, there’s no denying that Joko Anwar will become a household name for horror fans, and deservedly so. Here’s hoping the same can be said for leading lady Tara Basro, who has superstar written all over her.
Impetigore is now playing on Shudder.