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'Perempuan Tanah Jahanam': A terrifying and cerebral blood-spattered horror tale

Reyzando Nawara
Reyzando Nawara

A film and TV series geek

Jakarta  /  Wed, October 16, 2019  /  09:04 am
'Perempuan Tanah Jahanam': A terrifying and cerebral blood-spattered horror tale

A still from 'Perempuan Tanah Jahanam' (BASE Indonesia/File)

Human beings have a lot of basic needs, with survival being the most fundamental. The desire for self-preservation is what prompts us to seek guidance. When we are young, this guidance mainly comes from our parents. But as we get older and encounter a new set of challenges, we begin to seek new leaders whose ideologies and philosophies match ours.

More often than not, these leader figures abuse their power for personal gain. Even worse, their influence can also have dangerous impacts, including mass hysteria.

Joko Anwar’s latest horror feature Perempuan Tanah Jahanam (Woman of the Cursed Land) goes to the core of this phenomenon. The movie is a social critique about the dangers of unquestioned higher authority. While on the surface Perempuan Tanah Jahanam may look like just another generic horror story in which a group of teenagers is terrorized in some kind of rural village, the film’s deeper thesis operates more as a study and a very deft allegorical portrait of the society in which we live: a society in which people blindly do anything their leaders tell them, even if it means having to face a life-or-death situation. And, as a result, Perempuan Tanah Jahanam will not only make your skin scrawl with its horrifying imagery, it will also keep you thinking long after the end credits roll.

Read also: 'Perempuan Tanah Jahanam' is scarier than 'Pengabdi Setan' because it's more realistic: Joko Anwar

We first meet Tara Basro’s Maya — a 20-something young woman struggling to make ends meet in a big city working the night shift in a toll booth. She’s on the phone with her best friend Dini, who has the same job. Nothing seems wrong at first, it’s just another sweaty night until a mysterious man suddenly appears and threatens to kill Maya for an unexplainable reason. What at first seems like a very normal film opening instantaneously escalates into a night of brief terror, heightened even more by Bemby Gusti, Tony Merle and Aghi Narottama’s extremely frightening score and Ical Tanjung’s rapid close-up shots. Joko Anwar has brilliantly crafted one of the most remarkable film openings of the year that will not only leave you flabbergasted and on the edge of your seat, but also sets the sense of terror and shock for the film itself.

As the film progresses, we soon learn that what happened to Maya at the beginning of the film was not a chance occurrence. The man actually came from a small, rural village where her parents used to live years ago. It turns out that Maya may inherit her parents’ big house there. She and Dini, who don’t have much money left to live, ultimately decide to go to the village in the hopes of selling the house.

Little do they know, only terror awaits. What follows is a series of dangerous and strange events, filled with plenty of what-the-hell and head-scratching moments.

Perempuan Tanah Jahanam clearly wants us to understand that in times of financial crisis, people will do literally anything just to stay afloat, even if it means risking their life. But above all else, this film not only shows the extreme lengths a desperate person will go to for self-preservation, at its deepest core, the film explores how rage and the desire for revenge can blind one to any sense of decency. This is accentuated by Christine Hakim’s character Nyi Misni, an elder of the village.

By delving deep into the root cause of a series of cataclysmic events in the movie, Perempuan Tanah Jahanam makes a very compelling argument about the evils of abused power and the danger it presents. Joko Anwar cleverly intertwines Nyi Misni and her backstory with Maya and her struggle, building a fascinating portrait of two different generations.

This is where Perempuan Tanah Jahanam is at its absolute best, the film manages to examine the issue of mass hysteria by tragically uncloaking the idea that the sins of a leader can be transferred into the bodies and minds of their followers – and future generations – without them even knowing, and how anyone in a position of power is capable of violent exploitation and causing many catastrophic events. In doing so, not only does Joko Anwar create a very disturbing horror atmosphere, he also draws very tenacious yet somehow sympathetic performances from Tara Basro, Marissa Anita and the always-brilliant Christine Hakim. (dev/kes)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.