Horror films are inextricably linked with history of humanity itself, as aficionados will tell you. Great horror has over the decades tapped into people’s fears to change and evolve, with every unrest bringing along its own trend in cinema. With Covid-19, filmmakers working on horror cinema should have stuck a rich vein – billions across the world sharing the fear of contagion, locked inside their own homes.
Indian films, however, have failed to leverage it. Malayalam cinema, which has been at the forefront of capturing the zeitgeist amid the pandemic, has also found itself wanting when it comes to this particular genre. The recent film Cold Case is a case in point.
The film was marketed as a hybrid genre, with the potential of becoming a horror sub-genre of sorts. Cold Case was supposed to be an intersection where rational and irrational beliefs collided. But it was nothing more than a bunch of jump-scares. The other hopefuls such as The Priest, Nizhal, Nine and Ezra also failed to bring a breath of fresh air in the genre, which is increasingly becoming stale by the day.
Not just in Malayalam, there is no sign of filmmakers trying to break new ground in the horror genre in India. Arguably, nothing path breaking has happened to India’s horror scene since the 2009 blockbuster Arundhati. The film created a trend and is being exploited by filmmakers across south Indian languages to date. Arundhati was a one-time wonder, which even its original creator Kodi Ramakrishna couldn’t replicate.
Of late, most of our horror films are marked by women/men draped in sarees, bearing a massive coin-sized bindi on forehead, dishevelled hair and bloodshot eyes, trying to scare the lights out of the audience by screaming and popping their eyes out. None is as guilty as a few unimaginative Tamil filmmakers, who continue to scrap the bottom of the barrel of the Arundhati template.
Director-actor Raghava Lawrence has made a fortune by playing a human weapon, used by good-hearted ghosts to exact revenge on those who wronged them, in the Kanchana series. He has made four instalments in this franchise, and another instalment is in the pipeline. And then we have director Sundar C, who is also lazily exploiting the worn-out tropes of the genre for his Aranmanai series. Such filmmakers have reduced the genre to just a handful of jump-scares and jokes.
A horror film needs to tap into our real fears — what we don’t see is more frightening than all the blood and gore. The best horror films are psychological, which create empathy with characters despite their basic premise that is far from reality. The more we believe what we are watching, the more immersive our reaction.
Indian filmmakers, however, are content with sending their protagonists enter old, dilapidated buildings and let the tried and tested motif do the rest of the work. This seems to be second only to saree-clad women with a big bindi on the forehead.
The absence of imagination and original thinking is what is hurting the horror genre. The lack of artistic will to create something daring and original for once has caused the genre to reach a saturation point. Our filmmakers are no longer bothered to invent, innovate and redefine the way we perceive horror films.
Filmmakers around the world have been redefining the landscape of the horror industry based on the issues of the day. Take, for instance, Godzilla. The giant monster was first conceived by filmmaker Ishirō Honda as an effort to imagine the size of the terror felt by Japanese people about the radiation effects in wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Lucky Dragon 5 incident. However, Hollywood hijacked Godzilla and turned it into a popcorn franchise earmarked for summer viewing for the family audience.
The point is filmmakers have been trying to push the envelope since the origin of the horror genre. Hollywood filmmakers have shown a great appetite for experimenting with techniques, narrative formats and subgenres to manufacture all kinds of scares. While demons still hold sway in the horror industry, many indie filmmakers have invented new ways to experience simulated terror. For example, the found-footage horror movies such as The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity series, REC. Or the slasher films about deranged killers.
In the last few years, like Honda’s “Gojira”, the filmmakers are now trying to imagine a wide range of real-life fears that haunts people every day, and they are not necessarily supernatural evils. Let’s consider Jordan Peele’s critical and commercial hit Get Out. Peele uses the tropes of the horror genre to demonstrate the evils of racism.
Or take the example of director Ari Aster’s Midsommar. In this film, Ari Aster breaks every known convention of the horror genre. He mounts a daytime folk horror tale in the Swedish countryside, which looks straight out of a typical Hollywood feel-good romantic movie. The terror unfolds in a farming commune, where at face value everyone looks lovable. They just seem like a group of nice people, who love sunshine, flowers, grassy landscape, mind-altering herbs and outdoor barbeque. You know the regular things that regular people do to spend their summer vacation. Nothing seems amiss until we learn about the strange rituals of the commune, where human sacrifices are commonplace.
Such films change our notion of what’s horrible by digging out horrors from mundane life.
We also have Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. The characters in this horror series are haunted by the issues of unresolved child issues, unmet need for love and attention, guilt, regret, neglect of parents. A gamut of negative emotions take shapes and forms of their own, manifest into their worst nightmares, and chip away at their souls.
Similarly, director Andrés Muschietti’s It is not only a story about an ancient demon in the makeup of a spooky clown feeding on young children. It is an uplifting movie about a group of children conquering their fears, so the demon won’t be able to weaponise their fears against them.
In the meantime, the only evolution that the horror genre has achieved here in the past few decades is that female ghosts now wear a variety of flashy, colourful dresses and ornaments as opposed to just a dull white saree.
Amity University Kolkata.
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