Darshana Rajendran in 'Irul', a Malayalam thriller.
A little paper boat floats rapidly in the rain water. A little boy runs after the boat and it disappears down a storm drain. He peers into the drain to see where the boat went. There’s a clown staring back at him from inside the storm drain.
A funeral procession for a pet dog. A cat named Church that dies in an accident. Or is it really dead? What is it about small towns that brings out the dead?
Another small cursed town. It rains or threatens to rain all the time. A mother who makes dough balls to feed the beast. And only then does the family get rich.
Whether it's tales of supernatural hellish beasts possessing unsuspecting people or just inexplicable hauntings of places, horror movies have legions of fans who will watch scenes of levitating kids again and again just to figure out how they got Linda Blair to float like that. Fans will know every creak in the old house and every rattling window. They may laugh out loud at the homegrown version of Chucky and call one another Tatya Vinchu, but when the movie watching is done, they will sleep with the lights on.
Stephen King is perhaps the best teller of scary tales. I lost count at 81 trying to figure out how many of his tales have been turned into movies and shows. His superlative story The Shawshank Redemption is perhaps one of the best films of our times, but now that we’re talking of shivers down your spine, his best work is: The Shining. No one has explored the mind of a writer like Stephen King has, and there’s nothing scarier than an axe wielding Jack Nicholson announcing, ‘Here’s Johnny!’
And just like the twins in The Shining, there are a whole lot of scary movies asking you to ‘come play with us!’
1. Greta, 2018
The impossibly talented Isabelle Huppert plays Greta in the film of the same name, now streaming on Netflix. Chloe Grace Moretz is the girl who is stalked by a lonely older woman. The theme is not new, but what great packaging!
2. The Block Island Sound, 2020
From the quiet menace of Greta, on to the violent scare-fest that is The Block Island Sound (on Netflix). This film - I won't give you any spoilers - reminded me of my own home on an island on the Seattle sound (a ‘sound’ is an inlet of the sea, wider than a fjord). No real life similarities, but I must admit I have encountered many eccentric fisherfolk there. Not an Oscar contender, but you will suddenly look at the sea with a little more respect on your next trip to, say, Goa.
3. Haunted: Latin America, 2021
Speaking of encounters, the super creepy show Haunted moves to Latin America, and is streaming as you read this column. This show is a smorgasbord of horror stories that will make you glad you have someone to hold on to. The best part: these stories are based on real-life experiences of people. From creepy dolls to haunted houses, this show has everything. The story of not stepping out during the Holy week should resonate with you because Easter week just went by, eh?
4. #Alive, 2020
Of course the show is subtitled in English for you, but the skipping of your heartbeat is universal. Subtitles don’t lessen the scares, or make the zombies feel less threatening. After the delicious Kingdom which showed us how brilliant the South Koreans are with weaving zombies into a historical drama, you have probably also watched the award-winning Train To Busan. But #Alive is less about the zombies and more about a bigger horror: surviving without wi-fi.
5. Irul, 2021
This Malayalam film involves a couple, an isolated cabin in the forest and a stranger. A single-line premise means that you should quickly want to empathize with at least one of the characters, or the suspense should keep you going. But when slow-motion rain makes you want to click on the ten-second fast forward button , then the movie has failed, innit? The same thing happens in the Swedish film Red Dot where the setting is a snowbound wilderness trail and the couple has to figure out who is shooting at them and why.
6. Bulbbul, 2020
Anushka Sharma’s production house has given us not one but two movies that make your heart skip a couple of beats. Pari (on Amazon Prime) and the delicious Bulbbul (on Netflix). It is stylish and even-paced, but each of the characters is so marvelously created that you’re rooting for the chudail, and that’s a good thing!
7. Tumbbad, 2018
But nothing, nothing made in India comes close to the horror unleashed by a movie that was released a couple of years ago: Tumbbad. There’s no mark of the beast, no scary ravens, no ghosts that go in and out of human bodies, no witches, no Valak, no crooked man to scare kids.
This film orders nature to be ominous, the greys and the rain are incessant, the blood stands out red, and the people’s hearts become black with greed... This film on Amazon Prime is exactly what Stephen King says about horror and why we cannot stop watching these movies: ‘You realize that you are in a hell of your own making, but you go on nevertheless…’
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.