There is little scary about an elevator that refuses to work, milk that curdles, a room whose wall is too thick to hang paintings, or a cellphone camera that fails to not take swirly pictures (think Ringu); yet this is the opening act of 13B, a Hindi language (note, the movie was apparently simultaneously made with many of the same people as a Tamil language version with the Tamil being the apparent original (?): Yavarum Nalam. Source: Wiki) 2009 horror movie set in an modern apartment gone awry. Using what might be called the "Amityville Method", our first inclination that anything is wrong with the new family home is merely a series of minor everyday mishaps. While the cellphone's tendency to take weird pictures is more abrupt that curdled milk, the biggest "horror" of these first few scenes is a blind man whose dog seems a little jumpy. When a rather moody and excellent camera shot cuts to an ordinary elevator door opening as a creepy moment, you struggle with the sensation that you are being had by a movie that is going to use angles and mood music to make you scared of furniture and recipe disasters. As the movie progresses, though, the "everyday mishaps" get replaced by things that just do not make sense and you can actually build up some mood without feeling like a tool. The primary and most expressive horror element is a TV show (plays at 1pm (aka 13:00) on channel 13 in apartment 13B (note that "B" is what you get when push the 1 and 3 together in 13)...which begins to feel like a bit overkill in the triskaidekaphobic department). Translated as "All's Well", the show seems to be about a nearly identical family who move into a new home while going through ups and downs.
Except the ups and downs are coming true, at least versions of them. And to paraphrase a song from Disney's Robin Hood, "sometimes downs outnumber the ups...yep...and sometimes the downs are kind of horrifying and involve bodily harm and terrifying notions... in Nottingham...""
As the minor mishaps fade, and the main character (R. Madhavan's Manohar) becomes increasingly caught up in the search for the truth, the movie becomes more interesting. There are a few false starts, and a few moments that feel like false tension, but there is definitely a thrill going on. Some of the little 13-isms crop up again, but most are left behind after their initial slew, and the plot is murky enough that everything is not readily obvious to begin with. The cinematography that was used to convince us that an elevator opening its doors is a scary event gets put to better use zooming in on characters' faces and showing quiet, moody shots as the soundtrack works just right in the background. A shot of some sweet family moment will suddenly shift into one of horror as the camera becomes shakier, the focus closer up and less colorful, and the music more obvious. For those curious, there are two song-n-dance numbers in the film, but both occur relatively back to back and are ruminations on how good family is. You know, just so they can show how bad having a family tortured by a crazy apartment really is. The songs are kind of overlookable, so you can skip ahead if you would rather.
And while Indian cinema is well mocked for it's borrowing and lifting concepts from other films (sometimes whole films like Zinda's lift of Old Boy); 13B has actual homages to other films while managing to keep it's own identity. Several of the big Asian horror movies are referenced with a little wink and a nod. While the swirly picture is a bit obvious as a Ringu reference the briefly focused upon stain on the ceiling that references Dark Water is a little more carefully played. You also get a scene reminiscent of the infinitely looping staircase in Shutter, a peppy song used to creepy effect as in One Missed Call, and a few cellphone jabs that could either be more OMC or maybe Pulse. There is even a blood on the floor scene that seems to shout out to Hellraiser. Despite this slight Occidental drift there, the overall technophobe plot and reliance on mood shots over gore suggests Vikram Kumar is a fan of the recent splash of Far East horror. Not all of the actors seem quite able to hold the mood needed to carry this "Asian technophobe" plot (considering Mumbai's push towards new tech centers, the region seems ripe for such a plot), but Madhavan and Muril Sharma (who played Shiva in the Hindi, no clue about the Tamil equivalent), the primary screen time holders, properly vacillate between confusion, fear, aggravation, and back to confusion.
The ending, by which I mean the last half hour or so, whips out a few "gotchas!" and a couple too-trodden tropes, but mostly manages to stage an appropriate degree of tension. Enjoyable, for me, was the climatic "lit by candlelight" scenes infused with gothic lighting; as though Asian cinema was put to the side and 1960's Hammer Films stepped up to take their place. For a movie about the technological evils around us, staging the payoff during a power outage works well. What is closer to horror's roots than candlelight and murders occuring at night? It is not technology we should fear, basically, but mankind's own inhumanity to man. Except, you know, said in a way conducive to popcorn eating and having a good time. If only Kumar had avoided two "gotchas!" in particular (the last couple of seconds is one I hated, but also the gotcha near the infinite staircase scene I was talking about) it would have been a close to perfect ending, if a bit "coincidental". With the "gotchas!" in place, it deserves a couple of groans, but overall went down fine. I give it a rank of Good, and recommend everyone sit through the credits when a song called "Oh Sexy Mama" kicks in and you are left marvelling the restraint that kept it out for that long. Some other Bollywood movies I have seen would have felt fine throwing it into the middle. Heh, at least they waited (and it kind of fits the credits, strangely... at least it is catchy).
Si Vales, Valeo
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Written by Doug Bolden
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