SXSW 2012 Review: MODUS ANOMALI, a "WTF" Horror Movie

Peter Martin, Managing Editor

Joko Anwar's newest film features a cabin in the woods, but otherwise bears no resemblance to anything coming out of Hollywood.

Modus Anomali is a confounding, mystifying experience that initially feels like a minimalist exercise, an identity crisis both for the lead character and the filmmaker. And then it revolves into a true head-scratcher, a picture that definitely belongs in the 'WTF' horror sub-genre.

Though I have yet to catch up with Anwar's first feature, Janji Joni, I have seen Dead Time: Kala and The Forbidden Door, which are both heavily-stylized, wildly colorful, and "trippy" in the best sense of the word. Kala, especially, left me in the dark; I couldn't always figure out what was going on, story-wise, but I didn't especially care: the images were so bizarre and potent that I found myself transfixed by what was flashing before me on the screen.

Modus Anomali throws away those kind of visual landscapes. The film begins with establishing shots of a forest, insects crawling and flying, and then, suddenly, a man (Rio Dewanto) who has been buried alive in a shallow grave wakes up. He doesn't know who he is, or how he got there. His cell phone -- which works in the middle of a forest! -- displays no contact information. He disconnects his emergency phone call until he can regain his bearings.

He heads to a nearby cabin, where he discovers a videotape capturing a brutal act of violence against a pregnant woman (Hannah Al Rashid), as well as evidence that two children, a boy (Aridh Tritama) and a girl (Izzi Isman), are missing in the woods. Was this his beautiful wife? Was this his cabin? Are the two teenagers his children? The man's temporary amnesia leaves him incredibly frustrated, but he quickly comes to the conclusion that a vicious killer is loose and the children must be found.

The film is difficult to write about further without venturing into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that things get more weird, more bloody, and more perplexing before any answers (of a sort) become evident.

Twelve hours after watching it, Modus Anomali is still resonating nicely in my brain. As I alluded to earlier, the first portion, which consists of a lot of sneaking around in a small part of a very dark forest, and is presented at an extremely slow pace, made me believe that Anwar was experimenting with a different style of filmmaking. (In the post-screening Q&A, Anwar said that he intentionally wanted to make a "lo-fi" film.) From that standpoint, it felt minor, especially in comparison with Kala and Forbidden Door.

Taken as a whole, Modus Anomali still feels like a somewhat lesser work from an accomplished filmmaker, but that's because he's set a high standard for himself. It's the kind of film I was hoping to see from him, something that isn't exactly like what he's done before, an effort to flex his artistic muscles. It's his first feature in English -- he said "Fuck!" doesn't sound right in Indonesian, and the lead character speaks English as though the only two words he knows are "fuck" and "FUCK!" -- and the delivery of the dialogue sounds off, at least to my American ears, and prompted unintentional laughter last night, as did some of the super-melodramatic moments.

But maybe that's intentional, as with much else that happens in the movie. After a certain point, I had no idea what was going to happen next, but I was transfixed by what was unfolding on screen. I believe that Joko Anwar knows what he's doing, and even if not everything made the transition from his brain to the screen -- narrative logic is not necessarily his strength -- Modus Anomali kept my jaw dropping throughout.

Let's just say that it made my brain melt and drip out through my ears.

Modus Anomali enjoyed its World Premiere at SXSW last night. It screens again tonight, Wednesday, and Friday. It opens in Indonesia next month.

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  • tyas.palar

    I'm from Indonesia and I've just recently watched Modus Anomali. Even to my Indonesian ears, the main lead's English sounds a bit off - fluent English speakers in Indonesia don't even sound like that. I don't know if it's deliberate though. But yeah, it's a film that glued me to my seat thinking "Where is this going to lead us?", and the word "ANJING!" (our "FUCK!") escaped my lips when the answer came to light.

  • ChrisK

    It sounds intriguing. When is The Forbidden Door coming out on dvd?

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  • Tuan Jim

    Seems a little weird that it would be filmed in english (not dubbed?) - seemed a little wooden in the trailer - but then presumably re-dubbed into Indonesian for domestic release?

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