Before we get into this, I have to mention two things. Firstly, there is a new Pakistani horror movie which is currently playing in theatres, if I’m not mistaken. It’s called Pari, and if you are a horror fan, then I’d like you to give it a chance. Local horror movies are rare, and almost always small-budget ventures, so support is necessary if we want to see more.
Secondly, I’m kind of a horror junkie. Our second ever video essay was about Pakistani horror movies, and for it I watched nearly all of them.
I feel that both these things need to be said, because the intent of this post is not to crib or be mean. It is to be honest. I am a horror fan, but I will not feign perfection where it doesn’t exist. Often, if not always, Pakistan horror movies don’t work. They teeter too close to absurd, and very rarely cross the line into genuinely terrifying. But most egregiously, they seem to forget that they are targeting a Pakistani audience.
And so, here are my two cents. Again, I speak as one who wants to see more Pakistani horror movies. Hence, this is not to offend anyone or crib about people that take a chance on this genre. It is to suggest that we can do better, and perhaps encourage us to try.
The Thing About Innovation
Let’s begin with the giant elephants in the room. When you’re making a film, you first need to have the resources to do so. And this first hurdle is one that many filmmakers overlook. Today, let’s just talk about the two most important elements that local horror often lacks.
First, let’s admit that there really is no replacement for a story. Let’s also admit that if you’re telling a story that hasn’t been told before, this adds to the appeal. Of course you can give us an interpretation of something that has already been done. But, when we’ve had five horror films since 2013, and three of them have focused on possessed girls…yeah. I’m thinking some originality wouldn’t hurt.
Moving on, can we also be honest with ourselves about what we can actually accomplish? Given whatever resources we have at our disposal, I mean. See, one of the things I love about the genre is that it allows filmmakers to innovate. But, the innovation has to be a means to an end. Things like special effects, prosthetics and the like are either expensive or difficult to master. And if you don’t do them well, they hurt your project.
Now, I am willing to appreciate that a lot of time and effort goes into making any film. But as an audience member, I cannot be expected to care about any of this if the film doesn’t do what it promised. If you billed it as a horror film, and the effects look like kindergarten art and craft, then no.
I will not be watching, and I will not be saying nice things about your movie.
What Makes Horror Movies, Scary? Story Versus Tone
Okay, now let’s talk about some more stuff. See, the story is obviously important. But the story doesn’t make a film; how it is executed does. In a brilliant essay about the genre, Noel Caroll argues that horror is above all else a “narrative form”. That the appeal of a horror film isn’t the “monster” at all. Or, in a Pakistani context, the demonically possessed child isn’t what makes the film scary. Instead, argues Caroll, what makes it a horror film is the structure around it.
And you can actually find examples of this, where a ghost story isn’t a scary film at all. For example, consider the 2005 Bollywood film Paheli. It revolves around a ghost who falls in love with a human woman. But it is framed as a romantic movie. In fact, the ghostly element is just presented as an obstacle in the path of true love. It really is a typical, Bollywood romance film. Except class difference isn’t the issue this time.
Thus, if you want a film to be scary, you can’t rely on the story entirely.
Also, it is important that you know what kind of tone you are going for, and frame the film accordingly. This includes ensuring that every element of the film is working towards that tone. I mean yes, that scary story you heard about in Amsterdam is a spooky tale. But, couple it with actors that cannot act, and a bizarre soundtrack, and we get an unintentional comedy. And I don’t dislike those, but still.
What is Pakistan Afraid of?
Finally, let’s get to the heart of the matter.
People have often asked me why I like scary films. It’s not because I have a high threshold for fear; quite the contrary. In fact, I don’t think that anyone who enjoys horror films doesn’t scare easily.
Why then do people still watch them? Perhaps it is to do with what horror movies represent; beneath the fangs.
There have been many explanations about what this is, one I find particularly interesting was offered by Robin Wood. He adopted a psychoanalytic approach towards film analysis (basically Freud) .
According to him, horror films represented society’s “collective nightmare”. Remember how Freud talked about suppressed memories and the like? And how whatever we suppress comes back to haunt us? Well Wood claimed that horror films showed us this, literally. They turn what we, as a society, oppress into a monster. And the subtext is part of what scares us.
And while Wood was writing as an academic rather than a film critic, I do feel that his argument explains why some horror films work rather than others.
For example, IT was my favourite film of 2017. And yes, part of this was because the effects were perfection. But, partly it was because the film tackled with some very American fears. It looked at the 1980s in a critical way; as a time when many children literally went missing.
This is also what many Pakistani horror ventures don’t even attempt to do.
You can, of course take on a foreign concept and story, but you have to give it a Pakistani conflict. Local audiences don’t just have to understand the dilemma; they have to identify with it.
When Pakistani horror movies have worked, they have kept this in mind. For example, Zibakhanna might be the country’s foray into the slasher genre. But, it is also one of the few films that showcases class conflict, governmental negligence, and the rural-urban divide.
Zinda Laash is remembered for its take on the Dracula story. But it was also a rendition of the religion versus science debate, which still rages on.
And there was a whole spate of Pashto horror films that included themes of gendered violence.
At the risk of offending people, I hope I can say that ours is a pretty terrifying country. So, if you want to scare Pakistanis, you have to tap into our fears.