Released: 1st January
Seen: 4th January
The anthology film is a sad rarity nowadays, especially in Horror. Horror used to be a haven for great little films that told several short scary stories but we haven’t had a truly great one in a while, the last one I can remember being truly special was the V/H/S series (I’m aware Nightmare Cinema came out last year to decent notices but I haven’t been able to see that one yet). The big thing that makes these films particularly special is how they link together. That connection is what takes something from a series of short films to a cohesive anthology film. V/H/S did it with the gimmick of every story being done in a found-footage style, a simple little gimmick but an effective one that allowed each story to flow naturally between each other and made it feel more like a single film rather than a series of shorts. Netflix is now having a go at it by distributing the movie Ghost Stories and… oh boy.
Ghost Stories is made by the same batch of creatives who made the 2018 film Lust Stories, which was also on Netflix. I happened to miss that movie but it appears that it was well-received, even scoring a couple of International Emmy nominations so these are people who know how to make a film. Since this is an Anthology though, I’ll have to go through each short one by one.
The first segment, directed by Zoya Akhtar, has a very creative idea behind it. A nurse named Sameera (Janhvi Kapoor) is charged with looking after an elderly woman, Mrs. Malik (Surekha Sikri) who allegedly lives with her son who is constantly asleep in the next room over. When she isn’t focussed on work, Sameera is worried about her relationship with Guddu (Vijay Varma), a married man who refuses to leave his wife. While working, Sameera keeps hearing sounds from outside and soon discovers a truly horrifying truth about the woman she’s been tasked with taking care of. The short itself is quite well made, visually impressive with great performances, particularly by Surekha who commands the screen with every scene she has. What the short doesn’t do well at all is scare, there is no actual tension to be found anywhere in this piece and the big reveal is more depressing than actually scary, while also having no real foreshadowing of any kind. It’s the kind of ending you do when you want a dramatic twist but can’t be bothered to lay the groundwork that would make it stand out. The idea is solid, and conceptually the twist could work with the proper build-up but the elements never quite match up.
The second segment, directed by Anurag Kashyap, is a little more effective as a horror story. Neha (Sobhita Dhulipala) had just lost her sister and found out she was pregnant all within a short period of time. The sister that she lost has a son, Ansh (Zachary Braz) and the two of them become mildly obsessed with each other since Ansh is now desperate for a maternal figure and Neha is slowly embracing the reality that she’ll soon be a mother. Ansh, however, wants Neha to only care about him and not the child growing inside her. This one almost works, especially because the ending is gloriously bonkers in a Black Swan kind of way. Where it fails is the same place the first one fails, a lack of actual scares. There are some loud noises meant to unnerve the viewer and that insane end is clearly meant to shock, but it doesn’t. I liked the idea and that ending made me a very happy boy but as a whole, it just needed more tension and scares to match its potential.
The third segment, directed by Dibakar Banerjee, is an interesting spin on zombies that has a lot of interesting things going for it. When a man (Sukant Goel) turns up to a small town that seems to only be inhabited by a young boy (Aditya Shetty) and girl (Eva Ameet Pardeshi). When it’s revealed to the man that the town is inhabited by people who eat other people, something that turns them into horrific feral creatures, he doesn’t believe it at first until he finally steps out into the town and sees it happening first hand. This one is a lot more effective, the horror elements are there, there are some good gore and makeup that really helps sell this idea and the acting is universally sublime. There’s just a lot here that works and even the ending is appropriately upsetting and shocking. It’s just so slow, meaning that even elements that require some serious energy feel like they’re lacking. Some of the scares work well, particularly a shockingly brutal moment in a classroom, but it’s so hard to care enough to follow along with what’s happening because the pacing is so bad that it made me feel like drifting off. Also, the twist at the end wasn’t needed in the slightest and just padded out an already long runtime. This entire film is already two and a half hours long, and this short alone could be trimmed down substantially to make it much more effective.
The final short, directed by Karan Johar, probably has the best idea of the bunch. Ira (Mrunal Thakur) marries the handsome and rich Dhruv (Avinash Tiwary) and moves into his home. Dhruv’s home used to be owned by his beloved Granny, who recently passed away. Things seem to be going well until one night when Dhruv appears to be talking to Granny as though she had just walked into the bedroom. This soon becomes a pattern, with Dhruv adamant that his Granny is still around and Ira certain he is losing his mind. Slowly things get stranger and stranger, culminating in a confrontation between Ira and the Granny that will not end well for Ira. This ghost story is a genuinely creepy tale that slowly grows creepier with every passing moment until its genuinely brilliant climax. The entire short just works from start to finish and allows the film to end on a high note.
I watched the English dub of this movie and it works well, the dub actors clearly worked hard to make sure they fit the lip movements and the translation was easy to follow. I’m glad I didn’t try the Hindi with English subtitles version though because the English subtitles for this movie are painfully bad, often shockingly different to what was said in the English dub and sometimes just don’t pop up at all. I can only imagine how irritating that would be to someone with a hearing difficulty, it annoyed me and I only had them on because it’s so hot that I didn’t trust myself to not zone out and figured the subtitles would help. They didn’t, they are not well done at all and I’m going to hope that Netflix fixes them soon because it’s honestly so bad that I felt the need to bring it up here in a review… when your subtitles are so bad I need to warn people about it, you got problems.
On the whole, Ghost Stories just doesn’t work as effectively as it could. While everyone is certainly trying and the talent visible is immense, it fails at the one thing any good ghost story should have… it’s not scary. There were no jumps, no shocks, no gasps or tension. The ideas were scary, a little more work could’ve made this a much tighter and more effective horror film but it just never gets there. I do genuinely hope these creatives try this again because there is serious potential to be mined here, they just never got deep enough to find it.