Now available on DVD
Directed by Omar Khan
Many countries have established themselves in the modern horror genre, not the least among them being England, France, and Japan. In an area of the world where modesty is tradition and the cinema is dominated by Bollywood musicals, Pakistan seems like an unlikely contributor to the genre. But with the zombie/slasher flick Hell’s Ground, the South Asian nation now joins the ranks. Director Omar Ali Khan’s first film is a love letter to American horror, most notably The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It follows predictable horror clichÃ©s but still delivers fun, ’70s-style splatter with a hint of socio-political commentary.
Five urbanite teenagers lie to their parents about an overnight school trip and instead drive an old van through rural Pakistan to see a rock concert. En route, they stop at a chai stand where an old man warns them to turn back or they will soon face “Hell’s Ground.” Ignoring his words, they proceed to get high and take a shortcut through the spooky forest. Inevitably, they run out of gas and encounter trouble in the form of plague-ridden zombies, a crazy medicine man, and one messed up family. Leading the pack of crazies is a flail-wielding psychopath in a blood-spattered burqa (the ghostly garment worn by traditional Islamic women).
The five leads represent your typical cross-section of horror characters â€“ the bitch, the ladies man, the nice girl, the shy guy, and the pothead. All the actors are relative unknowns, even in Pakistan, but they are likable and believable as rebellious Westernized youths growing up in an old, tradition-bound country. The characters speak English and Urdu interchangeably because both are widely spoken in Pakistan. This bilingualism is also fitting because Hell’s Ground is steeped in Pakistani culture but pays homage to American horror.
Director Omar Ali Khan, who owns a chain of ice cream parlors in Pakistan, is a self-proclaimed fan of American horror and it definitely shows in his debut film. He basically puts slasher film characters into a Texas Chainsaw scenario with a few zombies thrown in for good measure. In one scene, the infamous Maniac poster can be seen on a character’s wall. Furthermore, much of Khan’s camerawork is reminiscent of Raimi’s dizzying Sam-O-Cam from the Evil Dead films. And like any good American slasher film, the teenaged characters are punished for their indiscretions. Kids, take note: Never lie to your parents, smoke pot, and then take a shortcut through the woods on an empty tank of gasoline.
Many shots inside the van resemble those in TCM, especially when the Pakistani kids pick up a crazy ranting local. The burqa-clad villain also has elements of Leatherface, mostly because of his covered face and family of nut-jobs. My sole complaint with the villain is the choice a weapon: A medieval flail (spiked ball on a chain). Honestly, where would a poor Pakistani villager get this? The writers should have chosen an item that is part of everyday life there and twisted it into something frightening. Texas Chainsaw successfully turned a once-mundane piece of hardware into weapon that still terrifies me to this day when I hear one grinding away.
Khan also includes a few flesh-eating lepers (or zombies, if you prefer), but they are poorly used. They are seldom seen and do not really fit in with the slasher-style narrative. They are used partly for the sake of having zombies â€“ what horror geek could resist? – but Khan also uses them for socio-political criticism. These zombies are the result of a plague in the town’s polluted water. With scenes of protesting locals and poor villages forced to drink the disgusting water, it is clear Khan is taking jabs at the Pakistan government. I like the message, I only wish the director had better incorporated these plague-infested people into the rest of the story (i.e., burqa-man and his family). They are actually pretty creepy, especially an undead dwarf, but sadly only make one appearance in the film.
The grainy film quality and the music give the impression of an old grindhouse flick. This is one very effective aspect of Khan’s visual style. He utilizes some experimental effects that feel more forced particularly frequent use of a fisheye lens and illustrated comic book panels. Granted, the panel transitions look very cool, they just do not belong in this movie. On a more positive note, the gore is pretty good. There are no elaborate death scenes, just basic blood and guts, but the FX work is realistic and effective.
Omar Ali Khan has succeeded in his bold endeavor to incorporate old-school American horror into the Muslim culture. While it offers very little we have not seen before, and Khan goes a bit overboard with his fandom, Hell’s Ground is still a gory fun time for horror fans. It is also breaking ground in Pakistan’s dying film industry. When I told a friend about this movie, their first question was, “Any Bollywood dancing?â€ Thankfully, there is none, but Pakistani cinema is infested with cheap Indian knock-offs. I hope this film’s release inspires Khan to neglect his ice cream day job in favor of revitalizing Pakistani horror.