Saturday, 5 July 2008

Zibahkhana / Hell's Ground

[This is a review I was writing for another site; though its of a Pakistani film rather than a European one, I thought it was worth posting here because many of the questions it raises are similar to those I often return to again and again in the Eurotrash entries.]

This is a film which poses the reviewer problems. On the one hand, its all too familiar horror morality play territory, as a group of teens go off the beaten track and are punished for their transgressions. On the other, it's from Pakistan, a country not particularly known for its cinema, least of all for its horror cinema.

We open with sights and sounds that could easily be from a Hollywood film: a full moon, a lonely road late at night, a car racing along, hard rock blaring from the speakers.

Yet, looking and listening closer we notice the little things: the Islamabad license plate on the car, the less recognisable language of the song's lyrics.

Something appears in front of the car, causing the driver to swerve and crash. Lightly injured, he gets out and tries to find his bearings. Something attacks and everything goes black...

It's another death on this ill-starred road, but nothing for anyone to be overly concerned about, not least our high school and college age protagonists, a mixed group of four boys and two girls with various types present and correct including the spoilt, privileged Roxy; good girl Ayesha, stoner and horror fan OJ and - least familiar and most interesting - the Christian Simon, a poor boy hoping for a scholarship.

Having scored tickets for a rock concert they've concocted a story about a school trip to get round the more conservative and protective parents like Ayesha's and, equipped with plentiful supplies of dope and music - techno and traditional, depending on personal taste - for the trip, pile into the van and set off on the road to hell.

After being delayed by environmental protestors for a while, the group stopping at a roadside tea shack for some refreshments. The proprietor warns them of the mortal danger should they continue on their current course, but in time-honoured fashion, ignore him until it's too late...

Taken as a horror film Zibahkhana / Hell's Ground is easy enough to judge. The question is simple: do it deliver the shocks, suspense and splatter one would expect? With the filmmakers quoting from the likes of the Evil Dead, Zombie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Pieces and the Italian giallo, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Moreover, they also crucially reach beyond these necessary but not sufficient elements, by also giving us credible dialogue and characterisation and performances that actually make us care something about the characters and their fates.

Taken as a cultural document - which, underneath, I would argue that most horror films are, with some of the richest subtexts to be found anywhere in cinema - Hells's Ground is a whole lot more difficult to get a handle on.

Even with - or maybe partly because of - a set of relatively westernised characters such as these, each of whom slips easily between English and Urdu and some of clearly spend more time out of the Pakistan than in it, the contours of the culture and society are just that bit less discernible to the typical Anglophone viewer.

It's difficult to know how far the filmmakers stance is conservative, progressive or a combination of both, and whether this is related - if at all - to the apparently controversial nature of the film within Pakistan, or whether the simple act of making a horror film was itself felt to be a challenge by the establishment.

We're certainly given a set of juxtapositions - traditional and modern, indigenous and foreign / hybridised, rural and urban, religious and secular, Muslim and non-Muslim, science / technology and magic / belief - that offer a route in, but what the non-Pakistani viewer really needs is more of a basic primer and set of comparison points with more familiar western slasher film models.

Thus, to give a list of examples, does telling ones parents that one is going on a study excursion rather than to a rock concert count as a mortal transgression? Does smoking dope? Does failing to go to mosque or to say one's prayers? Does being together unchaperoned with a member of the opposite sex? Does the notion of a masculinised / asexualised final girl apply, especially given that the film's most striking monster, a Leatherface type male figure dressed in a burqa, is clearly transgressing of conventional gender boundaries in the opposite direction the manner of his Hollywood counterpart.

In a sense, however, it's not the filmmakers fault that they cannot provide the answers we might seek: it has again to be borne in mind that this is an experimental movie, doing something no-one had attempted within Pakistani cinema before and that, as such, that it is more about raising questions than answering them.

Moreover, it could be argued that in an age of increasing globalisation, internationalisation and hybridisation of identity that the more important thing is to emphasise the process of working and thinking through these questions instead of pretending we know the answers.

One thing that is clear, however, is that the filmmakers have a genuine knowledge and appreciation for their chosen form, that they have not merely made a Pakistani gore movie to be sold on the basis of its exotic otherness nor gore and grue.

The proof comes from the quoting of the first ever Pakistani horror film, Zinda Laash AKA Dracula in Istanbul and an amusing cameo from its star as the tea shack prophet of doom, along with an extra-diegetic awareness of where Hell's Ground's western backers, Mondo Macabro, are coming from.

Though avowedly celebrating the weird and wonderful of world cinema and marketing their product in those admittedly exploitative terms, Mondo Macabro's genuine commitment to and knowledge of their cinema, their ability to contextualise it so that it makes anthopological and sociological sense, is clear to anyone who has ever watched one of their Eurotika, Mondo Macabro or DVD featurette documentaries.

If the difficulty here is that they and we don't have the hindsight to be able to historicise what Hell's Ground may mean, who's to say that in 20 years time it won't be celebrated as the Zinda Laash for a new generation or as the film which ushered in a new wave of Pakistani horror in its own right?

Recommended for the adventurous horror fan with a willingness to look beyond Hollywood or the current waves of J-, K- and Spanish horror.

1 comment: said...

I am a great FAN of Zombie genre. I dont think the movie has really something to watch....i have just seen the trailor ans heard the story. After that i wasnt interested in watching this movie