There’s no shortage of American horror, but venturing into the genre’s international waters is always recommended. We’ve found recent favourites from Scandinavia, Asia, Ireland, Brazil, and Australia by way of Serbia… but it’s films from Indonesia that have been giving us the most wonderfully potent nightmares.
Fortunately for stateside gorehounds, it’s now easier than ever before to see recent Indonesian horror, with filmmakers like Joko Anwar, Kimo Stamboel, and Timo Tjahjanto rising to international prominence thanks to strong festival showings and exposure on platforms like Shudder and Netflix. While it’s impossible to offer a blanket description of every Indonesian horror movie, they do share some commonalities — a lot of them begin with a death, involve a visit to an ancestral village or home (or an orphanage), and take story cues from the country’s rich, vivid folklore.
Oh, and many of them whip up some of the most ghastly special effects seen on-screen since the 1980s slasher explosion. Intrigued? You should be! Here are 12 films to get you started… and if you have any more recommendations, please share them (and any details on how to watch them) in the comments!
The Forbidden Door
“Beware of someone who forbids you from opening a door,” warns this 2009 kinky-thriller-with-horror-elements from writer-director Joko Anwar, whose name will appear a lot on this list since he’s currently one of Indonesia’s leading genre creators. The Forbidden Door is about a sculptor who becomes entangled in a taboo underworld while dealing with some intense marital problems — or does he? Stylish and shocking, the film earned comparisons to the work of David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, and Pedro Almódovar when it was first released.
In 2017, Anwar wrote and directed this chiller inspired by a 1980 Indonesian cult film (titled Satan’s Slave) about a family who endures supernatural punishment after they pull away from their Muslim faith. This version is about a group of siblings who realise their recently deceased mother — a once-famous singer — had some deep, dark, occult-laden secrets tucked into her past… and unfortunately those secrets now have direct bearing on their own lives. (Shudder)
Another Anwar production, this grisly supernatural tale follows a woman who travels from Jakarta to her ancestral village in search of an inheritance — only to discover the place is horribly cursed, and that her family is the reason for that curse. (Needless to say, her trip goes extremely sideways after that.) A critical and box-office success, 2019’s Impetigore was selected by Indonesia as its submission for the Best International Feature Film Oscar, though it didn’t make the final round of nominees. (Shudder)
The Queen of Black Magic (2021 and 1981)
The Queen of Black Magic — written by Anwar and directed by Kimo Stamboel — came to our attention back in early 2021, and we still heartily recommend it to anyone with nerves of steel, a strong stomach, and a high tolerance for caterpillar-based frights. Like the 1981 original that inspired it, it’s a revenge tale involving an extremely pissed-off witch, though both versions are different enough (and equally entertaining-slash-gruesome) that you really should watch both. Praise to the dark forces of cinema, because both are now streaming on Shudder. (Shudder)
May the Devil Take You (and May the Devil Take You Too)
Timo Tjahjanto wrote and directed this 2018 release, as well as its cleverly titled 2020 follow-up: May the Devil Take You Too. The series is about a young woman drawn into a realm of black magic when her father falls ill and she learns the sinister truth behind his financial success, as well as the death of her mother many years before. After a visit to her father’s dilapidated villa (which sits on a basement packed with Sam Raimi vibes), her step-family also becomes enmeshed in the supernatural fallout, which continues into the sequel — and presumably beyond, since Tjahjanto (whose other upcoming projects include the Train to Busan English-language remake, to be titled The Last Train to New York) apparently has a trilogy planned. (May the Devil Take You on Netflix; May the Devil Take You Too on Shudder)
The whole movie — a standout in the found-footage series, and featuring a majority of American filmmakers — is worth your time, but Tjahjanto’s segment, “The Subject,” is memorable for taking body horror and putting it through what can perhaps best be described as a sci-fi meat grinder. How can something be both coldly mechanical and viscerally grisly? “The Subject” will show you. (Shudder)
The 3rd Eye (and The 3rd Eye 2)
Rocky Soraya directed and co-wrote (with Riheam Junianti) these films about a teenager who senses a supernatural presence at the probably-haunted home her recently deceased parents left behind — a psychic “gift” that becomes something far more terrifying once she and her sceptical older sister move in, and the resident evil spirits set about making them feel most unwelcome. The direct sequel moves the setting to an orphanage and introduces a new ghostly mystery. (Netflix)
The Doll series
Soraya also masterminded (again, with co-writer Junianti) this series of films that kicked off in 2016 and now includes The Doll 2, Sabrina, and this year’s The Doll 3. The villainous title character owes a certain debt to The Conjuring breakout Annabelle — as well as every creepy evil doll from horror-movie history — but, like, a creepy evil doll’s a creepy evil doll. Never not creepy, even when it feels kind of familiar. (All on Netflix except The Doll 3, which is a shame because it looks like the most disturbing entry yet.)
This one’s a little confusing because there are actually two movies with this title — both directed by Rizal Mantovani, and both involving on the title creature, a ghostly menace from Indonesian folklore. Netflix has the 2018 version, so that’s what we’ll include here; it’s about a haunted mirror that terrorizes the young residents of a remote orphanage. (The trailer doesn’t have subtitles, but the streaming movie does!) (Netflix)