To start off this year of horror movies, Netflix released worldwide a horror anthology from India: with a 144-minute-long runtime, Ghost Stories includes 4 short movies ranging from 25 to 40-minute-long.
This movie serves as a sequel to the 2013 and 2018 films, respectively Bombay Talkies and Lust Stories. Both of them see the same four filmmakers as Ghost Stories, although the themes are very different in each anthology. The main thread in Ghost Stories consists of horror movies assessing different issues in contemporary Indian society, such as caste system and arranged marriages. It’s a very interesting hook to begin with, as you get to experience spooky stories while also being stimulated to think about Indian social and religious situation.
Continue reading and check my final grade below…
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My review is also available on IMDb – Ghost Stories (2020)
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Ghost Stories – the anthology as a whole
One of the most interesting aspects of this project is that every director gave quite a distinct look and feel to their own short movie, which makes the lengthy runtime feel way shorter than it actually is. Yet, being on Netflix, Ghost Stories can easily be watched as a 4-part mini-series by those of you who aren’t down for a huge commitment in terms of time to spend in front of the screen.
Regardless, the way each story is told feels very purposeful and you can clearly tell a lot of effort was put in all of them – three out of four, at least… more on this later. In fact, the most captivating aspect of this horror anthology is the fact that all of the short movies look visually stimulating and deep enough to make you think about them long after you’ve finished the film. In my opinion, the best way to review a horror anthology is by assessing the single movies within it, as I did for two very good examples from last year, such as The Field Guide to Evil and Nightmare Cinema. So, buckle up for four short reviews of the instalments that make up Ghost Stories!
Zoya Akhtar & Anurag Kashyap – on old age and motherhood
The first two instalments in Ghost Stories are the most interesting ones, to me. The one directed by Zoya Akhtar is, particularly, very well-made and effective. A young nurse arrives to take care of an ailing bed ridden elderly lady in a near desolate house. The former is needy, clutching at a reluctant lover; the latter, a stunner in her time. The old lady’s son is supposed to be taking care of his old mother for the duration between the change of nurses, but he is not around. However, the old lady tells the nurse that her son is sleeping in the next room, which causes a series of weird occurrences to happen. Beautifully shot and fluidly filmed, this segment benefits from creepy performances, unsettling setting and a solid script that loves to play with the timeline. Aside from a couple of exposition-heavy moments, this short movie really works and it’s a great way to open the anthology with a good, old-fashioned scare.
In the short directed by Anurag Kashyap, we follow a pregnant woman who babysits her late sister’s kid. The affection of a kid and the obsession of a childless young woman assumes terrifying proportions, as the nephew’s mood seems to affect the woman’s pregnancy and her own past memories turn into nightmares. With a heavily desaturated look that borders on monochrome, this instalment is the most gorgeously-looking as well as the scariest short of the bunch, filled as it is with surreal disturbing imagery and gory moments. However, the characters’ intentions aren’t well-developed nor the acting really sells what they’re going through. The overall meaning of this instalment gets kind of lost among the surreal and hellish imagery, but the impact of a spooky story is still there.
Dibakar Banerjee & Karan Johar – on caste system and arranged weddings
The third short movie follows a man who arrives in Smalltown only to find it empty, except for a young boy and girl. He’s told that everyone has been eaten by cannibal monsters from Bigtown: there’s no way to escape, apparently, since every movement can cause the creature to notice you and, thus, eat you alive. Quite bloody and gory, the message of the installment of Ghost Stories – which is about caste system – is much more obvious than in all the other shorts. However, some bad acting, poor makeup and laughable creature-design make it really hard to get any unironic enjoyment out of Banerjee’s effort. Yet, the pacing is very slow in the entire anthology but, whereas it feels atmospheric in the other segments, here it appears forced and make the whole experience quite unpleasant.
The last segment in this Indian horror anthology is very fast-paced and self-aware, with some comedic moments to lighten the mood, but it still manages to be quite dull by the end. It’s a story of an arranged marriage where the bride finds himself living in her husband house, where the whole family treats the dead grandma as though she was alive. Rather than scary or tense, the instalment directed by Karan Johar comes off as stupid and irritating: this is largely due to the overly glossy and shiny cinematography, that makes the short look like a Bollywood comedy rather than a creepy horror flick. The excessively fast pacing is, also, responsible for the lack of relatability with every character, only worsened by the overdramatic acting.
Conclusions – A 50/50 situation
While Ghost Stories, as a whole, doesn’t overstay its welcome and never reaches atrocious levels of incompetency, this anthology is really split in two: on one hand, we have two very good – albeit flawed – short movies that are unsettling and thought-provoking. On the other, the last two instalments feel extremely forgettable and fine only for a 2am watch on Netflix.
Unfortunately, Ghost Stories is structured in a very anticlimactic way, where the best happens at the beginning and the last two shorts feel rather thrown in. It would’ve worked more appropriately had the segments been organised in a different manner. Or better yet, it would’ve been better to have four good shorts! That’s why I would still recommend to watch Ghost Stories, or at least the first two instalments in this very mixed horror anthology.
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Get a copy of the movies below if you love horror anthologies: