Dreadout: Tower of Hell, directed by Kimo Stamboel and based on the series of survival horror games from Indonesian developer Digital Happiness, has an uphill battle in being taken seriously given the troubled history of video game adaptations. There have been some successes like with the Resident Evil series, but cases like the Silent Hill films show that even with a strong established narrative things can go astray if the filmmakers don’t understand what made the source material work. I haven’t played the Dreadout games but what seems to make them work from watching a bit of gameplay is a combination of foreboding isolation and a novel lineup of uniquely Indonesian creatures. This film has one of those. Kind of.
We follow Linda ( Caitlin Halderman ) and her group of friends as they explore a haunted abandoned apartment complex so they can post selfies and get likes on Instagram. It seems that the strategy a lot of filmmakers are taking when trying to appeal to Gen Z is to just take an existing plot and then add “for the gram” at the end but I digress. After getting some glamor shots and miraculously managing to avoid any drug-addled squatters they find themselves at a door sectioned off with police tape, which they ignore, entering into a makeshift altar room with magical glyphs painted on the floor. Realizing this is not a place they want to be, they all turn around and go home. Of course they don’t, the gram demands better and after pulling out some dead animals and leather scrolls, they end up opening a portal to an evil realm filled with vast expanses of pallid, misty woodlands. It’s basically The Upside Down (or Maine). So Linda gets stuck down there for a bit, then she gets out for a while and someone else ends up there so she’s got to go back, rinse and repeat for 90 minutes.
And that’s a shame because there are elements here that could have worked given the rich and largely untapped mythology they’re drawing from. The visuals range from lovably campy to exotic and stunning with the apartment complex stained with a thick layer of patina and illuminated by lights that they stumbled upon at just the right moment to ensure that all have that pleasant flicker before burning out. The Upside Down (they don’t give it a name so that’s what we’re going with) has at its center a shrine that is decorated with beautiful and ominous woodwork with a distinctly Southeast Asian flair and references to Wayang Golek, or traditional Indonesian wooden puppet theater. The realm is inhabited by the Pocong, which are essentially Indonesian zombies who roam the Earth until the ties of their burial shrouds are released. Well, technically they hop, or at least they should, but here they just walk normally. Not sure if that was just because the idea of hopping seemed silly to American audiences but I think it would have been fun and potentially quite terrifying if done right. The leader of this world is the Red Kebaya Lady ( Rima Melati Adams ), whose nature isn’t made entirely clear in the games or the film but who may be some sort of Muslim jinn. There’s also a plot about a keris, a ceremonial dagger that has significance in Javanese culture as a conduit of both good and evil spirits. And no, none of these things are spoilers because the film doesn’t tell you any of this. As far as the film is concerned these are just random creatures that want this dagger for some reason and are harmed exclusively by camera flashes and not any other source of light.
The acting is serviceable, though no one outside of Linda gets much development nor do any of them exhibit any sense of realistic self-preservation. Beyond the impressive sets, the visuals pop with strong shadows and rim lighting, though the heavily desaturated colors in the exterior shots of the Upside Down don’t do those scenes any favors. Much of the effects are practical and the CG that’s there isn’t distracting outside of some dodgy flames and compositing. The score is your typical high-action popcorn thriller fare, typically taking a backseat before swelling up with booming percussion and synths during those more intense moments.
I’m not sure if Dreadout: Tower of Hell was designed for a largely Indonesian audience and they felt explaining these references would be as redundant as explaining what a vampire or werewolf is to a Western audience but if you’re going to seek this one out, I would recommend at least a primer in Indonesian mythology for maximum enjoyment. That or play the games, they’re a bit antiquated at this point but they look fun.