Cast: Ayaz Samoo, Saud Imtiaz, Danial Afzal, Bilal Yousufzai, Shehzeen Rahat, and Mahrukh
Director: Emran Hussain
Nutshell: Pakistan’s “first found footage” film is truly horrifying experience!
Zibahkhana (2007) was the first non Lollywood Indie style horror film to emerge from Islamabad’s underground scene almost a decade ago and it was then followed some years later by a film written by one of the stars of Zibahkhana; Osman Khalid Butt entitled Siyah which had a decent reception and managed to keep the fire burning as far as the “horror” genre was concerned.
Lately there has been Meera’s “psychological horror- thriller” Hotal which was more horrible and less horror and the very latest entry into the stakes is Aksbandh: (formerly: Paranormal Karachi Nights) a film that touts itself (wrongly) as being “Pakistan’s first ever horror film” as there have been numerous horror films produced in Pakistan since the 1950’s up till today. The more accurate claim would be to being “Pakistan’s first found footage horror film” which is a statement which would be entirely true as there has never been an attempt at the genre brought to the forefront in recent times firstly by 1999’s phenomenally successful The Blair Witch Project and more recently by Paranormal Activity; a film that was made for a ridiculous budget of approx. $12,000 and a film that could arguably be considered the most profitable commercial film ever produced. While Blair Witch breathed life into a genre that had been lying redundant ever since the 1970s splatter epic Cannibal Holocaust; a film that could legitimately lay a claim to being the first “found footage” Daddy of them all.
It was however the startling success of Paranormal Activity (Why Didn’t We think of that!) that has opened the floodgates for cash-ins and imitations being produced the world over and the “Found footage” film has become the most overused and increasingly stale genre over the last five years as the Paranormal films have reached their limit and are now ripe for “Scary Movie” parodying. But, here in Pakistan, trends tend to be a little delayed and so Aksbandh arrives on screens just as the genre is reaching saturation point, but maybe not for desi audiences who may not be all that familiar with the Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch films even if genre audiences most definitely are.
To give credit where due, at least the script writer has made an effort to step into an area where local film makers (other than on TV) have not ventured before and in that sense, even though the film is highly derivative, at least it is an attempt at infusing something different into the local movie scene so dominated by Romantic Comedies and Colour-bursting Family “entertainers” in the shadow of Big Brother Bollywood. The Pakistani cinema industry has slowly started to diversify and show signs of maturity with productions such as Moor leading the way but at the same time there has been a plethora of hastily put together garbage by film makers who are suddenly dazzled by the opportunities that are provided by relatively low cost digital film making and the prospect of a release in cinemas which was inconceivable just a few years ago. Unfortunately Aksbandh falls into the latter category and absolutely fails to build on the handful of horror films that have kept the genre from dying out on the local scene altogether.
The biggest challenge Pakistani horror movie directors are faced with are technical issues such as special effects and make up effects which the genre is so heavily dependent upon. In choosing to develop a script based on Found Footage, at least that problem can be circumvented because most found footage movies work on what remains unseen on screen rather than that which is graphically depicted. A sound, or muffled footsteps, a cry or scratching sounds; these are the staples of the “found footage” genre rather than spectacular special effects, transformations and mutations. In this sense it was a sensible genre to attempt especially if working with a tight budget and no recourse to expensive, dazzling special effects.
The film starts off with a bunch of 20 something’s who have come together to make a horror movie based on the script written by one of the crew members and they are heading out to a Lake in Sindh where they intend to shoot their film. Not exactly sure how they intend to shoot neither without a sound man nor with any lights or indeed visible script, but it seems there is a plan in motion as they set out on their adventure. We learn at the outset that the group vanished and was never found and that only their recently discovered camera will be able to tell us the story of what may have happened to them. It’s the typical “found footage” formula but alas the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The first half of the film is setting the scene with some friendly, humorous and tasteless banter which had a few people giggling incessantly in the cinema, so at least some of the audience was engaged but as things progress the film fails to build any steam, any semblance of tension at all and the banter gets more than a little grating.
The first scene that was supposed to be scary turns out to be unintentionally hysterical as a mysterious gnarled Fakir baba sitting outside a tomb starts chanting loudly, warning the kids to turn back before it’s too late. The fakir decides to spectacularly rugby tackle the star actor of the production and has to be beaten and kicked into submission before the crew frantically make their way, thoroughly spooked uttering such classic lines such as “ye kuch Haunted Type jagah hai na”.
Anyway, they finally make it through the swampy jungle and arrive at a Guest House where they are the only people around it seems. They finally start shooting their film and then there is a loud sound outside and they all go into panic overdrive and pretty much the rest of the movie is spent rushing around in the darkness like headless chickens apparently in desperate danger for their lives from some unseen evil force that has been unleashed by a doll they discovered near the tomb, blatantly inspired by the stick figures from The Blair Witch Project.
The satanic doll is mercilessly mocked and mistreated, even having its face disfigured with a marker pen and hell-bent on revenge the evil thing keeps bouncing back despite being chucked away (think Chucky, think Annabelle, and think all recent Evil Doll movies). Its reappearance caused havoc and distress and there is much screaming and angst as the group finds itself going round and round in circles in true Blair Witch Style. One of the girls falls off her chair or is spectacularly pulled off her chair by an unseen “power” and she starts slowly turning into Linda – one of the girls from Evil Dead (I’m alright Ash, you can let me out now”). The film then veers towards Grudge/Ring territory; the chalk white face thing and black tresses going on for the climactic scenes!
There are one or two attempted shock scenes that end up flat on their faces with the audience snickering rather than trembling with fear. Finally as the film reaches its conclusion (Bless Allah for the mercifully short running time) there is a sense of bewilderment and relief. The production values are nil with the touted sound mix (done in India) so over loud and desperately trying to infuse a sense of dread, especially with a mysterious loud buzzing sound of an unseen fly that remains a bit of a mystery! Also, having any musical soundtrack in a reality style found footage film is a No-no as it ruins the illusion of reality. There is some deliberately jagged editing and jump cuts which in no way enhance the experience or increase authenticity.
With Pakistan’s film production burgeoning in recent times it is however good to see new blood on the scene attempting to do something a little diverse and it was a brave effort to attempt something not done before on the local scene; commendable and to be encouraged.
Those who take pride in supporting the local cinema scene ought to support the film by going out and watching it however having said that, clearly there is a long road ahead as well as a hard learning curve for the new breed of young and green film makers emerging in Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, the phrase “Walk, Don’t Run” comes to mind.