By Drew Lascot
Every Halloween season brings its share of network TV marathons/specials, theatrical horror releases, and, more recently, new Netflix shows. The Stranger Things hype train chug-a-lugged through last year’s season, and this year The Haunting of Hill House seems to have gotten the most attention. But among the winners are many others that go less noticed. This brings us to Ghoul, the second-ever Netflix original out of India.
It’s not so surprising it didn’t pick up speed the way of its contemporaries.The show itself is a confused hybrid of hackneyed horror that never explores any of its many tropes enough to make something truly focused or very fresh. However, this erratic, short attention span the writing has is ultimately its savior, as it results in something certainly entertaining, if not entirely well written. There are evil spirits, occult worship, and shape-shifting super freaks, all under the roof of a dystopian, Orwellian government. These aren’t elements that mesh well together in a cohesive way, but in (perhaps unintentionally) wacky, off-the-wall, less-than-subtle ways.
To me, title cards spelling out the current time and location are almost always a lame and lazy way of doing exposition. Ghoul’s first episode has four in about five minutes, then never uses them again. I feel like this summarizes its confused writing style decently, coupled with the fact we cut from the future to the past for no real good reason in the first few minutes, too. Despite the very beginning being all over the place, things slow down considerably for the rest of the first episode, establishing characters and settings.
Nida, our lead, rides in a van with her ranting father, only ever called Babloo, Dad in Hindi, or at least when watching with the original Hindi and English subtitles. An English dub is available, though I can can’t speak to its quality. Babloo is carrying on about the government, speaking out against how they’ve stolen his books and lecture notes to burn them. Immediately, there’s vibes of Fahrenheit 451 or 1984, especially as Nida starts insisting that the government must know what’s best for them. She speaks of terrorists who seem to be guilty of no more than free thinking and describes how her father might end up locked up for his thinking to be reformulated like the others if he’s not careful.
Dystopian futures tend to be the attention of the narrative they find themselves grounding, with lots of history and lore given to the intricacies of their oppressive regimes, but that’s not so much the focus here, instead serving more to make for interesting character relationships, and locations later on. Though Ghoul offers the expected social commentary of such a setting, and it’s interesting to see the representation of religious tensions in India, as opposed to our own U.S.A.
Before long, we learn Nida’s actually a government trainee and is off to her first assignment at a maximum security facility for terrorists. This facility is where we spend the bulk of the series, and it’s serviceably spooky: dilapidated concrete walls, rusted squeaky doors, randomly hanging chains, a torture chamber, all the makings for some fun, albeit cliche, spooks. Nida’s commanding officers are introduced soon upon her arrival, the main supporting cast of our boot-licking hero. Suit is the less interesting of the two personality-wise, much akin to a breakfast of toast and water, and unfortunately, finds more screen time than his second-hand, Beret. Beret’s not much better, but at least she’s wary of Nida from the beginning, making for a more interesting, but again tried character dynamic.
Ali Saeed is Nida’s first case. Described as a leader among terrorists, his motives and goals are kept ambiguous, though we can assume he’s probably not as villainous as described or even as much as the ones describing him. His greeting committee consists of barking dogs, armed guards, and a raging thunderstorm, all suitably keeping Saeed’s intentions and good guy/bad guy status ambiguous.
It’s hard to talk about the content of the other two episodes without spoiling Saeed’s true intentions and Nida’s character evolution, but these are when things start bouncing off the wall. Needless to say, her interrogation with Saeed doesn’t quite go according to protocol, and soon, she and the rest of the prison find themselves fighting for survival. I don’t want to give away too much here, but the show’s at its horror peak by now, with things having evolved from broad societal/governmental terror, to a claustrophobic game of cat and mice. It’s nothing genre-pushing, but this is also the show at its most fun. Clerics tell relevant tales of ancient horrors, pitch black rooms are illuminated with open flame, tight spaces are crawled through, and mistrust runs amuck.
Along the way, Nida learns more about the dogma she works to enforce, learns of her father’s fate, she even gets an evil twin! As I’ve said before, maybe it’s a bit of a mess, but it’s a mess that revels in itself. Things end in a tropey, circular way that all corny writers revel in, so while predictable, I found myself laughing by the final shot. Now this doesn’t seem to be intentional, so it’s hard for recommend Ghoul very seriously as a legitimately good show. Really its disorganized style can be distracting, and you won’t get anything you haven’t seen before. But I guarantee you haven’t tried this particular cocktail of horror elements. For intentional reasons or not, Ghoul stay at the least entertaining, and at three 45 minute episodes, it’s much less commitment than most shows.
If you need a quick freaky fix, and want to try something kinda kooky, Ghoul might just scratch that itch! Just don’t go in expecting any of its ideas to really surprise you.