Usually, before I write about a movie, I like to have some basic idea about its origin and cultural background. This explains, at least in part, why I've been avoiding Indian horror: I find the prep work a little daunting. In order to understand it, you first have to come to terms with the whole mainstream Indian movie industry — the largest movie industry in the world, and one that until recently wanted no part of the horror genre.
I suppose the pioneering Ramsay Brothers have a reputation in India similar to that of the Mitchell Brothers in American film: they worked in parallel with the mainstream, not as a part of it; though they may have been relatively good at what they did, we still don't discuss their work in polite company; and you certainly won't find their movies in any reputable shop or family video store. Which brings me to my next point: Indian horror movies are considered something of a cultural embarrassment in their home country, so the movies have until recently proven hard to find; and even when you do find them, chances are they won't be subtitled in English or any other language. Unless an outfit like Mondo Macabro DVD takes an interest and actually prepares an edition for Western consumption, chances are you're on your own trying to figure out what everyone is saying. But the language is only the first obstacle in understanding the movie. It's equally important to be aware of the history and traditions and cultural norms that made Indian horror take the forms it did. Otherwise you'll have very little idea what you're watching. Like me.
Pete Tombs's book "Mondo Macabro" was my chief source of information on Indian horror in general, and Kabrastan in particular. "Mondo Macabro" (as if you didn't know this already) was Tombs's follow-up to "Immoral Tales", his overview of classic European exploitation films. After covering Europe, Tombs scoured the rest of the world, from China to Indonesia to South America and everywhere in between, looking for some of the wildest stuff the local cinema had produced. The results made the work of Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, which Tombs had explored so thoroghly in "Immoral Tales", look downright prosaic1.
Tombs devoted a couple of lovingly detailed chapters of "Mondo Macabro" to Indian horror, including some of the best and the worst that the genre had produced. I'm sure some people read the book and immediately went looking for movies like Purana Mandir and Veerana, which Tombs had mentioned as some of the most interesting. But then there are people like me, who immediately gravitated toward the worst movies in the batch — the elusive Khooni Dracula being at the top of the list.
Kabrastan was mentioned in the section profiling the director Mohan Bhakri. Bhakri, like many Indian horror directors, is well-known for taking popular Western horror flicks (for example, Pumpkinhead) and making his own versions to fit the sensibilities of local audiences (Khooni Murdaa, in this case). But Kabrastan was Bhakri's attempt to do something different. He wanted to create an original story, one that was closer to real psychological horror than the rubber-mask formula films of the Ramsays. He even decided that the "monster" in Kabrastan would be represented not by an actor in a costume, but by the POV camera.
Bhakri's heart may have been in the right place — torn out and beating in a glass tray, as it happens — but most knowledgeable critics (like Tombs and Pakistan's Omar Khan) all seem to agree: the Kabrastan experiment was a failure.
Perversely enough, it's precisely because it turned out a well-intentioned failure that I was particularly anxious to see the film. For some reason, I've always been more attracted to movies that strive and fail than to those that succeed too easily. And now that I've seen Kabrastan, I'm happy to report the search was well worthwhile. To those who can understand the dialog, and can place the film in its proper context, I'm sure the movie is pure torture. But to somebody like me, approaching the unsubtitled film from a position of absolute ignorance, it's actually a lot of fun.
I'd expected a much different (and frankly, much worse) movie. In fact, Kabrastan was so far different from what I'd expected that I felt the need to write about it... if only to clear up some of the ambiguous or just plain wrong information that created my expectations in the first place.
To begin with, the summary currently posted on the IMDb doesn't resemble the actual movie at all. It's not about a man who gets acid thrown in his face by his wife's lover. But at the same time, Pete Tombs's synopsis (as I remember it, anyway) also doesn't capture the true spirit of the film. Having read "Mondo Macabro", I'd come to expect some sort of Frankenstein variation... and you have to admit, a Frankenstein movie with the monster played by a POV camera would probably be excruciating. But my impression was mistaken. Kabrastan is a ghost story, in which a morally-dodgy ghost haunts a morally-dodgy Mad Scientist. The motives of both the Mad Scientist and the ghost are so ethically murky that the result is hugely entertaining.
The movie is set in an Indian Christian community — after all, Kabrastan means "Graveyard", and most of India's other religions cremate their dead. The central characters are the D'Souzas: William is a successful surgeon, with a wife and two young children; he has two younger brothers name Mike and Rocky. Rocky is also a doctor — he opens the film with a painfully unfunny "comic" kung fu fight through the hospital. This has something to do with Rocky's involvement with the daughter of some kind of crime boss... I couldn't quite figure out what was going on, but whatever it is, it leads to further demonstrations of Rocky's ludicrous "martial arts" skills later in the film.
William is faced with a medical dilemma: one of his patients is certainly going to die, unless he gets an immediate heart transplant. Unfortunately, donor hearts are hard to come by; and in any case, the procedure is very difficult and fraught with complications. However, William knows that if he were able to perform a successful heart transplant, it would not only save the patient, but also bring a good deal of glory to him personally... to his hospital... and to the country, since as of 1988 no successful heart transplants had yet been done in India.
So William decides to cheat.
His first unethical shortcut involves sneaking out into the kabrastan in the dead of night, where he cuts open a rotting corpse to steal its heart. Now, gory horror movies in the West often rely on animal innards for their gruesome special effects, and that's also the case here. But obviously they couldn't use a calf's heart as a prop in India, so the organ William pulls from the supposedly-human corpse is taken from some other animal. A much smaller animal. I don't want to think about this aspect of the film very carefully; suffice it to say that the heart William removes from the cadaver is ridiculously tiny. Anyway: William takes it back to his laboratory, where he uses it to plumb the mysteries of the organ and prepare himself for the operation.
The next morining — surprise! — a critically-injured accident victim is brought into the hospital, where he dies without regaining consciousness. William just happens to suggest that the dead man would be a perfect donor for the heart his patient needs... and just in the nick of time! William performs the transplant as though he'd done it many times before; the patient is saved, and everyone hails William as a hero.
Everyone, that is, except the dead man... who rises from his grave to take revenge!
That's the basic setup. Naturally, this is not quite enough to sustain a two-and-a-quarter hour movie, even with songs and dance numbers. There are a number of side-plots: in one of them, younger brother Rocky stops and picks up a beautiful hitch-hiker who may actually be another ghost from the same kabrastan. That's two girls young Rocky is involved with... platonically, that is, since he has a wife at home. And, of course, another side-plot features the Odious Comic Relief, played by the inexplicably popular character actor Jagdeep. Here Jagdeep plays the son of a fat, wealthy man named Napoleon. Now, if your name was "Napoleon", what might you name your son? Would you believe: "Hitler"? Hmm. Maybe it's a good thing I can't actually understand the humor in Kabrastan...
But the main focus of the story is revenge, and one of the things that makes the movie so unexpectedly appealing is the sheer level of nastiness the ghost sinks to. Indian horror movies have a reputation for being tame, because of the conservative tastes of their audiences: they mustn't show too much skin, for instance; also, according to the rules, the Bad Guy has to look like a Bad Guy, and his evil deeds must be punished in the end. In this film, Bhakri shows how far the boundaries can be pushed without actually breaking these rules. What William has done is absolutely wrong, even if his reasons for doing it are a bit more complicated than the usual Mad Scientist master plan2. And William will pay for his misdeeds. But the ghost is actually worse than William. He takes the whole "punished unto the seventh generation" a little too seriously. He not only wants to make William suffer, he's determined to bring misery and death to every single member of William's household... and to enjoy himself doing it.
The much-maligned POV camera that represents the "monster" of the movie works pretty well when you understand the "monster" is a ghost. Western horror movies often use the same device... though perhaps not so persistently (and when someone uses a technique "persistently" in a two-hour-plus movie, that's persistence). But I'd like to point out that the POV camera is not the only manifestation of the ghost. When the spirit first awakens in his coffin, to the accompaniment of some very familiar thunderclaps, he sits up and emerges from his grave. The video quality of the version I saw was so poor that at first I thought it was the original corpse that sat up — the badly-decomposed one from which William stole the impossibly-small heart (That would have made an interesting story: the long-dead man comes back for revenge on behalf of a man he's never met, solely because his own grave was desecrated first...). I was mistaken. In any case, we do get a glimpse of the ghost from outside the POV of the camera early in the film. For a while, the ghost is merely an unseen presence, scrawling messages on the walls (in both Devanagari script and English). But shortly thereafter, he reappears as an eerily-lit face on the television, popping up to torment his victim.
The ghost's television appearance leads to its third manifestation: the spirit begins to take over Mike's body. For an added bit of cruelty, the ghost informs Mike what he's going to do before he does it. The transformation begins with Mike developing dark circles under his eyes and grinning maniacally... but by the end of the movie, when the spirit has taken Mike over completely, great rubbery welts have begun to form on his face and neck. Some of them pop, and snakes emerge from them. Call me liberal, but to me this constitutes an on-screen monster. The rubber prosthetics may not cover his entire face, but he's still a pretty gruesome sight.
As ghstly as he looks, what he does is far worse. You don't need subtitles to understand what's going on: murder and sexual violence are pretty clear in any language. Sure, there are some annoying lapses into stereotype: for instance, when possessed-Mike molests Rocky's wife, she makes only a token resistance before giving in with a shrug. Then, there's the movie's coy reluctance to show the end result of the violence it sets up as the final bloodbath begins. But overall, Kabrastan manages to create some genuinely horrific and unexpectedly potent moments.
And under the circumstances, there absolutely no possibility of anything that could be called a "happy ending".
You don't have to take my word for any of this. You can watch the movie yourself on-line. And while you're at it, there are a whole batch more where that came from. They're none of them subtitled, and the quality of the videos leaves something to be desired... in fact, the copy of Kabrastan ends a minute or two before the conclusion of the film... but it's a great way to sample the products of an industry that used to be very little known outside its immediate area.
And if the prospect of a two-hour, unsubtitled horror film makes you uncomfortable, and you'd rather just skip to the Good Parts, let me recommend you check out the Big Production Number five minutes and 20 seconds into Part 3 of the online video. The setup is this: our Odious Comic Relief has gone to the kabrastan at night, presumably to cast some sort of bogus love-spell on his would-be girlfriend. The spell, fails, naturally; but once the girl has left him alone in the dark, all sorts of sinister figures begin to jump out of the graves. There's an Egyptian mummy... and a guy in a gorilla suit... and a disfigured Freddy Krueger-type guy in a fedora... as well as a zombie girl, a zombie bride (in blackface, no less), and a couple of others wearing dime store fright masks. It looks like a casting call for a Harinam Singh flick. Anyway: the music starts, and everybody starts dancing. The music is very simple, almost to the point of inanity... but it's unbelievably catchy. Jagdeep pretends to be frightened, while he runs from ghoul to ghoul, up into the trees, down into the open graves, all the while calling on God to help him. Its sounds stupid, and it is stupid; but it's inspired stupidity. I will never be able to watch Michael Jackson's Thriller video again without comparing it (unfavorably) to this scene.
The scene concludes when Jagdeep's girlfriend returns... and of course the ghouls all run away in terror. As well they should: it turns out they were all Jagdeep's friends wearing masks (as though we couldn't have figured that out ourselves). Though you have to wonder what kind of friends pull a practical joke that includes burying themselves in real graves.
Oh, the heck with it. I can't resist. Here's a little sample of what you're in for (right-click and choose 'Play' to start):
You see what I mean? It's total insanity, completely out of character with the rest of the film. And the rhythm guitarist comes in four bars too early at one point — you can hear it in this clip (Retakes? Who has the budget for a retake?). Yet it's so completely off-the-wall that it actually functions as Comic Relief is supposed to function — a momentary relaxation before the real horror starts.
1. I'm relying on my memory here, since I no longer have a copy of "Mondo Macabro". One of my cats used to make comfy little nests out of my books, and one day it was "Mondo Macabro"'s turn. Of course, this was just after it had gone out of print. Other books I lost this way, before the cat grew out of the habit, included Dorothy MacArdle's "Uneasy Freehold" [the source novel for the classic ghost movie The Uninvited] and the complete annotated ghost stories of M.R. James. Sigh...
I showed those animals who's boss, though: when another kitty peed all over my copy of "Spaghetti Nightmares", I simply dried it off and kept reading!
2. Of course, his plan would only work in a world where there was no interference from either police or medical ethics boards... but then again, all horror movies seem to take place in that kind of world; so by typical horror movie standards, William's behavior is almost believable.