Phir Wahi Raat (1980)
Cast: Rajesh Khanna, Kim, Danny, Aruna Irani & Shashikala as Pagal Aunty
Director: Danny Denzongpa
Nutshell: Inspired by Hammer’s Paranoic – a well mounted chiller has a great first half, then it all goes woefully wrong
Asha (Kim) suffers from recurring nightmares where after walking through several corridors and various stairways she finds herself trapped inside a dungeon with a witch like cackling woman as her companion. As the dream witch (Shashikala) advances towards Kim with arms menacingly outstretched, Kim awakens with a loud scream much to the disgust of her fellow college companions who are utterly sick of having to spend sleepless nights due to Kim’s neurosis. The convent girls take their complaints to the administration and soon Kim is pressurized to leave the institution. Meanwhile she is recommended psychological therapy and somebody suggests the name of Dr Vijay (Rajesh Khanna) who is a well renowned master of psychology.
In scenes reminiscent of The Heretic; Exorcist 2, Kim is induced into a hypnotic dream world where she is made to confront her fears. She slips into a trance as Khanna asks her to “go deep… deep” (One of the few scenes inspired by one of the greatest Turkey’s of them all – Exorcist 2; The Heretic) then she finds herself walking down the same familiar corridors of her dream and descending the steps to arrive at the dungeon where the PagalAunty awaits. This time Khanna is able to allow her to discover more about her dream and she finds that her irrational fears and recurring nightmare is due to the trauma of having witnessed her mothers’ murder at the hands of the crazed Pagal Aunty. Though it seems that Khanna is well on the way to curing his patient cum girlfriend it is agreed that it in order to truly exorcise Kim’s demons it would be best to return to the old Haveli which is the scene of her nightmares and to see for herself that there is nothing left to fear.
At first Kim appears quite happy at the old Haveli with sidekick Aruna for company but then the nightmares and hallucinations start to take over and seem more real than ever before. Kim summons Khanna to stay with her and Aruna and newly arrived cousin Danny at the haveli just in case she needs his help with the constant hallucinatory lapses. Kim’s nightmares return with a vengeance and but this time the strange thing is instead of Pagal Aunty we have another equally insane looking scarred woman menacing poor pathetic Kim who then goes whining to Khanna – who promises to help her get a grip. Yet just days later on her birthday party in a house full of celebrating guests, Kim starts to have her visions and has a major panic attack which ends up with her plunging the cake knife into an advancing guest who she thought was the woman of her dreams. The stabbed woman happens to be the wife Danny (Kim’s cousin) wanted to get rid of, and then we discover that Aruna, the faithful sidekick is not quite the goody-two-shoes she makes herself out to be.
The plot thickens nicely but just at the moment when the director needed to turn the screws and increase the tension leading to the climax, he does precisely the opposite by introducing the obligatory scourge of Bollywood horror-comedy, the insufferable Jagdeep and his painful bagful of dead stale antics. Just when the pace of the film needed to be upped as it approached the final reels, instead it goes for a serious meandering session which it never recovers from. There are several good sequences during the film but they almost all come from the first half of this totally uneven experience. The dream sequences are excellent with brilliant background music and weird lighting and frenetic camera-work all evoking a suitably nightmarish scenario. Shashikala is stunning as Pagal Aunty in a brief but memorable role but Kim who was the director Danny’s girlfriend at the time the film was made is as duller than ditch water. Rajesh Khanna’s career was flagging seriously at this point and he was forced to start accepting “alternative” films, even if this ends up being more of a thriller than a true horror film. Danny scowls a lot and looks menacing doing his usual thing and Aruna Irani lends solid support.
What a pity that the film ran out of steam so disastrously having set a crackling pace in the first half. The first hour promises so much and yet the second half fails resoundingly to deliver the goods leaving the movie doubly frustrating for this reason. Danny shows flashes of visual flair though the failure of this film chastened him into not trying his hand at direction again. There is much that is good about this little horror-mystery-thriller yet unfortunately it loses its way so badly that as the second half progresses there is little prospect of recovery.
Later discovered that the film was “inspired” by an old Hammer film by the name of Paranoiac from 1963 and the entire plot basically lifted. Even more of a let down in which case, despite the magnificence of Shashikala.