Written by: Kafil Azar (lyrics), Sayeed Sultan (dialogue), Y.V. Tyagi (story and screenplay)
Directed by: Shyam Ramsay and Tulsi Ramsay
Starring: Archana Puran Singh, Johnny Lever, and Karan Shah
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“And this process, which will kill all of you, will be called The Time of Death…”
If there’s one film industry that can rival Italy when it comes to throwing copyrights and intellectual properties to the wind, it would be Bollywood. The films from this south-Asian region are notorious for ripping off other films and plagiarizing everything from plots to music. This was especially a rampant trend in previous decades, as the isolated nature of the Hindi film industry rarely clued anyone in. Because of this, the Ramsay Brothers (considered the kings of Indian horror) were able to beat Platinum Dunes to the punch by seventeen years when they ripped off and remade A Nightmare on Elm Street. Dubbed Mahakaal, the Ramsays’ film introduced Indian audiences to a character similar to Craven’s dream-stalking Freddy Krueger.
Anita and her friend, Seema, have both been stalked in their dreams by a burnt-faced psychopath wearing a razor-fingered glove on his right hand. Even more bizarrely, each girl suffers wounds in their dreams that still appear when they wake up. One night, the two girls end up staying at a hotel with a group of friends after their car breaks down. Seema once again dreams about the dream stalker, but this time with deadlier results, as she ends up hacked to death. This prompts the attention of the local police force, which is actually headed by Anita’s father. As the bizarre events continue to unfold, it is learned that the man in Anita’s dreams once abducted and sacrificed young children before being buried alive. The man known as Shakaal has now returned from beyond the grave to exact vengeance.
Mahakaal is an interesting experience for obvious reasons. It’s sort of like opening a very familiar book, only to find that all the words have been written in a different language, all the pages have been jumbled, and a bunch of weird stuff has been added. In this case, it’s like watching A Nightmare on Elm Street with zany teen sex comedy antics, multiple rape attempts (and none of them courtesy of Shakaal himself!), cheesy martial arts actions sequences, and, of course, Bollywood song and dance numbers. It’s a weird mash-up that was apparently typical of Bollywood productions of the era, as film-makers (especially the Ramsays) would take elements of everything that was popular in cinema around the world and ape them in their own films. The teen comedy elements are obviously inspired by stuff like Lemon Popsicle and Porky’s, and one character in particular is fun: Canteen, who makes his entrance dancing along to Thriller. He’s the fun-loving clown of the group, who reminds me a lot of Hughie and Pee Wee from each of those comedy series, respectively. The most perplexing tangents are the multiple scenes where a pack of guys attempt to rape a helpless girl; one of the DVD extras actually credits this to the re-discovery of I Spit on Your Grave by Indian film-makers.
It goes without saying that the film is quite a jumbled experience as a result. It jumps between several modes and never settles on one, leading to an unbalanced film as far as tone goes. Even when the plot delves into heavy subject matter such as child abduction and murder, it’ll quickly jump back to something less serious or transition to a show tune. It undercuts the main thrust of the story, and the film certainly feels bloated as a result. Even though the film manages to copy most of the beats of the original Elm Street, it happens at a much slower rate; for example, Tina’s demise in that film happens in the first reel. Her counterpart here survives twice as long, and the ball really doesn’t get rolling until the one hour mark.
When it’s actually trying to be a horror film, Mahkaal is quite good. Sure, it owes a lot to Craven’s film in terms of concept, and its nightmare sequences are surely helped by the presence of the original theme music (from both the first and second Elm Street films), but it’s still effective. Some of the imagery is somewhat original, particularly when it trades in Freddy’s boiler room for a more dungeon and crypt-like environment. The film also doesn’t completely copy the death sequences from the Elm Street series, with the exception of one (which was actually borrowed from part 4). In fact, it should be noted that the movie pretty much remakes the first two thirds of Craven’s original until it begins to borrow aspects from the sequels; the possession aspect of Freddy's Revenge is especially aped, as are sequences from later sequels.
Fans who dislike Freddy’s more comedic later sequels will no doubt loathe all the comedy and silliness surrounding the horror in this film. However, they’ll probably dig Shakaal himself, who never utters a word. For my money, that doesn’t work very well. Sure, his incessant cackling is pretty creepy, but the guy pretty much feels like a non-entity and almost completely devoid of any personality. His burned visage and the razor glove are effective (and how could they not be when they’re ripping off one of horror’s most famous monsters?), and the final showdown between Shakaal and the main characters is legitimately good stuff. From this film alone, I can gather why the Ramsays are so well regarded because they do have a flair for good visuals and camera work. There’s even a sequence where they pay tribute to Sam Raimi’s first-person “evil cam” that’s a lot of fun.
Make no mistake, Mahakaal mostly adds up to a pretty cheesy 80s experience. You might be wondering how that could be possible, given its 1993 release date, but the film was actually conceived and began filming in 1988. It sat abandoned when the Ramsays were beaten to the punch by another Nightmare rip-off, Khooni Murdaa. This explains the obvious 80s stylings and influences, and also why the movie feels more like Doom Asylum than A Nightmare on Elm Street at times. After all, the unfortunately mulleted Shakaal certainly looks more like the Coroner than Freddy Krueger. I’m not sure how, but the movie has gotten a legitimate DVD release from Mondo Macabro (I figured something this blatant would surely be barred from United States shores). You can find it as part of Mondo’s “Bollywood Horror Collection Volume 3,” which also includes Tahkhana: The Dungeon. Mahakaal features a pretty nice full-frame transfer that’s accompanied by a crisp, booming stereo soundtrack. Extra features include a documentary on Bollywood horror, extensive cast and crew information, and previews for other Mondo Macabro films. It’s not a great film, but it is certainly entertaining in all of its madness; plus, the curiosity of the whole thing can’t be ignored. As such, I think any horror aficionado would be remiss to not check it out. Rent it!
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