In the first few minutes of the Malayalam film Bhoothakaalam, we get a superbly creepy visual of an old woman, white hair loose and flowing, standing silently in a doorway. It instantly took me back to M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit, in which a grandchildren's visit to their grandparents' house becomes increasingly sinister because the grandparents aren't what they seem. But then co-writer and director Rahul Sadasivan seamlessly switches track to the drudgery and exhaustion of caring for an elder. An adult diaper is changed. We already sense the tension and cracks in this family.
This shifting mood is what makes Bhoothakaalam so effective. Rahul uses the tropes of horror – things go bump in the night, doors creak open by themselves or stay shut, a dripping tap in a bathroom becomes terrifying – but he roots them in a larger, richer narrative about the fraught relationship between a mother and her son. Asha, a school teacher, is suffering from clinical depression. We don't see her husband – either in flashback or in photographs – but we know that she didn't have a good marriage. In one scene, she tells her counsellor that Vinu isn't like her. He is like his father.
Vinu is frustrated and lost. He can't land a job. He downs his drinks a little too quickly and lies to his mother about smoking. Their relationship is rendered over several gloomy dinner table conversations. He scrolls on his phone while she tries to talk to him. When he hears her weeping through the walls at night, he doesn't offer solace. He covers his ears and tries to sleep. Vinu is weary and desperate to escape. But he is trapped by Asha, who refuses to let him get a job outside their town. He is all she has.
Revathi and Shane Nigam are excellent as Vinu and Asha. Her face embodies the misery of a woman whose own compromised life is now stunting her child's. In a heartbreaking scene, Asha tells him that she doesn't want him to repeat her mistakes. Shane discards the youthful charm that he utilised so well in Kumbalangi Nights. As Vinu, he is haunted, not just by what is going on around him but also by the knowledge that his life might just be a series of failures. Their arguments are raw and desperately sad. Both are broken and unable to help each other heal.
Their dysfunctional relationship gives the horror weight. Much of Bhoothakaalam is set inside an ordinary looking house. The title means The Past but if you split it into two, Bhootha and Kaalam mean Ghost Time. Ghosts and ghosts of the past hang over this bungalow like a melancholy shadow. Rahul and co-writer Sreekumar Shreyas blend in the scares like master chefs ladling in just the right amount of spice. The menacing score by Gopi Sundar adds to the suspense. The way in which routine living spaces – bedrooms, the living room, a bathroom- become unnerving might remind you of Ram Gopal Varma's Bhoot, in which a Mumbai apartment became superbly frightening. In Bhoothakaalam, even a washing machine becomes ominous.
The film goes into full horror movie mode only in the last 15 minutes. But even here, Rahul works with shadows, silhouettes and music. Bhoothakaalam hints that some of what Vinu and Asha are experiencing might be a result of mental health issues – he hasn't slept in days, she has stopped taking her depression medication. But this ambiguity – whether it is real or is it imagined – isn't explored enough. One of the most skilful portrayals of this tension is J. A. Bayona's The Orphanage, a terrifying film in which until the end, it is unclear if the terrors are real or imagined. Rahul opts for a more simplistic explanation. But despite this, Bhoothakaalam is an unusually moving and layered horror film.
You can watch it on Sony LIV.