Bhoothakalam: Stunning Malayalam horror film is an antidote to the toxic Conjuring franchise

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If there was any justice in this world, director Rahul Sadasivan would have had a three-picture deal with Blumhouse immediately after the release of his film, Bhoothakalam. Instead, we can collectively prepare for whatever fresh hell that Dinesh Vijan is currently cooking up. Released on SonyLIV in January, the almost impossibly well-made horror picture whittles the genre down to its bare essence, with a disregard for jump scares that comes across as positively rebellious.

Every now and then, amid the din of franchise filmmaking, along comes a filmmaker who dares to buck the trend. Just last year, while audiences were flipping out about the newest Halloween and Conjuring sequels, and a cult of fans was forming in real time around James Wan’s Malignant, director Keith Thomas announced himself as a singular talent with the release of The Vigil, one of the best horror films in recent memory.

Like Bhoothakalam, which is sure to anger many viewers with its deliberate pace and utter lack of ‘action’, The Vigil was a horror movie that valued sustained terror over momentary shock. It was, ostensibly, about a 20-something tasked with the very real job of ‘keeping vigil’ over the dead body of a recently deceased elderly man, in an Orthodox Jewish custom to protect the departed soul from demonic attack. The body is kept in the dead person’s house overnight, before it can be ritualistically buried the next day. Over the course of harrowing evening, our protagonist experiences strange events which evolve from mild poltergeist activity into something so terrifying that he is left completely discombobulated.

Of course, the film wasn’t simply about a man trapped in a haunted house with the dead body of a Holocaust survivor; it was a broad allegory about the passing on of generational pain. The protagonist was somewhat of a lapsed Jew, a disillusioned dude who was learning to assimilate into ‘regular’ culture after years of indoctrination at the hands of an insular community. Had it not been so darn good at scaring the living daylights out of you, The Vigil would have been equally successful as a drama.

Creating compelling characters is the key to making good horror cinema, and unfortunately, most directors who’re working in the genre these days often forget this. Certainly, in India, the mainstream has defaulted to producing the exact opposite, doubling down on its tendency to water down potent concepts with hybrid genres such as musical horror, erotic horror, and most recently, comedy horror.

Films like Bhoothakalam are left to languish on the fringes of pop-culture, waiting for the next big SonyLIV show in the hope to pick up some spillover viewership. Whereas films like Bhoothakalam should be driving subscriptions. The movie follows in the fine tradition of modern horror classics such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, recoiling at the mere thought of playing by the rules, as if it were a three-star chef presented with a bottle of ketchup.

And although it tells the story of a middle-aged woman and her sour son—played by Revathi and Shane Nigam—trapped with demons both literal and metaphorical inside a dilapidated house, Bhoothakalam (The Past) is a rather effective allegory about mental illness. When both Vinu and his grieving mother Asha begin to experience paranormal activity in their house, they logically conclude that they are slowly losing their grip on reality.

But what is real to a depressed mind? What is normal? What isn’t? The only thing that they are certain of is that when darkness falls, the sadness grows. Bhoothakalam is rather perceptive at representing mental illness and addiction on screen—the stretches of inactivity, the repetition, the erosion of concepts such as time and hope. The themes mirror Sadasivan’s filmmaking style.

In a storytelling tactic that is becoming increasingly popular in the Malayalam industry, there is an unusually strong emphasis on setting the stage and establishing the tone before launching into the plot. Look at how last year’s stellar Nayattu focused on the mundanity of its protagonists’ day-to-day lives before essentially turning into an hour-long chase sequence. And remember Aarkkariyam, a film that threw a dead body into the mix only after a solid hour of family drama?

None of these films would have worked as well as they did had the storytelling not been as meticulous. Similarly, Bhoothakalam succeeds in its phenomenal final act only because you’ve developed an attachment for Vinu and his poor mother. Admittedly, if you’ve checked out already, there’s no way that you’re going to admire the terrific horror filmmaking on display in the film’s traumatic final moments.

Let me attempt to dissect why the showdown sequence is so strong, despite zero flashy effects, exactly one jump scare, and just two (living) characters. The stage is set. Vinu and Asha have finally realised that their fears weren’t unfounded, as they witness an escalation in paranormal activity one harrowing night. There are loud bangs on the door, furniture moves on its own, and a blurry dark mass appears in the corner of the frame, sitting menacingly on the sofa. You know the drill. But exactly when you expect the film to descend into predictability, things begin to get interesting.

Because we’ve been trapped with Vinu and Asha for what seems like weeks, subconsciously, we’ve become so familiar with the geography of the house that we could probably draw a blueprint of its floor-plan, no hassle. This is important because when Asha realises that they need the keys to the main door to escape, and tells Vinu that the keys are in the kitchen, we know exactly how far he will have to walk by himself, in the darkness, as he scrambles to grab the keychain and return to his mother, whom he has left alone with the malevolent spirits in the living room.

We also know that just a few hours ago, Asha, in a fit of paranoia, had locked the main door like it was the RBI vault. There’s no way she’s going to be able to unlatch it in a couple of seconds.

Then, there’s the blocking. Sadasivan alternates between close-ups of the actors’ faces, and shots of their immediate environment, making sure to include the both of them in the frame as well. It puts you right in the mind of the characters. You need them to escape, because if they don’t escape, you don’t escape.

And finally, the psychological impact of the scene. Mere moments before the spirits arrived, Vinu and Asha had hashed out their differences, having seemingly arrived at common ground after spending the entire movie at odds with each other. For the first time in a long time, there was a glimmer of hope. But Sadasivan blew it out, the cruel madman. Hope, as Asha-ahem-knows very well, is but a near-fantastical dream for the depressed mind.

Bhoothakalam is a great horror picture because it is a demanding horror picture. It doesn’t let you off easily. And it most certainly does not allow you to check your messages, or scroll through Instagram, or reply to emails. For those of us who’d become desensitised to scary movies, this is exactly the sort of system reset that we were looking for.

Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

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