Too many cooks spoil the broth, and so do too many clichés – May The Devil Take You is brilliant on occasion, but mostly plays out as an inane, muddled collection of multicultural jumpscare ideas connected by a thinly-drawn plot.
It’s amazing how little the South East Asian horror film scene hasn’t changed in the twenty years since I was born and raised there. Granted, Indonesian folklore (and its pretty similar Malaysian and Singaporean counterparts) has its own independent appeal, but the haunted mansion capers and devil-lady hijinks that have been retold over and over again to their deaths have certainly lost whatever little shine they had in the first place. When I saw that an Indonesian horror film had made it into the London Film Festival lineup, I was pleasantly surprised; hopeful that a director from closer to home had finally broken out of the region’s age-old horror tropes. Unfortunately, not only is May The Devil Take You a rehash of the exact same tropes I’d hoped to escape, but it also contains some of the Western horror genre’s worst clichés casually thrown into the mix for good measure, as if putting lots of salt on an overly sweet pudding will make it taste better rather than ten times worse.
Watching May The Devil Take You feels like watching every single Blumhouse film and every single notable Indonesian horror movie at the same time, which is not only as uncomfortable as it sounds, but could also possibly drive you insane before the film’s first act is over. The plot will probably seem overly familiar to you if you’ve watched more than one horror movie in your life, too – there is an ailing businessman who owes his earthly success to the devil, a family feud between the businessman’s plucky daughter and her wicked stepmother (and stepsister). And of course, there’s also a haunted house on a hill with a suspiciously sealed basement door, a literal devil lady, and a fortune whose price “must be paid in souls”. What follows is approximately two hours’ worth of what looks and feels like a scrappy YouTube horror compilation from both Western and Asian genre habits, with just the sliver of a plot linking them together, all aimed at pushing the characters onscreen to their breaking point and then a little further just for kicks.
As I said earlier, it’s not all bad, though. The cast of May The Devil Take You may have each been given their own ham-fisted character trope to play, but they take their roles and give it their all in a way that actually makes the movie fun to watch at times. Chelsea Islan as the wonderfully feisty Alfie makes for a brilliant lead actress, keeping you rooting for her even in spite of her eyeroll-worthy brooding periods and the clichéd clapbacks at her stepmother. Samo Rafael also does a great job as Ruben, the sympathetic half-brother and occasionally gormless man of the house; the good-natured antithesis to Pevita Pearce as Alfie’s venomous stepsister Maya. It is impossible not to love (or, in Maya’s case, love to hate) its leading characters, and that sense of affinity is without a doubt the only thing that will keep viewers following their muddled haunted-house capers as the film descends further and further into confusion.
Unfortunately, for the most part, even a strong cast cannot fully transform May The Devil Take You into the fun, campy romp it deserves to be. Instead, it remains very much like the horror-film equivalent of a Rowntree’s Randoms packet – totally inconsistent in flavour and not very satisfying at the end anyway. Although there is a particularly humorous (and equally frightening) scene which is a brilliant, borderline satirical reimagining of the bog-standard monster-under-the-bed scare, the film fails to subvert any of the other numerous clichés it employs, and neither does it help that most of the demonic entities themselves look more like puppets stolen from the reserve cupboard of a Pontianak stage play than actual monstrosities. In short, this is not the film that will propel the Indonesian film industry to international heights. But boy, I wish it could have been.
Image: Legacy Pictures