In his new short Palace of Horrors, Ashim Ahluwalia takes the good things of classic horror fiction and fixes some of its problems. There is the wild power of an H.P. Lovecraft tale, the thrill of a colonial adventure story. But with racist overtones, that sometimes underline those stories, being subverted.
Set in 1913 Sundarbans, West Bengal, it features H.P. Gentry (Mark O'Gleby), a circus agent and supplier of the novel and the exotic for the Ringling Brothers Circus, USA. Driven by his lust of seeing the most disturbing and horrible things on earth, he makes a trip to a crumbling palace in the forest. "Home to strange rites and malformed, barely-human curiosities collected by a long-dead king," it is now presided over by a creepy, Hindu "Holy Mother" type lady (Niharika Singh). The story is narrated in first person by James Buck (Henry Throop), Gentry's assistant who accompanied him on that fateful day.
Palace of Horrors, as with all of Ahluwalia's work — Miss Lovely (2012), Daddy (2017)— is like a time capsule of film history, fashioned like a film from the archives (shot in black-and-white by Avijit Mukul Kishore). The 11-minute film is a part of an international horror anthology film The Field Guide to Evil, a "global exploration of dark folk tales".
In an interview conducted over phone, ahead of its premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in the US on March 16, Ahluwalia spoke about how his film is like a mix of everything, from Indian folklores to David Lean, to silent b&w classics, to David Lynch, and why genre is back.
How did the project come about?
A bunch of different producers had this idea of getting 8 international filmmakers to do something different with horror, putting them all together into a single feature-length film. The project ended up getting finance from people like Christos V. Konstantakopoulos who produced The Lobster (2015) and Keith and Jess Calder who produced Anomalisa and Blair Witch (2016). They had loved Miss Lovely, which was set in the sex-horror film industry in the 1980s, and felt that I could be the right fit. One of producers, Andy Stark, who is based in the UK, called me up and said they have the finance and I'm free to do pretty much anything with folk horror I'd like to do. Would I be interested? It was kind of amazing. In India, we haven't done this kind of folk horror. I thought of doing it from the point of view of these British colonial characters who come looking for things to exploit in India, and things just go horribly wrong. A fucked-up, terrifying colonial horror story.
How did you find the story?
Stories came up as I started doing research. I spoke to a folklorist in Kolkata, an eccentric who had been collecting these occult tales. I talked to others who all had their own horrifying local legends from different parts of the country. Then I started looking online. There is a story about this ghost town of Kuldhara in Rajasthan, and another, where this lunatic king cut his body parts off one by one, causing his family and courtiers to abandon him stark raving mad in an empty palace. I started combining these together.
Niharika Singh's look reminded me of Sarada Devi, a 19th century mystic in Bengal. What's the thought behind it?
I love that look. That kind of unsettling Sadhvi look – is she holy or completely possessed? I wanted to use these indigenous elements to create another vision of Indian horror, something disturbing and creepy, but not go back to the Ramsay Brothers.
We do have this vision of the white sari-clad chudail from our B-grade horror movies. But what makes the Sadhvi here more interesting is that she is also reminiscent of the ghostly woman-in-white found in Japanese horror films, like Kwaidan. They use Kabuki-mask-like makeup to denote a sort of "dead" quality of the character. So we combined these elements with Niharika, with the dead skin, the blackened teeth, the classic cat-eye lenses, the endlessly long hair. It's a strange combination of things. We don't realise how deeply our own forms are sometimes linked to other parts of the world. How primeval this all is. There is something ancient about these tales, it's a bit like the shadow side of religion. There is some truthfulness to them and that's what makes them so potent.
Palace of Horrors is reminiscent of the HP Lovecraft stories, told with the kind of exaggerated first person narration with lines like, "I cannot tell you what an unspeakable, horrible thing it was…", and "If heaven is merciful, it will efface from my consciousness the sight that I saw that night."
Very much! I actually wrote it like that, like a missing Lovecraft story set in the jungles of Bengal or something. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe were huge influences on the tone. I wanted that humid gothic atmosphere. But dreamlike, like a hallucination. Maybe James killed his boss and cooked up this whole story. It has this quality that you can't rely on anything anyone is saying, and the characters are perhaps going insane as they narrate this tale.
I think Bengal has an ancient quality, and Bengalis have always been obsessed with horror. Bengalis and Malayalis. I didn't find that in any other state in India. The Old Wives Tales, the stories the neighbours tell, there are all kinds of ghosts and each type has a name. It's very detailed. Plus, obviously, there has been a lot of colonial interaction in Bengal, it was the jewel in the crown. So there was kind of a dark exotica there.
Are you interested in horror as a genre?
I like horror somewhat, but I don't watch so much. I'm more interested in filmmakers who don't generally make horror films but have dabbled in it. David Lynch's The Elephant Man or Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock are both great, mysterious and disturbing films. You can't sleep, they're so unresolved, they haunt you. I find horror to be a very 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.
When I was much younger I used to watch more traditional horror films. But I realized it was becoming an Agatha Christie kind of a thing — the first half is great because you don't know what's going on, and it's scary as hell. But then, in the end, someone comes along and everything is explained — like the old guy died in this house and therefore became a ghost etc etc — and it's fucking annoying. It's just so concrete, it kills all the mystery and the terror. You're left with nothing. That's when I stopped watching.
There is a total reinvention; it's not just horror but all genre filmmaking. Gangster films, sci-fi, period dramas, even westerns. Art house cinema started dying because financing and distribution became scarce, so interested directors began to explore genre.
For Palace of Horrors, I was mostly influenced by black & white cinematography; I wanted to work with greyscale, with a very 19th century atmosphere, almost like it was shot in gaslight. Silent b&w horror like Haxan (1922) was an influence, as you mention, and also German expressionist films like Nosferatu (1922).
Is there a renewed interest in horror at the moment?
There is a total reinvention; it's not just horror but all genre filmmaking. Gangster films, sci-fi, period dramas, even westerns. Art house cinema started dying because financing and distribution became scarce, so interested directors began to explore genre. If you'd asked me 10 years ago about horror, I would've been like, 'What are you talking about?' I look at genre now, and everything I've done is strangely genre-related. Daddy was a gangster film. Miss Lovely was a pulp noir, my documentary John and Jane (2005) was shot like a dystopian sci-fi film. Genre is back in a big way, and is finally being explored with depth and vision. It's not just a bad late night movie on TV.
In Palace of Horrors, I didn't want to get stuck with the tropes of traditional horror, but do a mash-up with other genres. The idea of taking two colonial characters comes from old orientalist or Raj period films. Like they could be plucked out of Gunga Din (1939), The Jewel in the Crown (1984), or David Lean's A Passage to India (1984).
All these films were made at a time when Britain was missing it's old Indian colony, there was something nostalgic about going back, riding elephants, being carried by natives, going to the jungle; Slumdog Millionaire was an extension of that, where you are making a film using a country just as a backdrop, there is no real geography, it's all just made up because you can get away with it. I guess I feel like we need to fuck with that trope —this idea that everything is conquerable. HP Gentry thinks that he can look at the most ugly unseeable thing and bring it back to Europe to monetize it. "We have money, we will pay" — that is the modus operandi. You can't just excavate anything and take it back. In this case, the consequences are truly horrific.
The film opens with a folk music tune that sounds like an old, scratchy recording. Palace of Horrors has the look and feel of an old film. Was it shot on film?
It was shot on digital. I really would have loved to shoot on B&W film but there are no good labs processing in India. And that music is an anonymous recording from 1880 or so, one of the first ever recordings made in the world, by Thomas Edison on a wax cylinder. I love the ghostly quality of that tune.
What are the chances of The Field Guide to Evil being shown/releasing in India?
I really want it to play at MAMI (Mumbai Film Festival) – that would be fun. The producers are going to do a worldwide Netflix release, and it will hopefully have a strong theatrical release in the US to start with.