Horror maestro Joko Anwar: “In Southeast Asia, we have a rich tradition of ghost stories”

We meet the acclaimed director behind creepy classics 'Satan’s Slaves' and 'Impetigore'

Imbued by the region’s rich mythologies and folklore, the horror genre has been at the forefront of Southeast Asian cinema since its earliest days. And in recent years, Southeast Asian horror has grown beyond local box office success to capture the attention and imagination of aficionados around the world. Sparked by the international triumph of Satan’s Slaves in 2017 and the vision of its heralded Indonesian auteur Joko Anwar, global fascination with the region’s unique and diverse supernatural traditions has skyrocketed.

Anwar has continued to lead the charge for Southeast Asian horror. After landing a Sundance premiere with Impetigore and writing horror remake The Queen of Black Magic, he’s returned to the universe of Satan’s Slaves, the cult classic he remade decades after its initial 1980 release in Indonesia.

In Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves, we met the Suwono family, who were tormented by their recently deceased matriarch. And in the new sequel Satan’s Slaves: Communion, we return to the Suwonos, who’ve tried to escape their troubles by moving from a rural village to an apartment building – to no avail. Communion made waves at the 2022 Busan International Film Festival and soon after its Indonesian premiere in August became the country’s second highest-grossing film of the year.

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Ahead of Communion’s premiere on streaming service Shudder on November 4, we talked to the influential director about his upbringing as a horror buff, shooting in IMAX – a first for Southeast Asian film – and the “bigger universe” of Satan’s Slaves.

What about the horror genre fascinates you as a storyteller?

“Horror has a special place in my heart because I grew up with the genre. There was this rundown cinema in my hometown, just across from where I lived in Medan, Sumatra. If I had money I would always watch movies there. But even if I didn’t have money, I would still go there and watch from the outside! The theater had this ventilation hole by the side – a kind of window. Even though I could only see maybe three quarters of the screen, I would still watch because I was such a film buff.

“It just so happened that most of the movies screening there were horror. So I grew up with Indonesian horror movies from the start. As you can guess, my favourite was the original Satan’s Slaves, which I saw in ’82 or ’83. But because of my reverence for the genre, I initially never wanted to make horror because I feared that I wouldn’t be able to serve the genre well. Later on, once I became more confident that I could do horror, I knew that my first fully-fledged horror movie had to be a remake of Satan’s Slaves.”

Satan's Slaves: Communion
Credit: Shudder

How did you approach the sequel in a way that retained the magic of the first, while also offering something new?

“Even before we shot the first movie, I already had the bigger universe in mind. But I told my producers I don’t want to announce that this is going to be something bigger, because I wanted to see if the whole thing was going to be successful or not. But if you see the first one and then the second one, there are doors you can open up to a bigger story – more than just a story about a family being terrorised by a cult.

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“Same thing with the third one I’m planning: I wanted to wait to see if Communion was well-received first. Thankfully the second one was even more successful, almost doubling the gross of the first one. In this case, it’s easier because we already had the full story planned from beginning to end. So far, you have not even seen a tenth of the story yet.

“But yes, it’s always tricky since there is no guarantee that people will like the new instalment. People want to see more of what they loved in the sequel, and we have to deliver that. However, we should not let that define the sequel because it might degrade the storytelling. I know I have to serve fan expectations because I’m a Satan’s Slaves fan myself, but it should not stop me from bringing in fresh aspects. It’s not about trying to make what already worked bigger – it’s not about doubling the scares or the production value. It’s about servicing the story.”

Satan's Slaves: Communion
Credit: Shudder

Communion was the first Indonesian and Southeast Asian film to be released in IMAX. Why did you choose to shoot this one in IMAX?

“Technologically, I love to be prepared for the future, and IMAX is the way of the future. We wanted to present the sequel on such a big canvas because the bigger story required it. It needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. If people see the sequel and the next one, people will understand what I mean. The third Satan’s Slaves movie will venture beyond the haunted house subgenre. I know it’s a challenge because people are already accustomed to the enclosed environments. But the third movie will grow and evolve into something else.”

Satan's Slaves: Communion
Credit: Shudder

Why do you think Indonesian or Southeast Asian horror has found a wider, global audience in recent years?

‘It’s simply because we have such a great collection and variety of supernatural folklore that the rest of the world has never seen before. Last time I checked – I was making a list of ghosts and mythological creatures coming from Indonesia – we have 44 distinct ones. In Southeast Asia, we have such a rich tradition of ghost stories. We love telling our kids these stories! When I was a kid, if my mother did not tell me a scary story, I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. [laughs] So that’s our culture. Because we have such a wide and unique library of horror, our movies feel fresh, especially from the perspective of a Western audience.”

Satan’s Slaves: Communion starts streaming on Shudder on November 4 in the U.S., Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand

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