Despite its marketing material, Netflix’s new miniseries “Ghoul” is not horror. It is, however, everything else.
Where do I start with “Ghoul”? Do I start with its breath of sensory nuance into Indian filmmaking? Do I start with its contemporary political relevance? Or with its audacity to market itself as horror when in fact it is utterly and wholly not horror?
Let’s talk about what it proves for the future of film.
The future of film is serial.
I first realized this when I watched the serialized version of the Indian film “Gangs of Wasseypur” two years ago.
“This works so much better than a one-off,” I thought. “If you’re going to build a slow-burner, this is the format you build it in”.
This isn’t new. It’s something our peers already know. But the moviemaking industry is still littered with older folks. And these older folks? They don’t know.
My ex-favorite director Christopher Nolan jadedly rejected Netflix because of its apparent obstinacy about releasing productions theatrically.
To reject Netflix’s new model because it seems to “assign futuristic value to something that’s always been about lowest common denominator stuff”? That’s luddite.
If you accuse Netflix’s theatrical rejection of being irrational, you can’t possibly rationalize your conception of serial as “lowest common denominator”.
Creator Patrick Graham conceived “Ghoul” as a film. Netflix came on board later. Thank goodness they did. Serialization allows “Ghoul” to develop its characters, its mood, and its mythos. Make no mistake, this is a film. Just as “Daredevil” was a film, and “The Punisher” was a film. It’s all film, but film done better.
Serialized films give enough bulk to plot to make it more believable, and enough color to mood to make it more immersive. Quite the opposite of lowest common denominator.
The only drawback of serialization is overindulgence, resulting in filler episodes and uncomfortable pacing.
“Ghoul” restrained such overindulgence by limiting itself to three episodes. I imagine it did so because Netflix didn’t want to spend too much. But the result was beneficial regardless.
Some might think I’m smitten by its Indian setting. But those close to me know that I’m more critical of Indian films than I am of others.
“Ghoul” portrays a confused India with slate-scraping symbolic honesty. It delivers tension like a man on a wire. It develops character arcs like James Wan should but doesn’t. And it conveys a night-crawling aesthetic derivative of David Fincher-esque rigs, Nolan-esque movements, and Netflix-esque color grading.
Graham, nice work.
The show doesn’t escape the Netflix flashing-alarm scene archetype either. Not a bad thing. Just shows that the film knows its market.
Call Graham’s success in filming Indian-ness an invasive instance of neo-colonialism. If so, it’s a neo-colonialism I’ll gladly take. This white man understands India better than most Indian filmmakers.
Indians who aren’t keen on letting outsiders help improve their cinema — maybe you’ll be keener if you heard it from the King himself. Back in 2013, Shah Rukh Khan spoke on the topic of using global resources to improve Indian cinema: “It’ll be stupid of us not the use that resource. […] We’ll have to use the resources of technology and scriptwriting and marketing from the West. It’ll be wrong of us to assume that we’ll be able to do it just on our own”.
True, we’d be wise in the long-run to consider the ship-of-Theseus nature of the situation. (How much Indian-ness are we sacrificing by getting foreign help?) But the short-run future of Indian cinema is much easier to decide. Khan is right. Take the help.
We did. And we got this fine piece of work.
I just wish the sound editing was better. Listening to Radhika Apte gasp with her mouth closed is unsettling — and not in the way horror films are supposed to be.
Part of me wishes that the man directing understood horror. The fact that he doesn’t isn’t a bad thing. It just means the film isn’t what it’s marketed to be. Fear is traded off for suspense — which works admirably for the film’s story. But if you thirst for horror going in, a part of you might remain unquenched.
The faux-horror makes the film a sort of counterpart to Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist.”
“Antichrist” is a horror film that disguises itself as a thriller. “Ghoul” is a thriller disguised as a horror.
Part of me wishes that this film got the horror part right. But perhaps that wasn’t the point. And regardless, what we get is much better. “Ghoul” isn’t horror. It is, however, prophecy.