The art of giving the creeps is a specialised one. Sometimes horror films face the paradox of being ‘good’ but not ‘scary’. Filmmakers lose sight of their primary function—that is, to tap into our fears. I don’t want to get all philosophical about it but what we are dealing with here is the most primal of emotions: Horror is as old as folklore and fairytales and as deep as nightmares. And something of a bad word in cinema (the term ‘jump scare’ has become the most reviled thing on earth). And yet, despite sneering film critics and apologetic filmmakers, who are a bit embarrassed when their film is categorised under ‘horror’, the genre is alive and kicking.
Horror has inspired innovations in cinema, right from silent era masterpieces like Nosferatu (1922) and Haxan (1922), to the birth of the modern blockbuster with Jaws (1975), to the works of contemporary filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro and Jordan Peele, who have been able to combine their love for the thrills of the genre with a social consciousness.
The filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia, while talking about his short film, Palace of Horrors, had told me in a 2018 interview why it is an inherently cinematic genre. “The whole idea of tension is built into the structure. Somebody walking with a lantern into darkness, into the unknown, whether there is someone there or not, what we can’t see, we start to imagine. This is pure cinema.”
There is a dearth of horror films that tick all the boxes maybe because it is hard to do it. This list features scary scenes from Indian horror films (with the exception of a guest entry from the South that’s not a horror film): from Satyajit Ray’s adaptation of a gothic story by Tagore, to Ram Gopal Varma’s take on the haunted house film, to new wave horror films like Pari and Kothanodi.
1. That skeletal hand, Monihara (1961)
Satyajit Ray’s only horror film doesn’t waste time in letting us know that we are watching a ghost story. The narrator meets a stranger on the steps of a ghat and tells him a story—a classic trope. The events unfold in Sahabari, an old mansion in the village, where Phonibhushan brings his newly-wed wife, Monimalika, from Calcutta. For most of its 50 minutes runtime, Monihara is an exercise in mood-building. Ray uses the interiors of this gothic rajbari to lull the viewer into a fever dream state: the room is filled with stuffed birds, dolls, antique pieces, a family portrait of a long-dead aunt, and of course, the jewellery box that Monimalika is so abnormally drawn to.
But like the last word of the last line of a great short story, the big scare comes in the end. Monimalika returns in spectral form to claim the last piece of jewellery. Awoken from sleep at the dead of the night, Phonibhushan is at first pleased that his wife has returned. Then he is terrified, when her hands touch his: it’s a skeletal hand, still wearing bangles. The revelation is almost as shocking as the revelation of Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho–only we hear her maddening laughter ringing through the mansion. It’s an unexpectedly pulpy finish for a restrained chamber piece, and a testimony to the adventurous tastes of both Ray and Tagore (on whose story it is based on).
2. Signs of the Devil, Gehrayee (1980)
One of the creepiest aspects of Aruna-Vikas’s Gehrayee—or any film about a girl possessed by a demonic spirit—is the way the signs of its presence in the house are registered, one by one. The family’s youngest member, Uma (Padmini Kolhapure), starts behaving weirdly. She speaks in a foul language that’s more suited to a street hooker than a school-going girl from an urban, educated family. Freshly cooked dinner goes rotten in a few minutes, even before it has left the kitchen.
But the freakiest incident happens when the family is sitting in their drawing room. Uma starts seducing his brother, Nandu (Anant Nag) in front of everyone. It’s such an unexpected scene that you don’t know what to make of it—Nandu cares for his kid sister deeply and they’ve just come back from a fun outing. At one level, the moral transgression gives you a jolt. At another level, you wonder what else it would take for her father, a hard-headed cynic (Sreeram Lagoo), to accept that something beyond human comprehension has taken hold of his daughter.
Gehrayee is a relatively less known Hindi horror film, and one of the best ones. Like many good horror films, it shows the triumph of superstition over rationality, but it has a surprising ecological angle and a message about caste—the film is set in and around Bangalore. It stars a very young Padmini Kolhapure, whose half-nude pictures from an important scene was used in the publicity material in order to draw audiences for a film that had no stars. Apparently Spielberg confirmed Amrish Puri for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) after he saw his role as an evil tantrik in Gehrayee.
3. Minnie’s eyes turn blue, Raat (1992)
Ram Gopal Varma gets talked about for what he did with the gangster film, but he is (or was) a great horror director. Horror is a really tropey genre and Varma mostly sticks by the rules, but he knows how to use them effectively. Raat is about the demonic possession of Minnie (Revathy), a college going girl. (Varma was obviously inspired by The Exorcist, and it is likely that he also saw Gehrayee). It’s a 2 hour film, but the possession takes place only around the 1 hour mark, in daylight. Even though the sequence that leads up to it is of a completely different mood. You almost forget that you are inside a horror film.
Minnie goes for a day trip to a picnic spot with Deepak (Chinna). It’s a Sunday and the weather is lovely. They have lunch at a Dhaba, share headphones and listen to Western pop music on her walkman and read comics under a tree. Sadly, they have to leave because she has promised her father to be home before evening. On the way, his bike’s tyre punctures. They are in a highway surrounded by forest. Varma uses the hand-held camera from the point of view of the spirit, which stalks Minnie from behind the bushes, like a predator.
Deepak, who had gone to a nearby village to get a replacement for the tyre, comes back and finds her missing. He enters the jungle and she’s sitting there under a tree, her head buried in her arms. When she lifts her head, the colour of her iris has changed. It’s an absolute freak-out. It scares the bejesus out of Deepak (who has a narrow escape). But the devil has already taken hold of her.
4. The first time we see Ganga as Nagavalli, in all her ‘finery’, Manichitrathazhu (1993)
It’s a bit of a shame for Malayalam cinema that we haven’t been able to look past Manichitrathazhu when it comes to any discussion about horror films, close to thirty years after its release. But there’s good reason why almost every 90’s kid in Kerala was spooked into either drinking milk or finishing their meals with the threat of “Nagavalli varum” looming over them. And like Jaws, it is idea of this dead dancer that really freaks us out. Because Nagavalli, or Ganga as Nagavalli, barely gets 10 minutes of screen time in the film. Which means that when we see her face for the first time during “Oru Murai Vanthu Parthaya” after several wide shots, Shobana eclipses what we’ve imagined to be this bloodthirsty spectre. And it’s suddenly all types of fear taking over the viewer’s body. The fact that there’s a reasonable scientific explanation to all of this, only makes it even scarier.
5. The first kill, Bhoot (2003)
One could argue that with Raat and Bhoot, RGV made the same film twice. Where Raat was set in a house by a secluded highway, in Bhoot, Varma transposes the story to a flat in a high-rise. You may have neighbours living on the same floor, but when your are moving into a new place that’s haunted, Varma seems to suggest, you are as helpless as in a house in the middle of nowhere. No other city gives off this sense of isolation as strongly as Mumbai, where each apartment is an island. Varma’s signature low-angle camera works well with the spatial angularity of the flat, and he uses everyday sounds like the calling bell to frightening effect to keep things tense.
The most chilling scene comes when Vishal (Ajay Devgan) is smoking a cigarette by the window, looking at the rain and Swati (Urmila Matondkar) quietly sleepwalks into the frame in the background, opens the door, exits. Vishal doesn’t realise till he finishes his smoke and notices the door open. He shuts it, goes to check on her only to find her bed empty. When he goes downstairs, he sees a most terrifying sight (and a nice bit of body horror)—the building watchman sits with his neck grotesquely twisted. Somnambulism may explain the sleepwalking, but what explains the otherworldly power behind such an act?
6. The death of the ‘Building Dadu’, Ek Thi Daayan (2013)
The first half of Kannan Iyer’s Ek Thi Daayan is about the ill-fated story of a family on whom the evil eyes of a witch befell. The only surviving member, Bobo, grows up to be the Emraan Hashmi character. This childhood part of the story has some of the most terrifying scenes, including a hide-and-seek sequence that racks up the tension, and a pretty well-done ritualistic black magic sequence it culminates in.
But a more quietly scary moment takes place in broad daylight, in the adjoining park of the housing society where this part of the story is set. It’s evening time and the kids of the building are out to play. The senior-most resident of the building is being driven around on his wheelchair by his caretaker. He is over 90 year old and hardly ever speaks, despite Bobo’s (Visshesh Tiwari) numerous attempts to elicit a response from him with his magic tricks.
He freaks out when he sees Diana, who is playing with Bobo’s little sister, his eyes stunned with terror. In a raspy voice unused for many years, he utters the words: ‘Lisa, Lisa Dutt, Tu toh Arthur Road jail mein thi!’ She’s supposed to be hanged a long time ago, then how is she still around? It only confirms what the boy has been cooking up in his head: that Diana is a witch, and she is here to seduce her way into their family. The old man has lived long enough to know of her past and now a terrible fate awaits him.
7. The cursed, evil newborns, Kothanodi (2015)
Unspeakable, horrific things happen in Kothanodi, Bhaskar Hazarika’s adaptation of traditional Assamese folk tale compendium Burhi Ai’r Xadhu. A woman gets her daughter married to a python with the hope that it’ll bring fortune to the family. The cruel stepmother, Tejimola, has clandestine meetings with the devil, her paramour. The film begins with a man going into the deep, dark forest to bury his newborn. This is not the first time he has done it; it won’t be the last time either. That man, Poonai, is following orders from his uncle, who he regards as a well-wisher, turning a deaf ear to his wife, Malati. This is the worst kind of example of blind faith and superstition over reason and basic humanity.
But to Poonai and Malati’s surprise—and ours—the uncle lets their fourth one live. He doesn’t explain them his reasons but he tells them one thing: they could go to the spot where they had buried the previous newborns. In a hair-raising scene, the couple look in horror as they overhear their dead babies, like demonic dolls, regret in unison about their thwarted plans of killing and looting their parents after growing up—if only they were allowed to live. The twist is that the early three newborns were all sons, and Poonai and Malati’s surviving baby is a daughter: a sort of gender role-reversal to the idea of female infanticide.
8. An Unholy Communion, Pari (2018)
Pari is inspired from Bangla pulp stories and in an oblique way, rooted in the Bangladesh Liberation War. The horrific way in which the Djinn, Ifrit, rapes women is a stand-in for the war-crimes of the Pakistani army on Bengali women. There is a two-and-a-half minute sequence that brings out this aspect of the film in particular. It’s when Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee) is rummaging through a great old book in a library, finding out more and more about the Ouladhchakra, a satanic cult that hosts this unholy ritual where Ifrit impregnates women with his demon babies in order to spread his bloodline.
This is risky territory for a horror film, especially when the film has succeeded in keeping its monster out of sight through a sound effect trick. Director Prosit Roy does something clever: he stages the scene in all its occultist glory—the shaman shouts incantations, the followers are in frenzy—but he shrouds the main communion under a white sheet, as if the devil, too, needs his privacy. We hear his grunt-like, animalistic breathing and the woman’s wailings as the camera circles around. We see these movements and shapes take form under the white sheet that does terrible things to the imagination. That thing under the bed-sheet, whatever it is, is better left unseen.
9. Remember the Name, Tumbbad (2018)
It begins with a freak accident, that has no explanation, just bad omen. Vinayak’s (Dhundiraj Prabhakar Jogalekar) brother, Sadashiv (Rudra Soni), has a fatal fall from a tree. That night is going to be the most terrifying night of Vinayak’s life. That night he will have to venture alone into the catacombs of the vaada to feed his ghoul-like grandmother, who has turned into a centuries-old living undead.
The last time, he and Sadashiv were in it together; today he is being taken by their mother (Jyoti Malshe) to a doctor in a faraway village: A woman in a red sari, with a probably dead son in a horse carriage lit by the natural glow of a lantern—it’s like a classical painting in nightmare vision. ‘Should we still go to the doctor?, the carriage driver stops to ask her, ‘Or should we go to the shamshan?’
Meanwhile, Vinayak just isn’t able to remember the name of the demon that puts grandma to sleep. He fumbles while preparing her dinner. Shortly after she is singing a lullaby, delighted to see her ‘raja beta’, she has trapped her grandson onto one of those chains. Vinayak is dragged into the inner chambers of the vaada. Just when she is about to bite her, Vinayak remembers the name. Hastar. He will never forget it.
10. Lagoon Creeps, Kumbalangi Nights (2019)
What if you realised someone might have overheard an intimate conversation, where your sister just confessed to being in love with a boy your husband may not approve of? Worse, what if the person who overheard this conversation happened to be that husband? Worse, what if you’re not sure at what point of the conversation he crept by the doorway and began to overhear the conversation? Worse, what if he’s got a massive persecution complex (one of the many complexes he has) and thinks the conversation you’re having with your sister is actually about him? Worse, what if you know what’s in store for you? This scene is proof that terror needn’t always rise from blood and gore and alien beings and ghosts. It can be shirtless, in a lungi, in the form of Fahadh Faasil and still scare the shit out of you.
(With inputs from Vishal Menon and Baradwaj Rangan)