House No.13 (1990)
Cast: Anil Dhawan, Sharat Saxena, Reeta Bhaduri, Salim Fateh, Leena Nair
Nutshell: Old House bears ghastly secrets and hidden doorway to hell….effective chiller
This 1990 shocker conceived, written and directed by the brilliantly named Baby (no doubt short for some 19 syllable Tamil name) is several cuts above the kind of fare one has become accustomed to in the Post Ramsay’s era of the 90’s and beyond. Ever since the once prolific Ramsay production line decided to devote its energy to the mini screen the horror genre in Bollywood has lurched from bad to worse in the hands of some truly dire smut merchants; namely K.I. Shaikh, Jitendra Chawda, Kishan Shah, R. Mittal, Harinam Singh and company.
If it weren’t for Ram Gopal Verma’s well intentioned if somewhat misguided attempts Kaun? and Raat, the horror genre might have died out altogether – however real credit for keeping the genre from fading away completely must go to a small band of producer/directors from the south who have managed to churn out some fairly striking and even memorable content over the years.
Three of the strongest horror films that we have come across from the post Ramsay’s era have all hailed from the South of the country and are clear evidence that not only is the genre alive and well in these parts but also managing to draw some sizeable crowds and money.
House No.13 is one of these South Indian productions that manage to put the northern horror films to considerable shame. This film, though clearly influenced by horror films from the west still succeeds in retaining its own character and its own style and much to its credit none of the death scenes are direct rip-offs of scenes from western counterparts. Numerous shock scenes are effective and totally original and amazingly there isn’t a rubber mask, bear suit or pair of plastic fangs in sight, nor does one get to enjoy the BBC’s trusty Death and Horror Sound Effects tape as one does in 90% of Bollywood horror films, especially the sounds of those baying wolves!
This like every other Bollywood horror movie begins on the obligatory dark and stormy night lashing down ominous hosepipes of rain. Inside an old creaking Haveli in the middle of nowhere, a brooding artist is busy at work finishing his masterwork while a minion tries to distract him by telling him the house is infested with ghosts.
The master scoffs at the minion and continues painting only to be interrupted by knocking at the door at this unearthly hour of the night. A wet and shivering village belle, visibly nervous and very timid arrives inside grateful for the refuge she is offered by the artist. After she dries herself and changes into some dry clothing the gracious host asks her if she wouldn’t mind posing for a portrait. She obliges but while the artist is busily etching away he fails to notice that the beauty isn’t casting a reflection in the adjacent mirror. When he does finally notice he is suitably stunned and gingerly approaches the beauty only to receive a most horrendous shock that has him reeling and gasping for air. With this highly promising shock start House No.13 kicks into action.
A while later a new family arrives at the notorious haveli, as they have been able to buy it at a snip on the market for reasons they fail to comprehend. The brood, headed by the venerable and evergreen horror veteran Anil Dhawan arrive at their new residence quite oblivious of its grisly past but there excitement soon turns to horror as things start going terribly wrong. The old wheezing grandfather complains that the mirror in his room is up to some tricks clouding over with smoke but his claims are met with disbelief. Later that night the bad fake Mona Lisa painting above his bed starts developing a seriously bad skin rash and then in one of the films most chilling and effective scenes, the painted woman’s hair starts to grow – the tresses emerging like nightmarish ropes of death twirling around the old man, snaring him in a ghastly death trap.
Later on in proceedings a child has a terrifying encounter with its doll and the bookshelf door appears to change and become a doorway to a dreadful netherworld inhabited by restless demons and disgruntled white sari-clad ghosts with axes to grind.
Director Baby pulls out all the stops and handles the shock scenes exceptionally well clearly indicating a strong flair for the genre. Fortunately the film isn’t destroyed by the presence of a comedian sidekick, which in itself is a major blessing – no Jagdeep, no Narendranath, Paintal or Asrani!. However the half dozen or so totally forgettable songs featuring a pansy as the lead hero slow things down to a yawn on one or two occasions – but to be fair, Baby keeps things moving along fairly rapidly despite the musical interludes and there is enough horror interspersed through the movie to keep genre fans interested.
Another strong point of the film is Sharat Saxena’s performance as the evil-bashing tantrik. He cuts an imposing figure with his bulky, muscular physique, grizzled beard and plays his tantrik as a serious soft-spoken man – rather than the raving and ranting, pot bellied bumpkin that one has become accustomed to.
Though the films overall theme of a wronged woman returning from afterlife to wreak revenge is as old as the hills, the directors treatment of the subject has enough freshness and originality to keep the horror fan from falling asleep and though the songs are irritating, as is the romantic sub-plot, the film is clearly one of the better Bollywood horror efforts over the last decade or so and suggests that there is might yet be life after the Ramsays.
This film along with Chudail and Maa ki Shakti demonstrate that there may still be hope for horror in Bollywood and with the news of the Ramsay brothers preparing to release their comeback venture Dhund: The Fog – the future doesn’t look entirely bleak for Bollywood horror despite the distinctly dodgy efforts of K.I. Shaikh and Jitendra Chawda and friends.