Horror is a genre increasingly celebrated for its flexibility, its marriage to comedy being the latest casualty. The films listed here (three Tamil, one Malayalam) have moved beyond the generic horror story template, where the first half is about the horror, and the second about exposition, often involving the origin story of the ghost. Each of these films takes the genre and blends it into either a social comment, or a story of mortal greed. They flirt with the supernatural, now and then, but don't be surprised if you find them dismissive of it. In many cases, till the last 30 seconds of the film you won't really understand where the writing stands on ghosts: do they exist or not?
Director: Ashwin Saravanan
Streaming on: Netflix
Chennai is plagued by violent murders of women — heads are beheaded and bodied burnt. The murderer is seen and heard (with heavy breathing off screen and the noise of a steady cam recording it). As a viewer, we now anticipate a murder, or an attempt at murder. Taapsee Pannu's character is next in line, tattooed, and with a past that keeps haunting her.
Why are the murders happening? Why all women? What is the tattooed connection among the murders?
As a horror film, Game Over induces enough jerks and shocks to keep you invested, with your adrenaline aching for a pause. But the enduring quality of the film is in its subtext. The film works mostly as a comment on the futility of violence in the gaming universe, recycling attempts to survive and move on to the next level, as though surviving is itself enough to move ahead.
The trauma, ache and heady hangover are irrelevant; Pacman needs to just live to be considered eligible for entering a more dangerous, more violent "next level". These are not inferred subtexts, but needed to savour the experience of this film. There is a poster hanging in a frame that reads, "Video games ruined my life. Good thing I have two more."
The film is a mix of CCTV footage, first-person perspectives, virtual reality, selfie-camera videos, and photographs. It employs black-and-white to neatly distinguish between flashbacks and the present, but then shuns these distinctions as it recycles time and violence in the harrowing last 40 minutes of the film. It's edgy, kitsch, and very engrossing.
Streaming on: Hotstar
This film is Mysskin's most mysterious and accessible film, and possibly the best entry point to his filmography. Siddharth, played by Naga, is haunted by the ghost of someone killed in a hit-and-run, whom he, a bystander, tried to save.
To embellish the story, to add the Mysskin-isms, there are absurd elements. A wastrel named Plato, a random shot of earthworms crawling over each other and going their separate ways, an abusive husband and his docile wife who live downstairs, and a lonely man in a sprawling apartment who plays the violin with a troupe of blind alms-seekers led by a small girl. There is also an abandoned ice factory, possibly alluding to the growing deserted ice factories across the humid landscape of Chennai.
There is also the generic: The ghosts being dragged across the floor, jump scares, shots of suspicion, missing bottle openers, fraudulent ghostbusters, and the usual background score that accompanies this.
What is novel is the twist at the end of the film that puts the entire film in perspective, and your reasoning in flux. It is unbelievably unpredictable, and satisfyingly original. Much like the film itself.
Director: Karthik Subbaraj
Streaming on: SunNXT
At one point in this film, pizza delivery boy Michael, played by Vijay Sethupathi, finds himself locked in a house where the lights go out. The woman who ordered pizza has gone to get change to pay him, but has disappeared. The entirety of this and the following sequences are lit by the torch that Michael holds. This is a brilliant way for the audience to see only what Michael sees. In most horror films, they would use the camera for this, with a first-person perspective of the person enduring the horror.
This is merely one of many things to celebrate in this film. It is Karthik Subbaraj's debut film as a director. He, who would go on to find his voice as a commercial stalwart with a unique narrative sensibility in films such as Jigarthanda, and Petta. It is also one of the most interesting subversions of the horror genre.
It has the usual elements, the sceptic and the believer in ghosts, and a set of circumstances that makes the sceptic rethink his position. But as the film progresses, you realise that this is not the focus of the narrative. It begins to shun the horror genre for a suspenseful one. The jerks of the horror genre are wonderfully supplemented by the facepalms of the viewers who realise they have been fooled.
A Telugu dub of this is available on Hotstar, and the Hindi remake of this film is available on Netflix.
Director: Jay K
Streaming on: Hotstar
What could have been the template Vikram Bhatt horror film, with the first half being the haunting, and the second being the origin story and exorcism of the ghost is elevated by the usage of a two very unique ideas.
The ghost is Jewish, and this ties the story to the dwindling Jewish population in Kerala, and the history of migrations and disappearance, miscegenation, and conflict. It also gives an opportunity to talk about Jewish mythology, something rarely spoken about.
Prithviraj plays a Christian in this movie, a nuclear waste management specialist who moves to Kochi. The protest movements around the Kudankulam Nuclear Plant are dealt with in the movie. Even the possible misuse and potential for mass destruction of nuclear powers has been subtly woven into the narrative.
In this midst of all this, the template narrative unfolds. If you know Malayalam, the film is available on YouTube without subtitles. Hotstar has a Hindi dubbed version, which, like most dubs, is clunky but effective. A jump scare with a pat of education is always welcome!