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A woman looks longingly at another woman who is cowering in fear
Image courtesy of Lionsgate

By Sarah Musnicky

Being at the mercy of the Gods is a conflict as old as time. Rooted in folkloric mythos worldwide, it is a premise familiar to all and makes for good material to work with in the horrorscape. In DANCING VILLAGE: THE CURSE BEGINS (Badarawuhi di Desa Penari), the prequel to the Indonesian horror hit KKN di Desa Penari, there is a timelessness to this horror film. There’s a predictability to the plot that can’t be denied, but the dilemma underscoring this premise belies the threat of modernity. Neglect the gods, deprive them of their depraved rituals and offerings, and there will be hell to pay.

DANCING VILLAGE starts in 1955, setting the future conflict for our protagonist, Mila (Maudy Effrosina). A handful of women are dancing in a trance-like state. One by one, they fall to the ground until the last one stands, selected by the mysterious Badarawuhi (Aulia Sarah). However, the village elder Putri (Pipien Putri) uses this opportunity to have her daughter, Inggri (Princeza Leticia), spirit away the entity’s bangle, resulting in a temporary reprieve from this strange ritual. At least until the elder dies. 

Jumping forward to 1980, the now-grown Inggri is afflicted with a mysterious illness. Consulting a shaman, her daughter, Mila is directed to return the bangle to the village. Accompanied by her cousin, Yuda (Jourdy Pranata), and his friends, Jito (M. Iqbal Sulaiman) and Arya (Ardit Erwandha), she journeys to the village. With the veil between reality and the supernatural so thin, it's not long before Mila becomes the subject of Badarawuhi's attention. And, as both Mila and viewers will discover, Badarawuhi's attention can have dangerous consequences.

Full disclosure for readers who have seen the first film: DANCING VILLAGE is my first venture into this world. As such, the review is written from that perspective. If there is overlap or repetition between the two films, unfortunately, I cannot comment on that. With that said, DANCING VILLAGE: THE CURSE BEGINS launches viewers into the familiar by having its primary protagonist return a cursed item back home with no knowledge of her mother’s hometown or its cursed origins.

The mind games and haunts begin almost immediately. Nighttime is when the reclusive village is at its creepiest, with wandering souls, strange food stalls popping up, and mysterious manors unveiling once the sun sets. Given the remote setting, it is easy to see how superstition blurs into day-to-day life. Haunted by an entity that only seeks her own amusement above all else, it’s no wonder the village went to such desperate measures to deprive her of her pleasure.

A woman appears out of the water
Image courtesy of Lionsgate

This grounded approach to the supernatural and design helps with immersion. Once things kick into gear, the use of practical effects further cements this blurring of realities. Editing choices, along with cinematographer Patrick Tashadian’s usage of angles and framing, assist director Kimo Stamboel in crafting something eerie in DANCING VILLAGE: THE CURSE BEGINS. The location and its inherent isolation bring everything together. The terror is real.

Where DANCING VILLAGE struggles after its opening is in its pacing. Clocking in at 2 hours and 2 minutes, the first half of the film faces an uphill battle in how slowly it takes its time to reach a pivotal moment. That's not to say nothing happens. Mindgames, spirits, and mysterious maladies make their presence known to Mila and her chaperones early on. But it's all hauntings leading to nowhere until Ratih (Claresta Taufan) literally grabs Mila by the hand and moves things along.

These slower moments could have been glossed over if not for the sheer lack of characterization. Little is done to flesh out the characters outside of their primary objective. Mila and Ratih want to heal their mothers. Yuda wants to make sure Mila gets home safe. Badarawuhi wants her bangle back and to be entertained forever. The lack of characterization isn't damning, but it is noticeable enough that, by the time the credits roll, you've left wondering who any of these characters are.

The two standouts who elevate their roles beyond their paper-thin trappings are Claresta Taufan and Aulia Sarah. Taufan's Ratih is secretive and desperate. She's helpful, but that help comes at a cost for all involved. A desperate daughter trying to aid her dying mother, Mila's passion pales. Despite this, Aulia Sarah's Badarawuhi fixates on Mila. She wants to be entertained and amused, and Mila's deviance hooks Badarawuhi. Despite this, Sarah infuses the entity with an undercurrent of danger. Underneath that smile is something much more sinister.

Perhaps, much like the stories we tell ourselves in the middle of the night, the characters are placeholders. DANCING VILLAGE: THE CURSE BEGINS is rooted in the superstitions that provoke warning. Through rituals, we can buy ourselves a little time. Through trickery, we can invoke danger. In an ever-increasing modern world, these warnings fade into the background. Like DANCING VILLAGE, it takes outreach beyond village walls to remind us of the dangers of complacency.

While it takes arguably too long for the action to kick into gear, DANCING VILLAGE: THE CURSE BEGINS is a fitting prequel for those unfamiliar with the world of this Indonesian horror.

DANCING VILLAGE: THE CURSE BEGINS is in select theaters in the US on April 26, 2024, from Lionsgate.


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