Director: Shabbir Mallick

Cast: Aryann Bhowmik, Soumendra Bhattacharya, Ena Saha, Deepsheta Mitra

In the time-honoured traditions of horror films, four youngsters – two boys and two girls – head out from the city to the back of beyond, with perilous consequences. Of course, each represents an archetype: the cynical smart-alecky Debu (Soumendra Bhattacharya); the impressionable one, Shreya (Ena Saha); the faux ‘cool’ Pritha (Deepsheta Mitra) and the rational documentary filmmaker, Rono (Aryan Bhowmik). These are your typical post-millennials for whom bhoot chaturdashi is … ahem … the Bengali Halloween! And for whom the sight of a well in an abandoned ruin is the cue to ‘pout’ and take selfies and squeal ‘COOL’. ‘Ooo…I have always wanted to drink water from a well ever since childhood,’ says one, while her boyfriend smirks, ‘Ya, if the Aquaguard stops working, the ghosts can always use the well.’

Bhoot Chaturdashi kicks off well enough. Rono’s documentary interviews about a dilapidated mansion in Bolpur giving a sense of verisimilitude to the myths and legends associated with it and with bhoot chaturdashi. A girl born out of wedlock to one of Bengal’s illustrious families, subsequently abandoned, then decried as a sorceress by the villagers and burnt at the stake on the fourteenth day of the waning phase of the moon, the night before Kali Puja, as an offering to the Goddess Chamunda (a variant of Kali) – because the goddess does not accept blood offerings!

For close to three-fourths of the running time nothing happens to really scare the wits out of the viewer

If the film does not quite live up to its sound, intelligent beginnings, and a striking title credit sequence, which had me hoping for an Angel Heart-like exploration of the darkness of the human psyche, it’s primarily because it takes too long to get to the heart of the matter. For close to three-fourths of the running time nothing happens to really scare the wits out of the viewer. By the time the action kicks in and the terror comes calling, it’s too late in the day (or night, if you will).

For a horror film to take this long to set up the premise is a fatal flaw that debutant director Shabbir Mallick cannot overcome despite the effort he makes to eschew clichéd tropes like the jump scare or the peeping camera angles looking over the characters with a sense of foreboding. Also, interestingly enough for a horror film, he has a large part of the proceedings play out in bright daylight, which could have offered a new take on the genre but for the film’s other shortcomings. Of course the other tropes – an abandoned house, no network coverage, a vengeful/unhappy spirit – are all at play, but much of it to little avail as the long exposition drains the film of its potential. You know a horror film is in trouble when its characters have to actually say, ‘The house is freaking me out’, ‘The house is just spooky…’

Driving a final nail into the coffin are the unnecessary, even unconvincing, romantic interludes just when you are expecting the film to at last take you by the scruff of the neck and shake you up

It does not help that the cast does not quite come off – not that they are called upon to deliver a great deal; films in this genre rarely do, but even by those standards, the young actors here leave a lot to be desired (barring to an extent Ena Saha who shows some promise). Even when the film enters its frenzied last act, the way they go into histrionic overdrive only ends up diluting the impact. Driving a final nail into the coffin are the unnecessary, even unconvincing, romantic interludes just when you are expecting the film to at last take you by the scruff of the neck and shake you up.

Bhoot Chaturdashi has been touted as the first full-fledged horror film in Bangla. Well, for someone like me who loves a scare, it does not quite live up to that claim, despite the occasional nice touches and a last quarter of an hour – unfortunately too little, too late – which is pure delight for horror-film fans. As Rono says sometime halfway into the film, ‘Surely, the jungles of Bolpur cannot be more frightening than Kolkata’s.’ It’s an interesting statement in the light of what unfolds and gives an insight into what the film could have been.

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