Sundance 2020: Impetigore Review
One of the oldest truisms in horror is that the sins of the father don’t die with him, but continue to haunt generations to come. That’s certainly true in the Indonesian horror film Impetigore, in which a young woman is drawn back into a world, and a village, that she knows nothing about to atone for crimes she has no knowledge of. It’s a wild and sometimes ridiculous tale, but writer-director Joko Anwar’s talent for fast-paced dialogue and ratcheting tension make it utterly compelling.
Anwar shows off his writing skills early on when we meet Maya (Tara Basro) and her friend Dini (Marissa Anita). They’re toll booth workers, though their days are numbered, as they’ll soon be replaced with automated posts. They work at different locations but talk on their cell phones throughout the evening to keep each other from going stir crazy. Dini is lucky enough to work with other people, but Maya is stuck at a remote location where she’s the only toll worker, and a suspicious-looking man has begun to drive through her booth multiple times a night while leering at her. A chilling confrontation with the man will send Maya away from the big city and to a remote village where the parents she can’t even remember once lived. Anwar filmed these scenes deep in the jungle, using remote and hard-to-reach villages to great effect. The huts and houses have a lived-in quality that might have looked overly artificial if they’d been constructed from scratch.
In this remote village, Maya discovers a massive house, practically a mansion by local standards, where her parents once lived. But it’s isolated in the middle of a cemetery, and the villagers give it a wide berth as if something horrible happened there. Even as the two women try to find a way to claim the house as Maya’s inheritance, they learn of sinister illnesses that have rocked the community that seem to originate with the same house.
Though Anwar can write a thrillingly twisty run of dialogue, Impetigore tends to run off the rails when it comes to plotting. It’s one revelation after another, to the point that they start to become comical rather than horrific. There are times when he seems to be going for a more playful tone, but it’s not quite obvious enough if so. Late in the film, Maya has a ghost-inspired vision that wraps up many of its mysteries, but he interrupts the vision every 30 seconds or so to show her having a seizure while angry villagers with torches search for her in the night. It seems like a joke by the sixth or seventh time he interrupts the vision to cut to her, but it’s not quite silly enough to get a full chuckle.
Luckily, Impetigore’s outstanding cast help smooth over some of those issues. Basro is a compelling leading actress, and Anita adds some much-needed comedic moments. Christine Hakim, who plays the mother of a village elder, gives a suitably menacing performance as the only one who knows all of the village’s secrets. Anwar’s flashier instincts often get the better of him, but his actors help to bring Impetigore back to earth, where it belongs.