It will haunt you.
Ghoul, the second Netflix/Phantom Films collaboration after Sacred Games, brings aboard the folks at Blumhouse (Get Out, Insidious) for something spectacular. A horror story set several years in India’s future, the three-part miniseries presents a world in which outlawed books are burned, a la Ray Bradbury, and ordinary Muslim citizens are unjustly branded terrorists, a la… well, America, India, Myanmar, take your pick.
“Enhanced interrogation” officer Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte), a cog in this fascist regime, turns her own father over to the government for compliance training. His crime? Teaching his students philosophy from outside the state’s syllabus, an action deemed anti-national. This display of loyalty lands Nida an unexpected promotion to an anti-terrorist black site, an underground prison where terrorist mastermind Ali Saeed (Mahesh Balraj) is being shipped for torture. Unbeknownst to the folks in charge however, Saeed doesn’t show up alone. As he steps out of his transport van in the pouring rain, the barking guard dogs go eerily silent. Something ghastly is in the ether, and we may just end up siding with it.
As Saeed’s interrogation is set to begin, we zoom uncomfortably in on the faces of his interrogating officers. Strange whispers conjure visions of their very worst deeds; waking nightmares, unraveling a tale of dystopian politics in the guise of supernatural horror. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does. The series follows, often to a T, tropes straight from the slasher, possession and even haunted house handbooks, though it does so without wavering from its goal of cognitive whiplash. This is a tale in which a ghūl, summoned by blood sacrifice, wreaks righteous havoc, and none of its victims are innocent.
The magnetic Radhika Apte, who felt short-changed in Sacred Games, is rightly the anchor this time around, playing a detestable protagonist whose “final girl” status may well be deserved. A loyalist draped in the state’s signature black — the uniforms, while futuristic, feel distinctly familiar — Apte’s Nida is caught between her love for the family who raised her, and her love for the state that molded her into a stone-cold enforcer.
Before the series ever sets foot in gory territory, it rips its protagonist in half. For Nida, herself a Muslim at risk of “vaapsi” (“return,” a sugar-coated deportation), loyalty is survival. The series drops at an interesting time for Indian viewers; the courtroom drama Mulk, currently in cinemas, speaks of a similarly true-to-life dynamic wherein Muslim citizens are constantly forced to prove their national allegiance. But where Mulk opts for proving this point through kindness and resilience, Ghoul treats the debate as a foregone conclusion, skipping instead to ruthless vengeance inflicted on those for whom nationalism precedes their humanity.
Ghoul’s prologue, the capturing of Ali Saeed, articulates the series’ modus operandi. As a SWAT team raids the terrorist’s hideout, the dim hallways build anticipation on two fronts. On one hand, the possibility of a terrorist stepping out from any door, guns and bombs a-blazing; on the other, the creeping atmosphere perfect for a demonic jump scare; two disparate fears, built-up simultaneously. In Ghoul, supernatural horror and political terror are treated as one and the same. The real terror, however, is inflicted not by religious zealots, but by arms of the state, whose enforcers use chainsaws and blow-torches to extract information, be it from student protesters, known criminals, or even Muslims vaguely suspected of being “anti-national.” It’s a horror show through and through, but its horror stems from the mechanics of a fascist regime — a government primed for genocide.
The government black site, which houses the majority of the film’s runtime, is designed like a serial killer’s hideout; it wouldn’t feel out of place in an Indian re-telling of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The blacked-out windows of its upper levels deny one the luxury of a clock (this mostly extends to the officers; is the state torturing them too?) while the dimly lit corridors of its basement prison, rife with blood-smeared walls and chains hanging from every ceiling, give it the appearance of a Saw film. The ghūl may require a soul in order to be summoned, but Nida already appears to have sold her soul to something demonic by being part of this outfit.
The ghūl itself, when it eventually shows up, is impressive. It’s by no means something out of the ordinary (it looks like any other demonic presence from the last decade of horror) but it’s rarely framed out of view. What few jump-scares Ghoul has are less “momentary startlement” and more “slow builds to the inevitable,” with the camera pointed squarely at darkness, waiting for horrors to be revealed.
What’s most effective about this ghūl, however, is how it fits the story, making Saeed’s interrogators re-live their worst actions before ever needing to spill blood. Guilt lies at the epicenter of Ghoul, its presence (or lack thereof) driving everyone in the prison’s confines. Nida, whose father may have passed through these very walls, is forced to reckon with her betrayal. Nida’s superior Sunil Dacunha (Manav Kaul), an abusive husband whose rise to the top required shedding his decency, is confronted with inevitable fallout. Even fellow officer Laxmi (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee), driven by sociopathic ambition and sheer lack of remorse, is made to deal with the reality of living in a world where those around her can empathize — unless they’re eaten alive, that is.
On top of being coherent in ways that magnify its politics (though often opting to explain its themes when silence would suffice), Ghoul is, quite simply, fun. It’s the kind of horror where security cameras and sound visualizers build to scares, rather than delivering them at a distance. The horror feels personal, sitting atop questions of who summoned this demon and why, but more importantly, who deserves its wrath and who deserves the opportunity to change, in a world where survival itself depends on losing one’s humanity? The answers are far from pleasant. This is a story with no good guys, one in which “hero” status is achieved by committing unspeakable acts of violence in the name of a flag. In effect, the violence committed against our protagonists almost ends up feeling heroic in the process.
A feature split into three episodes at just the right moments, Ghoul is stellar at building anticipation. Writer-director Patrick Graham twists the screws of this dystopian genre tale when it feels most opportune — or least opportune, if you scare easily — but the show’s trump card is its relentlessly bleak atmosphere. Cinematographer Jay Oza (Raman Raghav 2.0) creates pools of darkness that mirror the dark corners in its characters’ souls, forcing them through a whirlwind of underground mayhem as they attempt to claw their way up to the light.