Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Ramsay Horror Picture Show

As it's Halloween, let’s set our sights further east to India, where, for a time, horror films were all the rage.
Interestingly, two very successful Hollywood sibling scriptwriters who specialise in genre movies, and will remain nameless, were looking to make their directorial debut on a horror movie set in India. Their pitch was snapped up by a big production company who immediately dispatched them to India to engage in research and location scouting. They were told to get inspired by the culture and ancient heritage of the subcontinent, but to do it in a way that will positively creep them out. They saw things that they claimed terrified them beyond belief and visited areas they wished they hadn’t. They also caught a movie that had been made in the 1980s which intrigued and perplexed them in equal amounts. The film was an Indian horror movie that featured monsters, but was skewed by the inclusion of song and dance numbers as well as broad comedic subplots that had nothing to do with the main plot. The film was, according to them, a mess and had no redeeming value, say, unlike their own brand of mediocre PG-13 American commercial horror. When they found out that the movie they saw was one of the biggest hits of Indian cinema, they began to wonder if making a horror movie set in India was really the right thing to do.

The movie they saw was Purana Mandir (The Old Temple), a horror film that captured the Indian market like nothing else. Released in 1984, Purana Mandir did something films of that nature weren’t supposed to: it became a blockbuster. Made for about Rs 2.5 lakhs (however much that is), Purana Mandir grossed about Rs 2.5 crores (however much that is, though I suspect it’s significant) and became the second most profitable Indian movie released that year. It told the story of a family that for generations has been hexed by a creature called Saamri. Aeons ago, Saamri killed the daughter of an Indian feudal lord who accidently stumbled into his graveyard lair. The feudal lord’s henchmen capture Saamri and decapitate him, but Saamri promises to have his revenge from beyond the grave, declaring that every female descendant of the feudal lord born after his physical death will die in child birth.  He also states that if ever the day comes when his head and body are reunited then he will come back to life and finish the family bloodline, forever. The curse runs and runs that is until a younger generation decides to take it upon themselves to travel to the ancient site of Saamri’s beheading. It’s at this point the film kicks into gear and the youngsters are, ahem, way in over their heads.
Purana Mandir was put together by a filmmaking family known as the Ramsay Bros., a team of five brothers who struck gold making low-budget horror movies that were shot on location, often set in eerie rural mansions inhabited by ghouls and demons. While the films were anchored in ancient Indian folklore and mysticism, they were indisputably inspired by American horror movies like Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street, where gore and grisly deaths were paraded in style. The Ramsay Bros. films were also identifiable via post-colonial inspiration taken from the British Hammer House of Horror tradition, where reused sets and lighting arrangements, initially designed to cut costs, became a signature brand aesthetic, ensuring their films were, by accident or by design, uniquely identifiable.
Like horror films in any culture, the Ramsay Bros. brand of terror pushed the boundaries of acceptability by including scenes of sex and promiscuity that, though tame by Western standards, sat uneasily with conservative Indian culture. The Ramsay Bros. movies were always rated for adult viewing only, but never engaged in overt nudity or sex scenes. There was a certain innocence to them, modern for the time but very Indian at heart. For example, a scene where the lead actress is taking a shower in Purana Mandir has her character, weirdly enough, wearing a bathing suit as she does so.
Purana Mandir was the crown jewel in the Ramsay Bros. canon. Though much of its long running time is surplus to requirement, the horror, when it arrives, is unsettling and genuinely scary. You care about the characters and the core story is captivating. Perhaps the most successful aspect of Purana Mandir is the creature Saamri, a genuinely startling horror presence played by a six feet seven inch tall civil engineer turned character actor called Ajay Agarwal. Agarwal embodies Saamri, exceeding the screen and creating one of the most visceral horror icons in the process. Agarwal’s performance, in conjunction with an incredible score and terrific sense of atmosphere, ensures that Purana Mandir remains one of the most important horror films in Indian cinema.

The Ramsay Bros. essentially made the same movie over and over again until audiences couldn’t hack it any more. Proving that lightening in a bottle is a onetime thing; the brothers couldn’t replicate the success of Purana Mandir no matter how hard they tried. Yet the incredible thing is their movies were so influential that the Indian censor board insisted on issuing a disclaimer preceding every film to rubbish any superstition they might encourage, fearful that audiences wouldn’t be able to accept them as simple make believe. That’s how effective they were.
The famous Hollywood screenwriting duo that dismissed Purana Mandir may have actually missed a trick. Sure, it’s far from perfect and has more rough edges than you can shake a stick at, but its premise is a potent one. In fact, the film can't be that much of a write off when you consider it was screened a few years back at London's highly prestigious Institute of Contemporary Arts as part of a season on Bollywood Horror.

In an era where horror remakes and adaptations of foreign films are rampant, perhaps Purana Mandir may have been an ideal project to bring to a new auidience. Great story, relatable characters and solid scares, Purana Mandir is screaming out for an expensive studio treatment that will tap into the massively lucrative Indian market as well as the horror hungry American crowd. Just remember who gave you the idea.


  1. Very interesting! Isn't it strange how one-hit wonders work? Some are so huge and just can't be replicated.

  2. I want to see Purana Mandir. I looked on YouTube and the only full movie has no subtitles. I'm intrigued.

  3. Just incase you don't follow the replies I sometimes leave you on my blog:

    "I completely understand where you are from. And, to an extent, I agree. Obama is a leader who to me is a landmark in history. He deserves to be remembered for leading and returning the US to it's world leading position, and for getting us out of a terrible recession. 4 or 8 years is not enough time. The US with it's hands in so many pots cannot simply rise out of the ashes over night. My biggest fear is that the president who is elected in 2016 will recieve the credit for what Obama did for this country.

    And damn can this guy deliver a speech!"

    I'll be back to reply on this awesome post of yours!

  4. The stuff I learn from your blog. Seriously. I'm not even JOKING, let's get this book started! This was really cool. I had no idea about the horror movies made in India and this one sounds awesome. I wonder where I could get my hands on a copy. I doubt it's something I could just up and find at my local library. Hmmm...

    Oh, and what is your e-mail, if you don't mind my asking?

  5. I understand about the e-mail.

    I basically just wanted to privately tell you that I really appreciated your comment the other day on Amber's blog. It was so eloquently stated and honest. You know more (and understand more) about politics in the USA than basically 80 percent of the people living here. I'm totally serious. It's frustrating living in a country where the most hardcore Americans (i.e. white people living in the middle of the country) are completely ignorant about what is going on and also have no idea WHY they are so passionate about what they uphold. So I really respect what you had to say. I won't ramble on anymore (which is probably what I would have done in e-mail, haha) but just wanted you to know!

  6. Now I wish we really did live near each other. Because you're right, we do seem to have a lot in common, with the "in common" stuff being things most people simply cannot understand. Even though I am a product of this society and culture, I do feel tremendously out of place sometimes because there's a culture and society of my past that I see in my father, which I don't relate to. Does that make sense? And yeah, I'm 28 and my dad came here to study in the sixties as well.

    (This could be one of those chilling Twilight episodes where we realize we're mirror versions of each other)?? :)

    Anyway, I'm going to give you my e-mail address because it's already on the internet for everyone to see. If you don't want to e-mail me, I totally understand and will not be offended at all. But it's here if you want it, in case you ever need it:


    (I have this supersticious belief that if you don't put the symbols, spambots can't trace it, haha).

  7. I agree with Jen. The things I learn! I'm sorry it took me so long to finally comment on this post. The plot of this movie totally intrigues me. I want to know how this ended - who was the younger generation? We they part of the cursed family? And...if they were, why did they want to try and contact this dead guy? I mean, they were doomed either way, right?

    I ask too many questions in horror movies.

    But while I won't be able to see this movie (violence. no can do), I told my boyfriend and he seems intrigued.

    I meant to tell you: you and your blog came up in conversation again. I was in the theater waiting to watch Skyfall. The trailer for Django Unchained previewed. Even before the title was mentioned, or Jaime Foxx said his character's name, I knew what it was. My boyfriend knew what I was thinking since he too had read your Slavesploitation post as well. I learned over to him and said "The thing that pisses me off the most is I bet none of these people in this theater even know the history of this movie or it's genre."
    Well, thanks to you, at least 2 people did.