‘Ghoul’ review: Effective world-building, rushed scares

Netflix and Blumhouse’s first foray into Hindi-language horror exerts effort to enrich its world but fails to maximize elements in creating scares

Tristan Zinampan

12:18:59pm August 24, 2018

12:18:59pm August 24, 2018

Photos from Netflix

Best viewed in a binge, the three-episode Ghoul satisfies in how it devotes time to establish the context its horror is built upon (an essential modern horror often overlooks).

The same world-building though works as a double-edged sword as this focus on fleshing out Ghoul's setting takes so much space in its limited 2-hour total runtime — space that could have been used for the actual delivery of horror.

This leads to a finale that feels rushed, lacking in build-up.

Dystopia done right

Set in the near future, the show envisions an India in which Muslim-Hindu tensions have gone past breaking point (easy to believe given the real world’s current political climate). This has led to the state-sanctioned persecution of Muslims.

Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte), both a Muslim and a student at the state military academy, is soon introduced. Shortly after, she turns in her father — an Islamic studies professor — to the authorities for “re-education.”

From the onset, we get a glimpse of the murky ideologies on the side of the “protagonists.” Nida, who is our audience avatar, is a zealot who had just sealed her loyalty to the fascist government. And because of this fealty, even ahead of her graduation, she is summoned to a military camp for her first assignment: interrogate an incoming prisoner, Ali Saeed (Mahesh Balraj), the leader of a Muslim “terrorist” organization.

Ghoul is effective as this set-up — an Orwellian dystopia — is horrific, albeit not just in the way we’d expect. It is more disturbing than outright scary, a question on our faith in humanity, an episode of Black Mirror rather than Hereditary.

Its political layers are further aggravated by the revelation that the base Nida is assigned to isn’t just a detention center, but a concentration camp for Muslims deemed anti-nationalist.

Through this, Ghoul becomes a parable. Painting “good guys” in an unflattering light creates tension as it is a play on audience’s perception. It makes the appearance of the titular ghoul not just there to menace but for the sake of retribution. Viewers are made to anticipate how characters will be served their comeuppance.

Stumbling scares

Unfortunately, about two-thirds into the show, it becomes apparent that all these rich pieces established don’t go beyond landscape-setting.

Horror is a physiological genre that utilizes our body’s frailties, one of them being unease with the unknown. Ghoul is already at an advantage for having these: a foreign land, a strange time, and an unknown creature.

However — though admirable for not relying on jump scares and cheap, tasteless scare tactics — Ghoul just doesn’t see the strength of its available parts.

For one, it doesn’t build its mythology enough. Compared to werewolves, vampires, and zombies; ghouls, along with jinns and rakshasas, are relatively unknown. Limited expectations mean a greater room for the audience’s fears and imagination to take over.

But aside from a few scenes where we see the creature's ability to bring out people’s most guilt-ridden memories, even with an admirable performance from Mahesh Balra, its otherworldly presence never peaks. The ghoul is just not given much to do.

It’s a pity too that Ghoul isn't able to maximize how its mythology compounds with the inherently dreadful and claustrophobic atmosphere of its prison setting. Being in an off-the-books facility, locked in with your biggest shame, is a fertile area for exploration. Especially when the dynamics of torturer-prisoner are overturned.

But it seems that this was never the intent. From setting the landscape, Ghoul moves to its climax too quickly. The gap in between — for build-up, for the scares — is either too short or non-existent. 

Soon the cerebral is completely replaced for the conventional. And if this balls-to-the-walls, “video game-y” treatment of the finale was intended to be cathartic, it feels mostly unearned.

Fun but misaligned

Ghoul is a classic case of the “what could have been” greater than what it is.

It is a fun watch by merit of its imaginative set-up, but the profundity of its first parts feel misaligned with the endgame it goes for. — Rappler.com

Ghoul is now streaming on Netflix.