I've spent the last few years finding and watching exploitation movies from all over the world, many of which were never meant to be seen outside of their home country. These movies represent languages and cultures that I do not understand, and I am perfectly willing to admit that when I write about them, I am often wrong.
Most of these movies do not have English subtitles. If I decide I really want to grapple with an unsubtitled film, I'll usually try to get my hands on a dictionary or some on-line resources, and at very least pick up a few words and grammatical tips before I get too deeply immersed. But even though I try to glean some sense of the movies' meanings from the few key-words I'm able to figure out, I am completely oblivious to nuance and idiom.
In those rare cases when a wholly-regional film does have English subtitles, it's not always much of a help: even assuming the subs are accurate (and often they're not), they're also likely to be devoid of nuance. If I'm not careful, they can fool me into thinking I've understood more of the movie than I really have.
In any case, I'm watching these movies through the extremely myopic lens of my own culture. The wonder is that I get anything right.
Still, even if I make a fool of myself, I keep writing these reviews — and why not? Because if Mankind has a universal language, I suspect it is Failure. And on the other hand, the failure in question is not always mine.
Take, for example, Indonesia's Mahluk dari Neraka ("The Creature from Hell"). I may not understand much of the dialogue — but there's so little of it, it hardly matters. I may not understand (or sympathize with) the religious principles that inspire the plot — but I can see very clearly how sloppily they're presented. I may not be acquainted with the rhythm of life in other cultures — but I have a pretty good idea, nevertheless, when the narrative has slipped out of a director's grasp. Sometimes you don't need anything more than the most basic critical tools to realize what you're watching — regardless of where or when it was made, and regardless of what language it's in — is a total piece of crap.
Information about Mahluk dari Neraka is scarce. Its director, Mardali Syarief (pronounced "Shareef"), is apparently a veteran of Indonesian exploitation cinema, and he's made a handful of horror films in the new millennium (including Kafir / Satanic  and Peti Mati / The Coffin ). But even Indonesian-language filmographies make no mention of this film in his output. It's likely to have been either made for television or for direct-to-video release: its 40-minute length suggests it was either intended for broadcast or to fit comfortably on a single VCD. Maybe the filmographies skip over Mahluk dari Neraka because of its non-theatrical origin. Or maybe they're just preserving a merciful silence. Let me describe the film to you, and you can make up your own minds...
The film opens with the sun setting behind a mosque, as the muezzin sings the evening call to prayer. As full night descends, we see a car pull into the parking lot of a cheap motel. I was going to make a joke about the fact that it's a mid-60's Ford, but since practically every other car we see in the film is equally ancient, I can only assume that it was common for Indonesians in 1994 to drive cars that were a quarter-century old.
A middle-aged man in his shirtsleeves is checking in, along with a younger woman who is evidently not his wife. It's hard to tell if she's his girlfriend, or his mistress, or a girl he picked up on a street corner somewhere (perhaps she was impressed by his hot set of wheels — Sorry! I just can't help myself). The girl is wearing a heavy, costumey purple "femme fatale" dress, and she looks extremely ill-at-ease. Maybe in a different film I could figure out something about their relationship by reading between the lines... but these two have no lines. This whole introductory scene plays out in silence.
Now, I'd like you to pay special attention to what follows, including the total lack of transition. You'll understand why as we get further into the film:
Suddenly, the man wakes up with a start. At first he doesn't seem to realize where he is, but then he recognizes the cheap motel. He sits up in the bed, a frightened expression on his face. His companion is no longer in bed with him — wrapped in a sheet, she stands at the open door of the motel room. As the man watches her, she turns her head slowly, and casts a languid glance at the blood-red stage light moon...
Got that? Good. Now it's time for the opening credits. Over a still of that red "moon", we get a text-crawl that tells us: "This strange story took place in 1990, in Bandung...." That's right: this movie is Based on a True Story — rarely a good thing in the horror genre.
After the credits, we see a woman wearing an International Distress Orange-colored outfit walking through an empty lecture hall. Or maybe it's an empty theater: how appropriate would that be? In any event, she's glaring straight at the camera. Uh-oh, we think: we've already been given one introduction... it looks like we're about to get a narrator, too. In a moment, she confirms our worst fears, and starts talking to the audience across the Fourth Wall. Bad news, everybody: it is a lecture hall.
The woman is never named, so I'm just going to refer to her as the Narrator... whether she's narrating or not. She tells us she's about to relate a tragic story about her friend Hesti. It's a true story, she says. Stabbing her index finger at the camera, she asks the audience to consider: could it happen to you? Then she gestures off-screen (as though she were directing traffic), and says: "This is how it all started..."
Cue the smoke machines, as we find ourselves in the middle of a traditional Indonesian dance rehearsal. The doomed Hesti turns out to be the woman we saw at the motel during the prologue. She and the Narrator are both dancers, though it's Hesti who is featured in the dancing we see. After her performance is over, Hesti leaves the room; her friend runs to catch up to her. The rehearsal isn't over, so where could she be going? Our attention has already been drawn to the sign on the wall pointing toward the TOILET, so Hesti's explanation comes as no surprise.
What does surprise us is the ominous music and sinister heavy breathing that accompanies her descent to the Ladies' Room.
The heavy breathing continues as a shaky POV camera makes its way s-l-o-w-l-y into the restroom and sneaks up to Hesti, who is now adjusting her makeup in the mirror. Hesti becomes aware that something's not quite right, though when she looks behind her she doesn't see anything unusual. She picks up her bag with a shudder and exits the restroom — but she's so unnerved that she accidentally leaves a certain something behind...
Hesti is about to rejoin the rehearsal when she realizes she's neglected to tidy up. Her friend the Narrator again asks her where she's going, and Hesti hurriedly tells her she forgot to throw away her sanitary napkin. Back she goes to the restroom... but this time... there's something waiting for her... something that's busy snuffling her discarded pad!
Hesti screams! The audience vomits! And...
Suddenly, the man wakes up with a start. At first he doesn't seem to realize where he is, but then he recognizes the cheap motel. He sits up in the bed, a frightened expression on his face. His companion is no longer in bed with him — wrapped in a sheet, Hesti stands at the open door of the motel room. As the man watches her, she turns her head slowly, and casts a languid glance at the blood-red moon...
A few minutes later, the janitor plods down to the Ladies' Room with his mop and bucket. He walks through the door, and this is what he sees:
(Pay special attention to the strategically-placed scarf. Also, pay special attention to the strategically-placed blood splash in the center of the screen shot. Are you starting to figure out why I hate this movie as much as I do?)
The janitor takes a few tentative steps toward the girl, then drops his bucket and mop (on top of Hesti) and runs upstairs to fetch the dancers. Everybody crowds into the doorway to gawp at poor Hesti's body. The dance instructor sends a handful of his students out to get the police. Still standing in the doorway, the instructor gives his considered opinion: Hesti has been a victim of rape. Her full-body leotard is apparently undisturbed, and there seems to be more blood around the soles of her feet than anywhere else... but rape is the conclusion he comes to.
Everybody looks at the bucket and mop, then at the janitor; then back to the bucket and mop; then back to the janitor. Slowly, the poor old man begins to realize what everybody's thinking. "Ti... ti... ti... TIDAK! (N- n- n- NOOO!)" he cries, and runs away. The instructor and the male dancers all run after him, while the female dancers remain in the doorway biting their fingertips. Only the orange-clad Narrator takes the initiative and actually walks into the room; but instead of going to Hesti's side, she goes straight to the garbage bin to see if the sanitary napkin is there. Priorities!
An ambulance takes Hesti's body to the local hospital. The middle-aged man from the motel watches them arrive: his shirt is undone, his tie is off, and he wears an expression of utter misery, but he doesn't attempt to get in to see her. In fact, he doesn't even interact with the attendants: he just stands on the sidelines and shakes his head. In the meantime, Hesti is brought into the hospital. Her eyes stare sightlessly at the ceiling as the medical team shifts her to a table, where they fit her with an oxygen tube and...
An oxygen tube? You mean, she's still alive?! Everybody just wasted all that time standing in the doorway, watching her bleed all over the bathroom floor, and SHE WAS STILL ALIVE??!
(OK: NOW have you started to figure out why I hate this movie so much?)
As Hesti lies dying, she goes into a flashback. We see a familiar blue car pull up on a country road, and out step Hesti and the middle-aged man. They're wearing the same outfits they wore when we first saw them in the prologue: the man is in his shirtsleeves, and Hesti is in her heavy purple "femme fatale" outfit (though now we can see that the dress doesn't really fit: it's too tight to zip all the way up the back). The man takes her hand; she looks away shyly, and they begin their idyllic walk though the country farmland. Occasionally we cut back to Hesti lying on the hospital table, boggling like a pop-eyed goldfish, while the nurses do what little they can.
And then we see a funeral procession. Apparently, in spite of the <sneer>prompt action by her friends</sneer>, Hesti didn't make it. Watching the funeral from a safe distance, his legs worn bloody from his flight, is the old janitor accused of attacking her.
After the funeral, the male mourners gather at Hesti's family's house to chant the traditional creed, La ilaha ilallah ("There is no God but Allah"); while the women wait in other parts of the house, praying silently, cooking and cleaning. One of the female mourners goes into the bathroom... only to find...
Bloody Hell! Literally!
... the Maxi-pad Monster splashing in a tubful of blood! It's followed its victim's family home (I know women sometime refer to their periods as "The Curse", but I had no idea they meant it literally)! The girl screams and falls to the floor in a faint. When Hesti's father and our Narrator reach the bathroom, there's no sign of any disturbance. But the Narrator has her suspicions. And she's going to tell them to us, right now...
We find ourselves in a misty black room, where our orange-clad heroine stands waiting in silence. What's she waiting for? For the clapper-loader, of course... which tells her to start the scene nearly 15 seconds after the camera has begun rolling.
"It's all true," she says. "I was drawn into these mysterious events. Let's go together and see!" She exits the smoky room, and re-emerges in the Ladies' Restroom where Hesti met her fate. Although we've been led to believe it's been a couple of days since the tragedy, there are still blood smears on the floor — more blood, in fact, than we remember seeing earlier, and in different locations. It looks as though something's left fresh blood tracks... leading to the waste basket, which is now empty.
The Narrator then destroys the flow of the story by turning back to the camera and speaking her thoughts directly to us. This means the Narrator is now addressing the audience from two separate points in time, which doesn't make a lot of sense: she started telling us her conclusions outside the story proper, but she finished her statements from within it.
In any case, she begins a lengthy explanation that my Indonesian dictionary and I found much too difficult to decipher. It seems to be something to the effect that even though there may not be any evidence, Hesti must have been assaulted by some sort of spirit. I think she starts to get worked up about the influence of demons on poor, weak, sex-obsessed mortals like ourselves... when suddenly, the menstrual-blood-eating monster starts to materialize behind her. She turns around and glares at the creature, which slowly fades away.
Next, we're back to a familiar spot the country, as the middle-aged man (whose name and identity we still don't know) drives up to the same spot he visited in Hesti's flashback. This time, he's not driving his rattletrap blue Ford: he's driving something even less likely:
The man gets out of his souped-up golf cart just in time to meet another 60's-vintage car approaching from the opposite direction. Out of the second car steps an officious-looking woman carrying a manila envelope. She walks up to the man and begins an earnest conversation. Aha! we think. At last we're going to get some explanation of who this guy is, and what relationship he had with Hesti. Maybe the film's whole raison d'être is about to be made clear to us.
The woman launches into her speech — at least, that's what she appears to be doing; we see her lips start moving, but we can't hear a word she's saying. It's not just that the ludicrously happy music on the soundtrack is drowning her out: the whole sequence has been shot without sound. We're not supposed to understand what these two are saying to each other! The sequence tells us nothing, and even adds an extra character whose presence we're at a loss to explain. The only thing we know for certain is that the conversation was about Hesti, and we know this because as soon as the woman walks away, the man grimaces, rubs his forehead, and...
...his companion is no longer in bed with him — wrapped in a sheet, Hesti stands at the open door of the motel room. As the man watches her, she turns her head slowly, and casts a languid glance at the blood-red moon...
Suddenly, the Narrator wakes up with a start. At first she doesn't seem to realize where she is, but then she recognizes her own bedroom. She sits up in the bed, a frightened expression on her face (meet the new footage: same as the old footage). She's been dreaming about a globbering red demon in the Ladies' Room where Hesti was attacked. Uneasily, she gets out of bed to reassure herself the house is secure. She goes to the window and pulls back the shade... only to find (BUM BUM BUMMM!) an underlit face staring up at her!
False scare: it's just the fugitive janitor. He's realized that whatever killed Hesti is probably now on the Narrator's trail, and he's come with a special magical talisman that should banish the demon back to hell. How he's discovered there's a demon, how he's figured out what's going to happen, and how he became a mystic I don't know, and by this time I really don't care. He hands our Narrator something that looks like a pepper on a stick, under which something that looks like two cloves of garlic has been suspended.
Frankly, this talisman looks a lot like something else, which I will let you figure out on your own:
No sooner has the janitor handed her the, uhh, thingy, and begun chanting prayers — "Not so loud!" protests the Narrator — when the demon shows up in a whirl of dry-ice fog and back-lighting. It ignores the humans — possibly because they're holding the talisman and prayer book; possibly because It's In The Script — and makes for the bathroom, where it fills the tub with hot steaming blood and starts splashing around. When the janitor-cum-mystic and our Narrator sneak in behind it, it stops what it's doing and comes howling after them. As it approaches, the Narrator gives a little shriek as though she's just been goosed, and...
> Crickets. <
No, I'm serious: crickets. We cut directly from the demon charging his victims to a familiar-looking shot of the sunset (even though it's the middle of the night), accompanied only by the sound of crickets.
The image fades away slowly, and suddenly we're outside the house: the demon is limping away, while the Narrator chases after it wobbling her phallic pepper. I'd like to know the Scoville Index for that particular pepper, because after she shakes it at the creature the pepper catches fire. So, too, does the demon, which howls in agony as it is consumed by the flames.
"Praise Allah!" cries the janitor. The sun comes up over the mosque: the World Wakes Up and Lives Again (nobody seems to mind that the sun rises over the mosque from the same direction it set in the opening moments of the film, so who am I to make a big deal over it?).
The Narrator stands by Hesti's grave and delivers her final thoughts to the audience: "These strange events really happened," she says, "and I was personally involved in them." It was a terrible tragedy that befell her best friend — so young, so pretty, so bright — but as horrible as it was, it was her allotted fate. "Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un," she concludes, in the Arabic of the Quran: "Surely we belong to God, and to God we shall return."
And that would be that... except for the fact we still have four minutes of movie to fill up. Four minutes may not seem like much, but remember: that's ten percent of the film's total duration. So we get a montage, starting at Hesti's grave (presumably the Real Thing, if the True Story schtick is to be believed), and followed by a flashback to her funeral... and then —
...suddenly, the man wakes up with a start. At first he doesn't seem to realize where he is, but then he recognizes the cheap motel. He sits up in the bed, a frightened expression on his face. His companion is no longer in bed with him — wrapped in a sheet, Hesti stands at the open door of the motel room. As the man watches her, she turns her head slowly, and casts a languid glance at the blood-red moon...
There's a heck of a lot of incompetence packed into the movie's 40-minute timespan. For instance, we have a Narrator telling her side of the story from within, as well as outside of, the story proper; and then on top of that, we have a whole plot thread — involving the man in the blue car — that the Narrator never deals with. That man in the blue car doesn't actually interact with any of the principal characters, aside from Hesti — and he never even speaks a word of intelligible dialog to her.
Then there's the janitor: his transformation from hunted fugitive to the Exorcist in time for the climax is a little difficult to believe. But that's far from being the worst thing about the final confrontation, which is ludicrous and badly-paced. From a technical standpoint, the film is a mess: the editing is sloppy, the sound levels are all over the place, and (as usual for low-budget shot-on-video flicks) the outdoor scenes are all drastically overexposed. And, of course, the overuse of flashback footage is unforgivable in a movie as short as this.
But (ahem) thinking of padding, the part of the film that gets me most upset is its stance on menstruation.
Now, Indonesia has laws on the books that strictly regulate what may and may not be seen on screen. For example, the depiction of physical intimacy between characters has always been subject to severe restrictions; this explains why Hesti and the man who seems to be her lover are never seen to do anything more explicit than hold hands. These restrictions have relaxed a little bit in recent years, but some taboos still stand: for instance, kissing might as well be a form of full penetration for the ire is raises in the censors. But these restrictions don't seem to apply to body functions about which we in the West are considerably more squeamish. For example, jokes and sight-gags about diarrhea and urine are common. So a movie that hinges on a soiled sanitary napkin is more likely to be offensive to me as a Westerner than to its intended audience. I can deal with that.
But I can't get past the implications of the soiled sanitary napkin. I know this is purely my cultural bias, as a Westerner with no significant religious affiliation; but to me, secular humanist that I am, it seems that poor Hesti is being punished merely for having a functional set of Lady Parts.
I know from having watched other Indonesian horror films that there is a stereotype (albeit a fading one) of women dancers being promiscuous. Though the movie is damned coy about the details of Hesti's relationship with the man in the blue car, it's still pretty clear that they're supposed to be lovers. And yes: in horror movies from any part of the world, if you have sex, you die. But the specific trigger in Hesti's case is the fact that she's menstruating. That's the significance of the red moon we keep seeing over and over again.
These days, the biological function of menstruation is very well understood, and from a rational pont of view there's certainly nothing mysterious, "unclean" or shameful about it. Yet there are still religions and cultures in which a menstruating woman is considered impure, and must submit to certain rules and conditions. The Quran is actually more liberal about its restrictions on menstruation than the Old Testament, which forbids many forms of contact with a woman during her period of "uncleanliness". While acknowledging that the Holy Books of the Jews and Christians are still perfectly valid for those who follow them, the Quran contradicts the book of Leviticus by stating that the only physical contact forbidden to Muslims during the time of the "Wounding" (adha) is actual sex. That's married sex, of course: unmarried sex is completely out of the question at any time. What Hesti has done is broken two major rules: she's had sex outside of marriage (at least, we assume that's what she's done, from all the languid glances), and she's had sex during her period. For that, she dies at the hands of a Blood Demon.
Well, OK. I can come to terms even with this. After all, that's typical horror movie morality under practically any belief system. But when the Blood Demon goes charging out into the world at large, menacing all sorts of innocent people, and is eventually dispelled by an obvious surrogate penis... well... I'm sorry, but I find that too much to accept. That's overkill. And considering that the man involved in the affair gets off with nothing more than a twinge of regret, it seems deeply misogynistic.
The alternative viewpoint, of course, is that I should overcome my bourgeois American reticence over the topic of menstruation, and accept that menstrual blood is as valid a motivator for supernatural horror as blood flowing from any other part of the human body. Fine. Maybe I should also accept that religious laws need no rational explanation — in fact, they defy rational explanation, since merely doing what makes sense is hardly a test of faith. Anyway, it's not my faith we're considering, so I should just — y'know — deal. Somebody's deity said from on high that girls were icky, and that's that. On top of all this, it's still extremely likely that I've misunderstood everything about this movie and its outlook, and am once again Completely Wrong.
But you know what? This movie still sucks.