For a filmmaker, horror is perhaps the most difficult movie genre to pull off. Why? Because a horror movie should not just be a good film, but it should also be scary. It is so hard to evoke jump scares while satisfying non-genre viewers and more demanding audiences with a proper script. When it comes to horror, artistic and commercial genre aspects seldom complement each other.
Therefore, most horror films fail to work as both good movies and scary films. Take the Raaz series and Mysskin's Pisaasu, for instance. The Raaz movies have scary moments, but you could barely remember the plot or script of these films. On the other hand, Pisaasu is a fantastic film, with a terrific love story at the centre of it, but it is not quite fiendishly frightening.
What makes it all the more challenging for filmmakers is the fact that the template for a horror film is already set. There is little wiggle room for creativity in this genre. Haunted-house thrillers are virtually done to death. You could say the same about serial killer movies, zombie films, and virtually every other kind of horror movie.
The challenge for an aspiring filmmaker, then, is what to do if they cannot strike a balance between commerce and art. What Indian filmmakers often do to achieve the balance is mix reality and fantasy/supernatural elements, although this means experimentation. Often these experimental films serve up fascinating outputs, like Tumbbad and Stree for instance. Tumbbad has some genuinely frightening moments, but the movie's themes of greed and evil worship are equally fascinating. Meanwhile, Stree throws collective darts at patriarchy and delivers a powerful feminist viewpoint. There may be differing views about Stree's effectiveness, but the movie manages to elicit some good scares.
But sometimes, mixing those elements of reality and fantasy gives us borderline silly films that satisfy neither horror fans nor movie lovers. The worst example of this is perhaps Game Over. The best example of a film that gets this balance between commerce and art right is Manichitrathazhu, whose horror is more primal than supernatural.
What filmmakers should do to elevate the quality of Indian horror films, is focus more on the content. One reason why black-and-white horror films still work is that the writing is so good. Older filmmakers knew that what works best for horror films is the 'less is more' formula. For instance, a sudden 'boo' from the dark has a more scare-inducing effect on us than some inane object repeatedly jumping onto the screen. Nobody knew this filmmaking rule better than those directors.
Working on a script by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, A. Vincent made one of India's most enduring horror films in Bhargavi Nilayam. Basheer's story of a novelist who encounters the supernatural at a remote mansion is like a Bram Stoker novel. While this Prem Nazir, Madhu and Vijaya Nirmala starrer is dated on a visual level, the story is still spellbinding. For a pan-India audience, the Vincent film is to Malayalam cinema what Woh Kaun Thi is to Hindi cinema. A true-blue horror film that set the standard for generations of filmmakers to come.