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May The Devil Take You (15)

Director: Timo Tjahjanto

Screenplay: Timo Tjahjanto

Starring: Chelsea IslanPevita PearceRay Sahetapy

Review: David Stephens

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Indonesian films have made a definite mark in film market over the last few years, with several action and genre movies being championed by mainstream critics. Much of this is undeniably due to the sublime action-fests that are “The Raid” and the just-as-hyper sequel from Gareth Evans. But another name that is becoming a definite quality mark for offerings from that locale is that of filmmaker Timo Tjahjanto. He’s responsible for such cult flicks as “Killers” and “Headshot”, as well as one of the best sections of “V/H/S 2” (along with the aforementioned Evans). But more recently he also made the excellent “The Night Comes for Us”, a truly jaw-dropping triad action-thriller that hit Netflix very recently, and one film you should definitely seek out if you’re in the market for bloody mayhem. Just weeks after that, his next horror opus “May the Devil Take You” (a.k.a. “Sebelum Iblis Menjemput”… which oddly translates as “Before the Devil Picks Up” according to Google) has also been made available on the streaming service. It’s the first pure feature-length horror that the writer/director has made since 2009’s “Macabre”, and one which screened at this year’s London Film Festival and Fantastic Fest. So YGROY takes a sip to see if this Java is hot or not…
A nervous man awaits the arrival of someone in his remote Indonesian villa. This turns out to Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy), and his visitor is a strange woman who immediately makes a beeline for the cellar. After some weird rituals involving a goats head and a spot of levitation, Lesmana bolts from the villa, a much richer man than when he arrived. A scrapbook montage during the credits shows him becoming an “overnight success”, followed by the suspicious death of his first wife and a marriage to a famous actress. Skip forward to years later and Lesmana lies on his deathbed in hospital, suffering from an unknown malady. His estranged daughter Alfie (Chelsea Islan) and step-family gather round him, but ultimately end up at the villa from the first scene. Whilst Alfie hopes to find some connection with her past, his scheming wife Laksmi (Karina Suwandhi) looks for papers and riches within its walls. But there’s something in the cellar that should not be disturbed…

Most early reviews of this movie have compared the tone and content to a certain Sam Raimi franchise, and certainly at times it looks to be a typical Cabin-in-the-Woods horror, albeit with an Indonesian flavour. The villa could be a stand-in for the shack; there are black-eyed possessions with a deadite-like character, a moving stuffed animal, and of course… the unknown thing-in-the-cellar. But the visuals also unusually seem to channel several key scenes from the original “Poltergeist” (face-ripping, something under the bed, stuck in a muddy pool, etc). If all that seems to represent MTDTY as a lazy rip-off of classic horror, then it certainly isn’t that. Whilst it seems to go full “Evil Dead” at one point, the narrative then switches into a slightly different course and never descends into a predictable riff on westernised genre. So what you ultimately get is a lively skewed experience that encompasses the haunted-house sub-genre, with enough style and verve to make it stand out from other movies of this type.  

If you’re already a fan of Tjahjanto’s bloody and frenetic action-thrillers, then you might expect a similarly breakneck rush into gory bedlam. However the story (which he also wrote) is actually a tad more thoughtful and slower-paced than that. It does become more intense (and bloody) as the plot progresses, but is fairly slow-burn to start with. Those that liked the similar pace in “Macabre” will probably instantly dig this. As the narrative picks up steam, there are hammers embedded in skulls and heads being graphically removed from torsos. But perhaps surprisingly, the most effective moments are the ones that aim for the creepy vibe. An entity floats (POV) over a young character to enter a nearby wardrobe, with the express objective to scare the bejesus out of them. Disturbing characters are glimpsed subliminally or as hazy figures in a blurry background. A split-second cut sees a demonic face peer through a crack in a doorway. And a full-on satanic figure is seen only in quick flashes. Later scenes rely on pleasingly intense confrontations that have emotional weight to them, as well as the imaginatively gruesome use of “voodoo” dolls. There’s also a devilish “seduction” that is comparable to “The Witch”, and a nice revelation about the scars on a protagonist which provides some nice empathy. 

Alfie is a good solid heroine and played nicely by Islan, and whilst she doesn’t exactly aspire to the heights of Ash or Mia (who can?) from the “Evil Dead” franchise, she’s a great protagonist who’s easy to root for, especially as some effort is made to give her some backstory. The supporting characters aren’t quite as effective, but Pevita Pearce does some good things as Maya. If you want to nit-pick, the basic Faustian storyline isn’t exactly innovative, but the treatment and twist of Indonesian mythology makes it feel a little fresher than you might expect. It’s also nice to see the bulk of the SFX as being practical rather than predicable splodges of CG. There is the odd dash of computer-generated drooling tongues and realistic limb-breakage, but it’s used sparingly and in a good way. The supernatural figure(s) originally look a little too derivative with their J-horror hair and white faces, but happily they progress into something more original with mouths full of fangs and unnaturally shaped faces. More importantly, they retain an air of creepiness that most Western exploitation films still can’t nail.

The final scenes manage to be very effective on several levels and prove to be satisfying, which kind of summarizes the film as a whole. It’s not startlingly original, occupying a vague space between “Evil Dead” intensity and “The Ring” shudder scares. But it does work as a highly watchable genre offering from an atypical source, and you certainly won’t be disappointed if you use your search bar on Netflix to find it. With the streaming channel highlighting Tjahjanto’s work like this, we can be pretty sure than his next project will be just as good, be it bloody actioner or spooky horror…and we look forward to it. 

Whilst the Raimi (along with other genre film) references are obvious, MTDTY turns out to be an extremely watchable slice of Indonesian horror. The “Evil Dead” vibe gives way to other diabolic shenanigans, and makes for some pleasingly intense sequences that are original enough to stick in the mind. Definitely one to look for, even if foreign horror isn’t normally your bag. 
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