Welcome to Cutting It Close, a monthly column that tackles one of the most popular subgenres in horror: slashers. Alas, there’s a catch—we won’t be discussing the likes of Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. No, this series will only look at those slasher movies that aren’t as iconic, yet they can hold their own for various reasons. They may not be top-tier or even popular, but, as the column title suggests, they cut it close.
I had little idea as to what I’d gotten myself into when I watched the Indian remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street; my experience with the region’s horror is admittedly limited. That being said, I can say with the utmost certainty that Mahakaal will haunt my dreams for a very long time to come.
My little knowledge of Bollywood (a word for Hindi cinema) comes from a friend I knew in college. When I asked her about Indian movies she had grown up watching, she said that they were unlike anything else in the West. And most of all, they shared a common element regardless of the genre: song and dance. Lo and behold, Mahakaal adheres to the rule despite it being a horror movie. At a daunting 140-something minutes, Shyam Ramsay and Tulsi Ramsay’s 1994 spectacle is an intimidating feature. Not only is it utterly absurd in almost every way, it’s a remake of one of the most iconic horror stories to come out of the eighties.
Something as outlandish and fanciful as Mahakaal requires a play-by-play. If you’re worried about spoilers, don’t be — it follows the framework of Wes Craven’s classic rather faithfully in spite of some colorful padding. First off, the movie takes place in the early nineties, but it doesn’t look that far removed from the previous decade in terms of fashion and hairstyles. There is a strong Western ethos here that will help the unfamiliar feel more at home. The main characters are also college students rather than high schoolers; this makes sense especially when you realize the actors are obviously in their thirties.
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The movie begins with a nightmarish dream sequence like in the original. Moments like these are protracted, yet you don’t get too desensitized to the film’s namesake and Freddy Krueger‘s counterpart. Upon awakening and telling others about her dream, our final girl Anita (Archana Puran Singh) is doubted by friends and family. The sizable claw marks on her arm don’t convince them, either. It doesn’t take long for the first musical number to show up; Anita and her love interest Prakash (Karan Shah) frolic and serenade one another on a beach for a good five minutes. Fast-forward if you must.
In the meantime, we meet the other characters that include Anita‘s best friend Seema (Kunickaa Sadanand), who fills the role of Tina, and her boyfriend Param (Mayur Verma). Most importantly, we’re introduced to comedian Johnny Lever’s ostentatious Canteen. Sporting a look that pays homage to Michael Jackson circa his “Thriller” era, Canteen is perhaps the most glaringly bizarre element about Mahakaal. He provides comic relief in a movie that doesn’t necessarily require it, but I would be remiss to discount his presence. It’s through his struggle dancing and hammy acting does the film compensate for its more disturbing scenes.
When I say “disturbing,” I am referring to a few instances where the women are street-harassed by their male peers. For example, Anita is minding her own business at school when the resident scoundrel Randhir (Dinesh Kaushik) and his goons decide to attack her. They flat out torment her in broad daylight until Prakash and his boys come to the rescue. This results in a brawl that lands them in trouble with the school faculty. On top of this, two tertiary women are followed by the same offenders one night and then mauled inside a local business with a crowd watching helplessly from the sidelines. Canteen comes to their aid, thankfully, but scenes like this are staggering. To add insult to injury, the characters play it all off as if it was nothing but fun and games. Does it make any sense? Not at all. In fact, very little of Mahakaal does.
Seema‘s ornate death takes place at a getaway hotel following another saccharine song and dance. Param is then accused by Anita‘s father, a local police officer, of murdering his girlfriend and is hauled away to await his own elaborate death sequence (hint: there are snakes). It wouldn’t be a horror movie without the parents or authorities disbelieving everything the heroine says; Anita‘s own father, who is still grieving over his other daughter’s mysterious death, stubbornly refutes her claims that the boogeyman in her nightmares is somehow behind everything.
From here on out, Mahakaal takes a more serious tone. The acting is still beyond repair, but the musical sequences are over with the exception of one performed at a bar. And even that one is relatively tolerable given the context. It soon comes out that Mahakaal himself isn’t a figment of Anita‘s imagination, and he’s also the one who murdered her sister. Unlike Freddy, the movie’s eponymous villain is intrinsically supernatural; a demon, to be more precise. He abducted Anita‘s sister and tossed her into a pit to what looks like Hell. Although the father apprehended the monster and buried him alive, he still haunts the family. Later, it would appear that Anita has quelled her otherworldly nemesis, but alas! Mahakaal returns again. This time, the whole family and Prakash gang up on the demon until all is safe once more.
If the Ramsays’ movie sounds bonkers, that’s because it absolutely is. From the haphazard martial arts sequences to a bevy of misogynistic moments that are textbook problematic, this novelty is best regarded as a product of its time. On the other hand, if you crave unabashed campiness as well as want to see India’s own worst Michael Jackson impersonator, then by all means, seek this one out. The horror aspects are strangely effective — Mahakaal‘s giant ritual sculpture and the general aesthetic are all overtly Italianate in appearance — and the tributes to Craven’s movie are sincere. It might not be the best Elm Street remake so far, but Mahakaal is certainly the most memorable.