My first thoughts on watching the new Indonesian film Primbon are that it is one of the better horror movies to have come out recently, but the caveat to that is that it has a rather regressive stance regarding the supernatural; the climax is not befitting of the great buildup. That being said, Primbon is actually a good example of how to have the right kind of exposition to set up a horror film. Horror requires some kind of deep dive into the unknown and the mythological legends of a place. The traditional population’s belief in the stories of the old sparks an interest, and one can build up the scenes from the inherent myths in the culture. Director Rudy Soedjarwo does not focus too much on explaining what Primbon is; we get to find out about it organically, almost simultaneously with the characters. That’s the best way I feel it could have been done.
The story revolves around a girl named Rana, who goes on a mountain hike with a local boy and doesn’t return. The boy is found, but people presume Rana to be dead. She returns miraculously after a week, but something isn’t right. The family drama starts, and Rana’s mother, Din, strategizes to isolate herself from her in-laws who believe in doing the specific rituals associated with a dead person. There was Rana’s father, who actually supported Din, but his mother and sisters believed in following the rules of a book called Primbon. The rituals had to be done, and the date of death had to be marked according to the book called Primbon they all followed, but once Rana returned, everyone’s beliefs were questioned. The mysterious return made everyone except Din doubt whether the girl was Rana or an evil spirit possessing her corpse.
Primbon has to be praised not for the story but for how it engages us and explores the family. The atmosphere of the film reminded me of a few Malayalam films, and the film managed to create the same unease that The Exorcist creates. A family member is viewed differently by different people. Love is only a lens. How much you love a person changes how you view them, and it is what is visually explored in the garb of a horror film. The beginning of the movie is fantastic; it starts as a found footage film, something more in line with The Blair Witch Project, and then, wasting no time, we are plunged into the grief of the family who think they have lost their daughter. There is a focus on introducing characters from far away, as if the viewer is made to stand at a distance, which is a great way to develop the feeling that we are getting to know the characters. Little by little, we get closer, and we figure out Din’s plight is being stuck in a place where she feels like an outsider. She doesn’t believe in Primbon and finds it rather a superstitious measure, and when Rana returns, her love is mixed with pride, given that her belief is proved right after all. That’s just the first few minutes of the film. With such economy in storytelling, there was a lot of scope to go way beyond where the film went in the end. The other way of saying it is that the end has to be a little disappointing after such a good beginning, because the horror has to be given a free reign. Too much curation of it, and it dies.
The Exorcist is the only film that feels so exquisitely bound by the filmmaker’s unique vision that even after the somber nature of the film, it terrifies. There are other films like Ram Gopal Verma’s Raatri, which are so terrifying because of their shock after the dull moments. Primbon does not score many points when it comes to jump scares. The tension is basically lost after a few of those. But where Primbon works is in getting so intimate with the family that the doubt of living with a spirit converts itself into fear and becomes palpable. One can almost begin to imagine the dread of the scenario when one superimposes it on their personal lives. I didn’t have to consciously do that. The exploration of the given circumstances is so honest that it happened automatically. Much like Hereditary, Primbon knows how to make the viewer uneasy by adding the possibility of something wicked happening on the screen at any given moment. The pacing of the story never stops too much for cliched horror moments, although they are deftly added for those who might be interested in that.
We rarely leave the family, and whenever we do, there is a tether to get back to it. The dull gray weather adds to the cinematic quality of the horror film, and the adamance to not use too many locations and complicate the plot differentiates Primbon from, let’s say, The Wailing. Both are good old supernatural films, meaning they confirm the existence of ghosts and spirits, but while The Wailing behaves more like a detective story, Primbon is much simpler in its themes and doesn’t jump from one subplot to the other, trying to neatly merge all of them for the finale. That’s its weak point as well. It believes in the supernatural, and thus the plot couldn’t veer off into a scientific detour like in Jacob’s Ladder, giving us a rational explanation for what happened. More often than not, people don’t like ‘explanations’ for the horror, and neither do I. Primbon, however, has this book, which has all the explanations, and the film has some scenes that are explicitly anti-science. The characters who believed in their beloved book were safe in the end, and those who were outsiders, like Din, had to bow down to the book’s supremacy. The mythology and the legendary framework were required to build up the horror, but the story couldn’t find a way out of its own ghostly stranglehold. It simply had to be gotten rid of, and well, it is really not a spoiler to say that in the end, it was indeed gotten rid of. Primbon works because it banks on the ‘how’ of it, like most good films.