Joko Anwar’s haunted village thriller, “Impetigore,” has more on its mind than just curses and conspiracies. This Sundance horror breakout grapples with Indonesian class strife and the resentment that stems from it. Carried across generations, such enmity against the privileged – who have the luxury to leave behind the destitution they create – is destined to turn vengeful. The wickedness in this folklore-come-to-life is control, wielded by few but affecting the masses. As the tale’s protagonist discovers, even if attempts are made to the right, the evils of the past, sometimes the damage is beyond reparation.
A bone-chilling opening sequence launches Maya’s (Tara Basro) shadowy trip down memory lane. The young toll booth officer is attacked during her shift by a man who calls Maya by her childhood pet name. Her assailant is shot to death by police, but not before cutting open Maya’s leg scar. Inside, she extracts a buried scroll of paper with ancient Javanese text. Hoping to understand the connection between this assassin, the parchment, and her repressed past, Maya turns to the only clue she has: an old photograph of her and her presumptive parents standing in front of a grand estate. Yearning to learn more – including whether the property is inheritable – Maya travels by bus to the unmarked village where the photo originated.
Maya is accompanied by her best friend and prospective small business partner, Dini (Marissa Anita). Tagging along for the estate’s monetary potential, Dini’s comic relief quells much of Maya’s rising fear. A creepy trio of young girls keeps popping into Maya’s consciousness, though it’s unclear if their conjuring is real or a symptom of paranoia. Once the women reach their destination, the locals are of little to no help, and the pair are forced to sleep in Maya’s dusty former residence. Ical Tanjung’s cinematography adds to the unsettling atmosphere by holding shots even after the characters exit frame. Audiences are kept on their toes throughout the settling-in process, peering into the background to see if spirits are afoot. Anwar excels at maintaining dread and supernatural tension, even after the past is no longer an unsolved mystery.
The eerie fog that permeates throughout the village is wholly immersive and inescapable, creating a force field of entrapment viewers experience well before Maya and Dini do. Once terror is finally unleashed upon the women, the village itself morphs into a concave monstrosity. Decades of being brutalized and damned by the sins of wealthy landowners eventually reach its tipping point. While the story dabbles in the horrors of violent mob mentality, the townsfolk are humanized because their newborns are inflicted with the curse of skinless bodies. Attributed to Maya, the curse is thought to be lifted upon her death and subsequent skinning. However, even that recommendation comes with bias from those with community clout: renowned shadow puppeteer Ki Saptadi (Ario Bayu) and his domineering mother, Nyi Misni (Christine Hakim).
The title “Impetigore” refers to “impetigo herpetiformis,” a form of psoriasis that can appear during pregnancy. In the case of the hexed village, the condition goes a step further with postpartum ramifications. There’s plenty of blame to go around in this occult fright fest, but the emphasis of tortured spirits clinging onto the living is what cuts beyond skin-deep. The village becomes an echo chamber of pain and trauma, unable to end its cycle of sorrow unless penance is imposed. Anwar powerfully exposes the lingering effects of Indonesia’s wealth inequality, a socioeconomic divide so steeply unbalanced that it’s nothing short of evil.
“Impetigore” is distributed by Shudder and is currently available on their streaming service.