Ghosts of Horrors Past
What strange, secret acts of violence have you committed, just so you could feel normal? Those acts are the subject of horror films, which re-read the book of human history as a catalogue of inhuman cruelty-psychic and physical, from the self-inflicted and suicidal to the murderous and genocidal. In horror, the smooth skin of daily reality is revealed to be riddled with wounds that only spread and grow. The best horror films tear those stitches open one by one, slowly letting the living rot of the past into the air of the present. Then, just after midnight, that latched door at the end of the hallway finally creaks open, and something pounces.
Netflix’s anthology horror film Ghost Stories has plenty of creaking doors, not just at the end of hallways, but leading up to attics and into hospital rooms, with something always taking shape in dead silence on the other side-heaving itself across the floor, breathing heavily, or, with a walking stick, thudding ever closer. The clammy calm of Ghost Stories is skilfully mounted by the many production designers, cinematographers and sound designers working for directors Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar, a brackish aesthetic at odds with the confidently maximalist sound-and-light show of the industry in which they all cut their teeth. So, instead, they pull for inspiration on a range of terrific sources: Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, Hitchcock by way of De Palma, the films of the French extreme, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Neil Marshall’s The Descent and Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, among others.
The biggest shock here, though, is what Ghost Stories doesn’t reference, but is haunted by all the same.
During the 1980s, the Bombay film industry produced a wave of horror movies about bloodsucking witches, deadly curses and rapacious werewolves. A few prolific producers made dozens of films on shoestring budgets by shooting in Bombay’s abandoned mills and colonial mansions, working with relatively unknown actors and enthusiastic technicians. Films like Purana Mandir (Ancient Temple, 1984), Cheekh (Scream, 1985) and Khooni Murda (Killer Corpse, 1989), were beloved by young and working-class audiences across India. Some, despite playing mostly in second-run theatres and ramshackle video parlours, were major box-office hits. At the same time, the films were targeted for their graphic violence by the government-they could take years to be cleared by the state-run censor board or be banned altogether. These films were also derided by critics as inept imitations of American and European horror films, and perceived by commentators within the Indian industry to be threatening Hindi cinema’s precarious hold on cultural respectability. As the industry transformed into its celebrated contemporary avatar, the horror wave dissipated.
In Ghost Stories, Akhtar, Banerjee, Kashyap, and Johar seem, at first, to come titillatingly close to reviving the spectre of Bombay horror, here channeling the hairy beasts of
Rajkumar Kohli’s Jaani Dushman, there sampling the synthesiser score from the Ramsay Brothers’ Saamri. Occasionally, Ghost Stories outpaces Bombay horror to congeal into genuinely new visceral shocks.
Netflix has called the filmmakers of Ghost Stories “visionaries” (including, daringly, Johar), but for truly demented visions, consider what the 1980’s wave offered us-serial killers bloodily cutting off love songs, werewolves pouncing on wedding celebrations and demonic curses turning childbearing women into pustulating corpses. Ghost Stories has little of such wildness and, despite being completely uncensored, is quite tame. Film after film is about dead or dying women, a creepy old woman in her decrepit apartment, a young woman in a lavish mansion (only Banerjee’s film, about cannibalistic goons in a scorched small town, gambles with topicality). Ghost Stories resolves the respectability problem of Bombay horror by taking a gentrifying, big-budget blowtorch to its rough surfaces, and adding beautiful faces, gorgeous spaces, crisp digital visual effects and sound designs. Prestige does its own kind of violence-it denies its own past.