Ashwin Sarvavanan’s Connect begins at the beach with an image that shows us the ideal family. There’s joy and there’s love and it also becomes obvious very soon that something terrible is going to happen. It invariably does and this event is Covid, that too in its earlier pre-vaccination phase. What adds to the tension is how the father is a doctor and we quickly feel the ‘disconnect’ its members begin to feel as they are separated from each other with each of them getting isolated into their respective computers or phone screens as they talk amongst themselves.
With computer-screen films becoming a lot more common, it’s amazing to see how little Ashwin needs to explain for us to understand how the film’s going to be told. With the majority of the remaining film playing out heads-on in different variations of the frontal view, there’s no longer a need to add templates, to show you blurry screens or battery signs to confirm that we’re indeed watching people speak on video call. In a sense, even how we perceive video calls has changed so much because of the pandemic that it adds a second layer to a scary film that is about a scary time. It’s as inventive as it is courageous to approach a horror film with this restriction because we know how important camera movement can be to create tension and surprise.
But Ashwin focusses instead on the positives of this mode of filmmaking. As the four walls of the screen further restrict the movement of the four central characters, who are already restricted within the walls of their quarantined apartments, we feel their helplessness much more than we would if they were allowed to move freely. The added tension of the lockdown prevents even the grandfather to come for help, even though he has moved just a few streets away. The lockdown also solves the problem with any sort of a horror film set in an apartment building. With no neighbours to come for help and no option to take the elevator down to safety, a ghost in the bedroom right next to you is a lot of more suffocating than you can imagine.
So just think of how much harder it gets when the youngest member of the family ‘brings’ in an unwanted guest. With her effort to reconnect with her deceased father going terribly wrong, an evil spirit enters this house, removing any remaining ounce of normalcy. But just how do you deal with a spirit at a time when you cannot even order in food? That’s the hopelessness with which you’re meant to watch Connect, a film that’s as much about all-encompassing grief taking over you as it could be about something external and supernatural.
With themes of a disconnect between mother and daughter adding a further element to the grimness, we wait for the forces of faith and family to restore balance and hope. Here again, along with the film’s intelligent use of sound design, it’s the form that always remains interesting. Desperate efforts to treat this daughter using video calls present us with a perspective we seldom experience in horror. And when a scared, helpless mother looks directly at you, hoping to find some a solution or solace, we’re pushed into their problem as though it is our own.
But how much does Connect push the boundaries of fear to keep you hooked to this premise? At least on the surface, it remains a tad too straightforward to go beyond the template of any exorcism film, let alone try something different given its Indian context. The characters in the film are Christian and this doesn’t do much in the way of images with the same upside down crosses, the bottle of holy water and the pages of the Bible getting reintroduced as important visual motifs. Apart from the loft and cupboards, even places to hide cannot be inventive beyond a point when you’re restricting the action to a familiar apartment. Another element that was missing was how you’re never really fearing for anyone’s life. The jump scares sure are scary and there are moments that pop at you when you’ve receded to comfort, but even these moment don’t risk all that much in terms of the safety of these people you’ve come to care for.
In a sense, even the pace of the film contributes to the feeling of watching a predictable exorcism movie. With several scenes written around the imminent dangers of the mother walking into her daughter’s room, the surprises remain confided, showing us just how worse she has become. So when a respected Priest enters this equation to perform the actual exorcism, the novelty is just that he’s doing it over the Internet rather than in person. The larger scares too that come in later bring with it a feeling of déjà vu. Floating bodies, the sound of burning skin and the eery feeling evoked by desperate prayers do not have the effect it once had, more so when the exorcism itself appears to take place rather smoothly.
Other angles, like the possession of the young girl, are treated like exposition and the form never allows for moments of self-doubt and introspection because that doesn’t fit into the possibilities of a video call. Even so, you feel you’re just a second away from seeing or hearing something you do not want to, pushing you back into the darkest days of Covid where all of us have had to deal with inner demons of our own. It’s a familiar story told in an unfamiliar way and when the making-style contributes, you feel fear like you haven’t yet before. But when it doesn’t, it’s the boredom of ghosts past that get to you first.