They say that idle hands are the devil’s playthings, but Indonesian schlockmeister Timo Tjahjanto is never busier than when he’s skirting around the fringes of hell. Just a few long weeks after the release of his gonzo and blood-drenched beat-em-up, “The Night Comes for Us,” Tjahjanto is back with a gonzo and blood-drenched dose of domestic horror, “May the Devil Take You” (viewers familiar with the director’s gobstopping “V/H/S 2” segment won’t be surprised to see that he’s drawn to movies about the inescapable forces of darkness). Both films are available to stream on Netflix, both films offer giddy proof of Tjahjanto’s insatiable appetite for human suffering (both on the screen and in the audience), and both films become interminable reminders that geysers of blood can only get you so far.
A Sam Raimi homage that festers into a Sam Raimi knockoff, “May the Devil Take You” is geared towards “The Evil Dead” fans who might feel nostalgic for the go-for-broke splatterfests of yore; genre fans who yearn for the days when all you needed to make a movie was a demon and some poor souls for it to possess (and enough fake blood to re-enact the Civil War). And yet, Ari Aster’s recent “Hereditary” might be the first horror film that comes to mind, as this one essentially picks up where that one left off. A middle-aged man named Lesmana (“The Raid” baddie Ray Sahetapy) sits in a dilapidated villa, waiting for a knock on the door. It comes from a dark priestess, (Ruth Marini), veiled in white and wearing hair down to the backs of her knees. She guides the quivering man down into the basement, and —again, just in case there was any ambiguity about what’s going on here — draws a pentagram around a severed goat’s head in order to prepare for the Satanic ritual in which Lesmana will sell the devil his soul in exchange for untold riches. We’ve all been there.
The brunt of the film takes place 10 years later, when the devil comes to collect. Lesmana has gotten rich, and then squandered it all; his first wife has committed suicide, and the vulture-like beauty who’s replaced her (Karina Suwandhi) is hoping to sell the man’s remaining assets for scraps. Also, Lesmana’s entire body is covered in hideous boils as he dies in a Jakarta hospital, his life reduced to nothing more than a cautionary tale about why you should always read the fine print before making a pact with the dark lord. He’s lost almost everything, including the respect of his twentysomething daughter, Alfie (Chelsea Islan), a sullen pickpocket who loathes her father for abandoning her in favor of a new family (complete with three photogenic children of various ages). Indeed, the only thing that Lesmana has left is the rotting villa where his skeletons are in the closet, his demons are in the attic, and the basement door is bolted shut for good reason. When Alfie and her greedy step-siblings meet there to lay claim on the property, hell literally breaks loose.
Viewers primed for a nuanced portrait of family dynamics — a supernatural exploration of how selfish desires can split a family apart and result in generations of misdirected resentment — are going to be mighty disappointed by what Tjahjanto has in mind. Perhaps that would be less frustrating if it were more obvious from the outset, but the first 30 minutes of “May the Devil Take You” are compelling because they’re character-driven. Alfie has a complicated relationship with her childhood home, and her estranged step-siblings are not as nefarious as circumstances might lead you to expect. Their mother is definitely a monster (figuratively, and then literally), but Maya (Pevita Pearce) seems reasonable enough, Ruben (Samo Rafael) is a self-admitted dork with strange urges, and Nara (Hadijah Shahab) is just a cute little kid. There’s potential for reconciliation here — for Lesmana’s death to bring his children together in a way that his life never could.
Alas, that potential is permanently squandered as soon as Lesmana’s second wife starts crawling up the walls and puking blood into everyone else’s mouths (if you took a shot every time a person in this movie held someone down and puked blood into their mouth, you’d probably die before half of these characters do). As soon as the shit hits the fan, it becomes all too clear that Tjahjanto sees gore as a substitute for drama, and not a vehicle for it; as soon as the story takes shape, Tjahjanto’s script practically abandons it altogether. That tradeoff may have worked just fine for the likes of “The Evil Dead” or “Drag Me to Hell,” films in which the cartoon ultra-violence was so gleeful and repulsive that it became a narrative force unto itself, but in “May the Devil Takes You” it puts more pressure on the satanic hijinks than these uninspired slayings can bear.
Despite some excellent makeup work (including a scene where someone peels off their own face) and a knack for subverting expectations (the most devious scares have a way of zagging right when you’ve braced yourself for a deafening zig), much of the movie is sorely lacking the demented imagination that made Tjahjanto’s “V/H/S/ 2” segment an instant all-timer, and there’s far too much dead air between the set pieces for “May the Devil Take You” to achieve the suffocating intensity that would be required to sustain any real momentum.
Pearce makes the most of things once her character becomes a vessel for darkness — the actress plays possessed in a way that never loses sight of the person underneath — but there’s only so many times you can watch a woman with obsidian eyes and a cheap CG tongue jump out of nowhere and try to make Alfie feel bad about things. However many times that might be, it’s not enough to sustain 111 sadistically repetitive minutes.
Everything about the film comes across like a first draft, as Tjahjanto is so infatuated with his own nonsense that he frustrates our interest in what might be percolating below the surface; by the time he starts fleshing things out with overdue flashbacks, you’ll wish that he hadn’t bothered. Tjahjanto is a talented filmmaker with a penchant for messiness and the power to will his visions to the screen, but “May the Devil Take You” suggests that it might be time for him to slow down, clean up his act, and focus his abundant energy on movies that puke blood with a little more purpose.
“May the Devil Take You” is now streaming on Netflix.