Hell's Ground (2007)
Reviewed by Paul McCannibal
Starring Ashfaq Bhatti, Sultan Billa, Osman Khalid Butt
Directed by Omar Khan
Consider this. Vicky, Simon, OJ, Roxy, and Ayesha. Five teenage friends (including an Orlando Bloom look-alike with a William Lustig fetish and two very cute girls) buy a cheap psychedelic beater of a van and head out on a road trip to a concert. Loaded up with good music, better dope and slack attitudes, the gang slyly ducks their parents who see their youthful gallivanting as frivolous and wasteful, and off they go into the countryside to get wasted and rock out.
On the way, they take a wrong turn, a creepy elderly man at a roadside cantina offers a dire warning about their lifestyle choices and the area they’ve strayed into. Do they listen? Of course not. He gleefully tells them that they’re in "Dozakh Pur" and that they are surely doomed if they don’t turn back.
So it all sounds quite familiar. Up until the "Dozakh Pur" part. That right there is what sets this one largely apart from its genre peers – this is a horror/slasher set in Pakistan. Yes, Pakistan, a truly undiscovered country for the horror genre.
The good news is that this isn’t a standard Lollywood excursion into garish wardrobe excess and spontaneous dance numbers. Not that I would normally profess to know what "standard Lollywood fare" is, but prior to the screening, Mondo Macabro reps Andy Starke and Pete Tombs aired a "best of" reel featuring a visual vomitorium of insanely colourful and bizarre clips from Lollywood exploitation cinema – it was awesome and I truly hope this material becomes available to the public soon, because these excerpts en masse could become the ultimate party DVD. But from these brief impressions, I’d think it is safe to say that horror or fantastic cinema from Pakistan’s past would sit happily alongside "Turkish Star Wars" in its unbelievably over-the-top low budget outlandishness.
Hell’s Ground is not in that style at all. This is a genuinely weird and somber horror movie that transposes familiar narrative themes from the genre into a cultural aesthetic few in the West will have had any prior glimpse of. Yes, due to not having seen it before you might smirk at the idea of zombies and psycho killers clad in burquas and sufis. But presented in Omar Khan’s skilled directorial hands, it’s not what you might expect. The modern world and the old ways of Pakistan are equally represented here.
Things kick off in the bustling metropolis of Islamabad, but soon we’re into the dusty side roads, the swampy and dreary boonies of Pakistan. Contaminated water poisons small villages, creating walking abominations that prey on humans. This eco-horror aspect is a nice touch that echoes the zombie impetus of The Living Dead of Manchester Morgue, but according to the director, it a social comment of sorts that is sadly indicative of real environmental problems happening in Pakistan right now. It’s not an aspect presented with obvious moral finger wagging, it’s just part of the menace that is about to befall our heroes.
Once night falls and the van predictably breaks down, the woods are adrift with constant billows of smoke and strange noises. It feels similar to the unrelenting weirdness that made Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things such an underground hoot. On top of the roaming plague/toxin-ravaged zombies, you have a family of weirdoes who don’t take kindly to city folks bringing their cosmopolitan ways to the backwoods. So now your problems are twofold – it’s a bit like 28 Days Later meets TCM in the Middle East. The psychos are suitably deranged with impenetrable murderous motives. You might think the old bedsheet-with-eyeholes style of ghost costume a bad design flourish, but here it works really well. You wouldn’t want to see the simple but freakish central monster of Hell’s Ground charging at you in the woods in the middle of the night.
Unlike other recent forays into so-called "old school" horror territory, Hell’s Ground is not self-consciously comedic or reflexively apologetic. This is a film about fear and that’s exactly what it generates, albeit in the atmospheric, unearthly sense, not the jugular/chair jumper or barf-bag fashion. The hero kids, in spite of their youthful self-absorption and irresponsibility, are likeable, they’re not deplorable bimbos and bozos laid out for systematic slaughter. They have a collective sense of striving for something more in their youthful identity, a character touch that is realistic, empathetic, and borderless. You know something bad is coming their way, but unlike routine entries in the slasher genre, it’s not like you are bored and simply counting hairs while waiting the next random dismemberment to happen.
The low budget is apparent, but like many genre milestones the shoestring feel works in the film’s favour. Khan knows better than to spend all his money in one place – Hell’s Ground is very consistent throughout and moves along at a really good pace.
Omar Khan shows his affection for his country’s cinematic lineage by casting past Pakistani screen legend Rehan in a pivotal cameo. You’ll see clips from an old vampire film featuring Rehan as a sidenote in the narrative, and later you’ll see the him return in a small but key role. It’s a bit like an inversion of Boris Karloff’s dual role in Targets – the old horror star returns here as a menace, not a hero.
The score is a mix of Pakisani pop (retro, apparently) and some amazing drones and delay-effected loops. I thought the ambient music was stellar and would merit late night listens entirely on its own. Interestingly, turns out it was composed by Steven Thrower of Coil ... let’s hope we see a Hell’s Ground soundtrack release or at least a soundtrack CD in conjunction with the DVD (yes, that would be a hint on my part to the Mondo Macabro guys).
A sequel is apparently in the works, picking up immediately from the last seconds of Hell’s Ground. If it is to be on par with the quality of this one, then this is a hell I would gladly go to.
4 out of 5
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