Timo Tjahjanto has released two new films on Netflix this year: The Night Comes for Us, the first Indonesian film produced by Netflix, and now his latest, May the Devil Take You, a horror film in the vein of The Evil Dead, with which it has been routinely compared. A secluded villa in the woods is the setting, and shenanigans involving the occult and demonic possession is the story. Tjahjanto deploys many familiar horror tropes throughout; the script is frustratingly underdeveloped, relying on clichés to fill its conceptual sandbox. But Tjahjanto also makes the most of that sandbox, reanimating the routine with some thrilling camerawork and gripping set pieces.
May the Devil Take You stars Chelsea Islan, who previously worked with Tjahjanto on Headshot, and she carries the film capably. She has a richer character to dig into this time around, and her relationship to her siblings is the film’s emotional core. Tjahjanto’s script leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to character work, but the setup is at least a strong hook, and Islan’s performance as Alfie makes the most of it. She holds her own against some poor dialogue, screams with the best of them, and her outbursts of self-loathing are genuinely moving. For brief, flitting moments, the story appears to have a pulse. Alas, Tjahjanto is more dutiful to genre than character.
The film’s opening sequences are among the weakest. The hospital sequence that kicks off the scares is uninspiring, with a creepy hand reaching around a corner, disappearing silhouettes, and obviously telegraphed gotcha moments. Tjahjanto’s directing is clumsy here, too. The actors stumble their way through the scene, unconvincingly flailing if not standing around doing nothing (the film cuts back to reaction shots way too many times, a problem in this scene and others), while one character pukes blood on others. Scares are also telegraphed via the soundtrack, with blaring, swelling sounds announcing the presence of evil. I was worried at first, but Tjahjanto starts to find his groove once the action moves to the villa.
As the action develops, the camerawork becomes more sophisticated, and the film delivers some genuine thrills. Tjahjanto’s camera floats and flies and spins and crashes through scenes. He finds novel ways to depict the supernatural; at one point, it looks like he even employs drone footage to suggest the movements of otherworldly forces. Headshot paid homage to early Hong Kong actioners, and May the Devil Take You continues those Hong Kong influences, taking a page from the gonzo supernatural films popular in the 80s. I often found myself thinking the camerawork would be better suited to an action movie, but it also imbues this horror exercise with an appropriate madcap sensibility, ensuring a tale of the Devil himself coming to collect souls doesn’t buckle under its own absurdity.
One of the film’s best sequences involves the young Nara (Hadijah Shahab) being lured away by one of the Devil’s servants. This is Tjahjanto at his most playful, featuring a great fake out with a painting and a steady, unsettling ratcheting of tension before exploding the scene into all-out chaos. The film only gets more gonzo from there, particularly when voodoo dolls are suddenly thrown into the mix and Alfie and her brother, Ruben (Samo Rafael), find themselves fighting for their lives against their sister, Maya (Pevita Pearce). It’s best not to ask—the film’s mythos contains a hodgepodge of typical horror signifiers, both Eastern and Western, and it can hardly be bothered with coherency or consistency.
The film’s ending is predictable, or perhaps inevitable. Character motivations often feel arbitrary, merely in service of genre requirements. The final images are nice, but the outcome is so obvious it feels perfunctory and not at all like the satisfying resolution of the film’s story threads. In short, the script needed a couple more passes at least. But stylistically, Tjahjanto delivers the goods. The camera moves as much, if not moreso, than it does in The Night Comes for Us, and the dynamism keeps the film engaging—amusingly, however, there might actually be less gore, not that May the Devil Take You doesn’t spill copious amounts of blood.
I don’t know what Tjahjanto is planning next, but I think the next step in his artistic career is obvious: make a horror movie and an action movie at the same time, combining all of his dynamic camerawork and gonzo sensibilities and thirst for gore into something in the vein of (as an example) Tsui Hark’s 1980 cannibalism classic, We’re Going to Eat You. Dial up the wacky humor and go for broke; I’m convinced Tjahjanto would have a classic in the making. As it is, May the Devil Take You is the work of a clear talent, but there’s still a lot of room to grow.
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