Though perhaps best known here in the West for his contributions to horror anthology films like The ABCs of Death (2012) and V/H/S/2 (2013), Indonesian director Timo Tjahjanto has steadily made a name for himself as one of the rising stars of international genre filmmaking. This year alone Netflix has released two of his films, the first the bone-crunching, viscera-spewing The Night Comes for Us, a gruesome action thriller about a Triad hitman who goes rogue after refusing to kill a little girl. Continuing in the tradition of Gareth Evans’ Raid franchise, the film further solidifies Indonesia as the nascent capital for blood-curdling action cinema as Tjahjanto approaches his nihilistic tale of redemption with the eye of a surgeon and the forearm of a butcher, dissecting, chopping, cleaving, tearing the human body in endless permutations of cascading gore.
His second film, May the Devil Take You, might not match the nonstop, carnivalesque violence of The Night Comes for Us, but it nonetheless will curdle the stomach of the unwary, as it opens with a scene of trichophagic delights where beleaguered family man Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy) makes a pact with the devil for fame, wealth, and success by ritualistically swallowing a lock of hair from a medium. Flash-forward several years into the future as Lesmana lays in a hospital bed, face and body covered with swollen, pulsating boils. At his bedside stands Alfie (Chelsea Islan), teenage daughter from his first wife whom he divorced shortly after his demonic pact made him a multi-millionaire. Next to her are her three step-siblings born from the cruel, greedy actress Lesmana married shortly after abandoning her mother: the spoiled, haughty Maya (Pevita Pearce); the handsome and kind Ruben (Samo Rafael); the innocent, doe-eyed Nara (Hadijah Shahab). But of the four there, only Alfie sees the otherworldly phantasm lurking in the room, waiting for the cruel man to breathe his last so he can drag him down to hell. And though only the father sold his soul, the devil seems to want more than his due, setting his sights on the innocent (and not-so-innocent) children he left behind.
After the slow-burn first act, May the Devil Take You settles into a sublimely creepy haunted house chiller as Alfie, her step-siblings, and her stepmother Laksmi (Karina Suwandhi) get trapped in Lesmana’s abandoned country home. As they root around his belongings, they discover the door to the basement, nailed shut and covered with charms. As characters in such stories are wont to do, they bust open the door and unleash the same evil that seduced their father, a vengeful being that manifests as a ghostly young woman. From here Tjahjanto takes most of his cues from Sam Raimi films, the most obvious ones being the first two Evil Dead movies with their cast of dwindling survivors trapped in a rural cabin they physically can’t leave, all the while tormented by evil creatures that can possess those they touch. (There’s even a couple POV Steadicam shots of the camera rushing towards the heroes!) But some of Tjahjanto’s homages—and these references are much too specific and numerous for them to have been mere coincidence—are more subtle. Drag Me to Hell (2009) gets a number of nods, particularly a nasty bit of business where a woman holds down a victim and vomits blood into her screaming face. But so does, of all things, Spider-Man 2 (2004), particularly a scene where Laksmi gets dragged across the floor by an unseen force, all the while leaving long scratch-mark trails with her fingernails. One need look no further than the scene where Doctor Octopus’ robotic tentacle arms come alive and murder a roomful of doctors to find the inspiration.
Unlike The Night Comes for Us whose brutality and misanthropy felt revelatory for a genre obsessed with codes of honor and ideals of justice, May the Devil Take You feels like a retread of other, better movies, just with more cringe-worthy gore. But if it’s a retread, it’s a successful one, leaving a nasty taste in the back of the mouth and a gaping pit in the bottom of the stomach.