Ghost Stories movie review: Where are the scares?

Shubhra Gupta
Ghost Stories review

Ghost Stories is streaming on Netflix.

Ghost Stories cast: Janhvi Kapoor, Surekha Sikri, Vijay Varma, Sobhita Dhulipala, Sagar Arya, Pavail Gulati, Sukant Goel, Gulshan Devaiah, Mrunal Thakur, Avinash Tiwary, Aditya Shetty, Eva Ameert
Ghost Stories directors: Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar
Ghost Stories rating: 2 stars

The quartet which who gave us Bombay Talkies and Lust Stories have regrouped for Ghost Stories.

Four shorts strung together with the promise of bhoot-praet-aatma is not exactly how I wanted to begin my new year. But there it is (just dropped) on Netflix, and here I am, having just got done with it.

A young, attractive nurse (Janhvi) walks into a once-well-appointed-now-neglected flat, to take care of a bed-ridden old woman (Surekha). The former is needy, clutching at a reluctant lover (Vijay); the latter, a stunner in her time, looks as if she scythed through men back in the day. Now it’s night, and time for things to go bump.

Dolls are scary, especially when they sit in a row, and stare back at you with their beady eyes. A pregnant young woman (Sobhita), going up and down a steep set of stairs, a possessive little boy, and the harsh cowing of crows. The colours are leached out, the mother-to-be is constantly wary, all is ominous: what is going to happen?

A young man (Sukant) gets off at a railhead and walks towards a village where he’s meant to join work. But things go south rapidly, as he bumps into a boy and girl (Aditya Shetty and Eva Ameert) cowering in a corner, scared out of their wits. The desolate village feels like place that time’s forgotten, and, wait a minute, who are those figures clomping about outside, snarling and drooling?

A pretty young thing (Mrunal) agrees to have an ‘arranged marriage’ with a handsome, wealthy fellow (Avinash) who lives in a house his granny built. She soon discovers that all is not as it seems in the stately mansion she comes to as a bride: the housekeeper glowers, the in-laws are strangely sedate, and the spouse likes playing peekaboo. Ooh.

Atmospherics-wise, all four segments come off fine. Each instantly creates a specific world, and we get drawn in. But surprise-wise, that jump-start of shock-and-startle, Ghost Stories doesn’t score high, and that's where it falters: those who familiar with genre movies, or have seen enough horror/supernatural/critters will pretty much guess where things are headed to.

The crucial question is: did someone like me, who is petrified of any brand of horror, genteel or oblique or straight-up in-your-face, emerge shaking? Honest confession: I closed my eyes in exactly two places. The rest of it was a series of oh look, there it comes, and oh look, it’s hoved out of view, phew.

Bombay Talkies felt mint-new, Karan Johar revealed how surprisingly spiky he could be; Anurag Kashyap’s jar of murabbas was memorable in a tale that lagged, Zoya Akhtar’s little boy who likes to wear dresses was bright and alive, and Dibakar Bannerjee’s fabulous segment I still keep visiting in my head.

Lust Stories was great in parts, with the freshness persisting, because love-that-turns-into-lust, or just plain hormones-raging-lust is not Bollywood’s suit. A young wife trying very hard to bite down on the vibrations going through her, via a suitable object? The sweetest spot of all.

Ghosts have a long lineage, though, and it’s hard to create newness. I got flashes of similar (John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca), but a couple of moments did stop my heart: one involving a long feathered arm, the other more sound, than visual: the crunch of teeth on bone. The only real surprise comes from Janhvi Kapoor in a solid, real act.

All four segments are well produced, but the plots are predictable, and feel familiar. Seriously, where are the scares?