This is a Pakistani version of Dracula
, based very heavily on Hammer's Dracula
(1958). If that sounds like a tricky thing to imagine, this trailer may help a little:
I watched it with ms_siobhan
a couple of weeks ago, and it took us a while to get the measure of it. Neither of us had ever seen a Pakistani horror movie before, so we had no knowledge of the genre's standard motifs and expectations. A lot of the pleasure of watching low-budget horror movies for us lies in laughing at the obvious wig glue, day-for-night filming, wooden / hammy acting, etc. But because we didn't know what was 'normal' for this kind of film, we also didn't know what was relatively successfully or unsuccessfully done in this particular example. And the fact that it was an adaptation of a British film we know extremely well exacerbated the problem. When the Pakistani film-makers interpreted aspects of that film in ways that to our eyes seemed inept, was it OK to laugh at that (in the way we would at a British cheap Hammer rip-off), or was that just incredibly racist?
After watching the film itself, we then also watched two documentaries on the DVD, one interviewing the makers of this particular film and one about Indian and Pakistani horror films in general, which between them gave us a better picture of the industry, the people involved in it, where they were starting from and what they were trying to achieve. In essence, much like Hammer in the first place, Pakistani film-makers basically churned out stuff they thought would be fun without taking it too seriously, especially during the 1980s. But this particular film seems to have been an early attempt to take on the western Gothic horror genre, so of course it was produced by people who were not hugely familiar with its tropes and motifs. In some places that meant lots of creativity and vitality, but in others it just missed the mark - at least for us. I'm sure Pakistani viewers feel the same when they see westerners trying to take on their stories.
The plot for this film is very close to Hammer's Dracula
, although an opening sequence sees the 'Dracula' character (here initially a human being called Professor Tabani) using classic movie 'sciencey-science' equipment (bunsen burners, conical flasks, long distillation tubes, etc.) to make an elixir of life. By implication, he expects to remain human but become immortal when he drinks it, but instead he dies and becomes an undead vampire! This of course picks up on the scientific feel of Hammer's own take on the vampire myth (at least in the first film), where Dracula cannot turn into a bat or wolf, and vampirism is presented as a contagion with symptoms similar to addiction. In fact, for all we know, Hammer's Dracula could originally have become a vampire in the same way - the issue is never explicitly addressed in their films. In Zinda Laash
, though, it does get them into a bit of trouble later on in the story. The professor is supposed to be the first ever to have produced the elixir of life, and yet it turns him into a known creature called a vampire with known weaknesses (particularly sunlight). So the plot and dialogue vacillate a little between whether the characters involved understand the nature of what they are dealing with or not.
There is also a bit of a muddle around what the Jonathan Harker character (Dr. Aqil) and Van Helsing character (here, his brother) know or are motivated by in the early stages of the story. When Dr. Aqil arrives at Professor Tabani's house, he claims that he has just turned up on spec for no particular reason, and indeed Pakistani hospitality culture probably means he doesn't need to use any subterfuge to get in there in the way that Harker does by pretending to be a librarian in the Hammer film. Aqil then proceeds to take notes on odd aspects of the Professor's behaviour, and apparently knows enough about vampires to dispatch the Professor's female companion, while his brother later confidently explains to his fiancée's family that Aqil was turned into a vampire while at the Professor's house. So far, so in line with the Hammer film - we are meant to understand that they are vampire-hunters, and know the Professor's true nature from the start. Except that towards the end of the film, when they return to the area to try to rescue the Mina-character, they seem to need the man who runs the local bar to explain to them how the Professor became a vampire and how to destroy him. It is actually this bar-keeper who comes closest of all to playing the traditional expository Van Helsing role within the story, leaving me puzzled as to what Aqil and his brother actually did know at the beginning.
Anyway, things basically settle down to the understanding that the Professor is a vampire in the broadly normal sense of that term. But many of the usual western motifs of vampirism are missing, not least of course because the cultural context is non-Christian. Crosses are never used or mentioned, and nor in fact are garlic and wooden stakes. Instead, the Professor and his minions can be killed by stabbing them with a knife, shooting them with a gun or exposing them to sunlight. (This last of course provides the exciting climax, much as in the Hammer film, except that the Van Helsing character knocks the shutter off a window accidentally, rather than pulling down curtains deliberately). Hammer's comic relief characters (the undertaker, the frontier guard) are also utterly gone, but in their place we get lots of song-and/or-dance sequences, along the lines most of us are familiar with from Bollywood films (except of course that this isn't a Bollywood film, as it is Pakistani not Indian). These were incongruous on one level, as sequences like that amongst what is otherwise ordinary acting and dialogue almost always feel quite shoe-horned in, but also amazing and awesome in their own way, and in their very incongruity - especially the first one, which was the Professor's vampirised assistant doing a drapery-flouncing dance in order to seduce and bite the unfortunate Dr. Aqil. Very different from Valerie Gaunt's exceptionally English pretence at helpless victimhood in Hammer's equivalent scene.
The assistant is the first of three women to be attacked or pursued by the Professor, and I felt we learnt quite a lot about 1960s Pakistani fears around female transgression from all of them. Certainly, Omar Khan
, himself a horror film director, explained in the documentary on the DVD that female victims in Pakistani horror films are always coded as transgressive - e.g. they have blonde hair or smoke cigarettes. In this film, the assistant's fate was pretty much sealed from the moment she entered the Professor's laboratory, found him absent, and immediately made a beeline for the drinks tray on the side to pour herself a glass. This didn't directly kill her, but it did come immediately before her discovering the Professor's prone body behind the sofa (and dropping the glass in shock), and then as soon as he had been buried and come back to life, she was the first one he went for. Later on, the Lucy character (Shabnam) dies not because she persuades the maid to get rid of the garlic keeping Dracula away (as per Hammer), but because she persuades the maid, who has been sitting watching over her in person, to leave the room altogether - i.e. she is left unchaperoned. And the Mina character (Shirin) gets into trouble because she goes off on her own and gets into a taxi, which of course turns out to be being driven by the Professor himself. So, yes, there are some pretty direct messages there.
The acting seemed strangely variable to my eye. Sometimes, it was very stagey and melodramatic, but sometimes characters showed no signs of the emotional responses I would have expected given the circumstances - e.g. people staking vampires like it was utterly routine and no biggy, or simply standing stock-still on their last mark while another character did or said something dramatic. I would need to watch it again to check whether this was a case of the same actors behaving differently in different scenes, or rather a matter of clashing acting styles. The soundtrack music was also very varied, ranging from traditional-sounding Pakistani music during the song-and-dance routines, to cheerful popular music in exterior travel scenes and lots of ripped-off cues from James Bernard's original Hammer Dracula soundtrack during the most Gothic scenes. Lovely though this was to hear, it sometimes missed the mark for me by using the music 'inappropriately' - e.g. using slow, creepy music for chase scenes, or dramatic action music for seduction scenes. But that's what is bound to happen when you are not deeply familiar with a musical genre and it all sounds generally western and Gothic to you. Again, I'm sure westerners would make the same sorts of mistakes with what they perceived simply as 'Bollywood music'.
The cinematography was generally pretty impressive, with some nicely-composed shots and effective chase sequences, as well as particularly good use of a crumbling old-fashioned building for the exterior shots of the Professor's house. The main action of the film is set in the 1960s (another departure from Hammer), but this building looked like it might be a left-over relic of the colonial era. I'm not well-enough versed in Pakistani architecture of any kind to be sure, but if so that added some excellent resonances to the motif of vampirism. The Professor himself was Pakistani, rather than white British, which would have ramped the symbolism up all the higher, giving us the vampire as an undead remnant of the former colonial power, still haunting the land a generation after the Raj itself had been expelled. But still, just situating him within that setting hinted at the issues without overdoing it, while affording us some nice shots of crumbling brick-work in the process.
Overall verdict - a fascinating watch, for which I'm grateful to DracSoc chair Julia Kruk for the recommendation, and which has made me curious to explore the world of Pakistani horror and fantasy a little further.Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.