Review: Netflix’s ‘Ghoul’ Is Low on Scares but High on Subversive Ideas
An erstwhile film turned into a three-part Netflix series, Ghoul written and directed by Patrick Graham is set in the near future - a dystopian world that is at once foreign and familiar with its uncomfortable resonance with the current political climate in India. Sectarian violence is at its peak, secret detention centres are established and a military clampdown is in effect.
Universities and schools have been shut down. Houses are raided to round up those who question the establishment. They are detained for ideological reconditioning or ‘waapsi’ to mould the ‘intellectuals’ into ‘ideal citizens’. Stray placards reading, ‘Terrorists are among us. Be vigilant,’ barbed wires and guards with helmets make an appearance on screen. Books are considered sacrilegious belongings.
Nida Rahim played by Radhika Apte, a student at NPS, a paramilitary academy of sorts and a consistently high performer in advanced interrogation - has been summoned to a covert detention facility to cross-question the alleged mastermind of a terror attack, Ali Saeed. But the suspect turns the tables on the interrogators.
Rahim has turned in her father, a professor who teaches ‘out of syllabus’, owns seditious material, and who instills a sense of inquiry and dissent in his students. This setting cuts close to the bone in a country where an armed gunman recently opened fire at a student for ostensibly being a critic of the government. The horror original attempts to tackle many political themes - Islamophobia, the idea of a good Muslim, the confirmation bias of the power wielders.
But what steals the wind from the sails of the dystopian premise is that the proceedings don’t unravel visually and the writing becomes expository, making the act of connecting the dots too easy. Unsnarling muddled views or decoding metaphors is one of the delicious joys of suspenseful horrors. Ghoul deprives you of this joy by spelling it out instead of letting you vicariously live through the horrors. So a scenario that should stir a primeval fear only leaves you with echoes of familiarity. After Anushka Sharma’s ‘Pari’, it’s refreshing to watch a film employing demons from the Arabic folklore but it does not invest time in building the myth of the Ghoul or the djinn, compromising on the intrigue.
Lines that reveal the modus operandi of the demon appear at the start of each episode and demystify the undead monsters instead of shrouding them in enigma - You Will Not Know Its Presence As it Takes to Your group, Awake or Asleep the Nightmares Will Begin.
How scary is Ghoul? You’d have to wait for a while for the first conventional fright in the series. It does not plant horror in the jump scares. Ghoul is instead doused in a sense of disquiet that does not translate into a scream-fest, barring a chase scene with Radhika Apte that keeps you on the edge of the seat and the sinister stares delivered by Mahesh Balraj (playing Ali Saeed). The ploy of the interrogation room where the interrogator comes undone, baring her/his psychological demons, amps up the intrigue.
Jay Oza’s cinematography shines the lens on all things dark and dank, keeping the mood agreeably dark and the background score keeps the tension at a high pitch during the turning points.
While Radhika Apte’s performance smoothly glides between that of a tentative, newly minted interrogator to one who wraps her head around the indecipherable truths, it’s Ratnabali Bhattacharjee’s rendering of the brash, unpredictable and prejudiced Major Das that serves as a tinderbox, raising the stakes. Manav Kaul is dependable, as usual. But one of the series hallmarks, where Ghoul comes across as patchy is character development. These actors could have sunk their teeth in their parts if the roles were meatier. Set for the most part within the advanced detention centre, the series at a certain point assumes a stagey quality. By the third part, there’s a dash of play acting in the performances.
When Jordan Peele’s anti-racism, satirical horror, Get Out pocketed the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay last year, it was like a watershed moment for the rather disrespected genre. The recent run of Hollywood films have garnered more critical acclaim than monster movies usually do. Labels such as ‘elevated horror’, ‘post-horror’ and ‘horror-adjacent’ have been used to brand films like The Babadook, Hereditary and A Quiet Place. The use of the terms remain debatable but most of these films, rooted in social critique enjoyed box office success as well.
Blumhouse Productions credited with producing low-budget horror films is the production house behind Get Out, that made a trenchant commentary on racial relations in Trump’s era, Insidious, Split, Paranormal Activity, among others and now Ghoul (with Ivanhoe Pictures & Phantom Films).
The three-part Indian original horror miniseries may not have been successful in spinning a flawless and chilling yarn but breathes new life in the horror genre with its subversive plot.
Ghoul is slated to release on Netflix on 24 August.