Saturday, July 12, 2008


One of the joys of international cinema is finding a film wholly inspired by Hollywood yet filtered through a different cultural sensibility. Pete Tombs, who's brought many mind-boggling oddities stateside under his Mondo Macabro label, co-wrote and co-produced this 2007 debut from Pakistani director Omar Ali Khan, a film that's simultaneously unique (in that it's like nothing you've ever seen) and derivative (it draws inspiration from several classic horror films). Though far from a perfect, or possibly good, film, HELL'S GROUND is still worthy of attention.

Taking its cue from domestic fare like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and FRIDAY THE 13TH, it starts off very much like any teens-in-peril film as a group of youths head out to attend a concert. And like their slasher-flick predecessors, they can be just as obnoxious, partying and smoking weed (one character, played by Rubya Chaudhry, does double-duty as both the arrogant bitch and the whiny pain in the ass), wanting nothing more than a good time when an ill-advised short-cut puts them in harm's way.

It's times like these that I wish I was more knowledgeable about foreign cultures, since I'm curious just how envelope-pushing the drug use and F-bombs really are (not to mention a premise that has unwed men and women spending the night together away from home). Just as the '80s slasher boom reflected the conservative tone of the Reagan era, HELL'S GROUND seems to reinforce the prevailing moral values. "Good Muslims should be getting ready for their evening prayers," intones the film's Creepy Old Man before the characters stumble obliviously toward death.

And while HELL'S GROUND proclaims itself as Pakistan's first zombie movie, the living dead play a very small role in the proceedings, making a brief appearance around the thirty-minute mark for a little entrail-munching. Definitely Romero-inspired, Khan's zombies are just different enough to be effective--or they would be, had they been given something to do. The undead here are merely plot devices, quickly abandoned after setting up a "subplot" that ultimately amounts to a cheap punchline for the film's ending. (Though I did like how Khan added clouds of buzzing flies that hover over the zombies as they feed, a cleverly disturbing detail that brings to mind the true living dead among starving Third World countries.)

What Khan really set out to make was a Pakistani version of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, complete with troublesome hitchhiker and deranged family members (limited here to just a single crazed mother) to terrorize the vanload of teens, but HELL'S GROUND's greatest asset is Baby, a hulking, inarticulate killing machine and Leatherface surrogate. Baby lives in a claustrophobic, slaughterhouse-like dwelling straight out of an Eli Roth wet dream, and his initial appearance, while not as brutally efficient, strongly echoes that of Gunnar Hansen's in the original CHAINSAW. (I also loved his weapon of choice, a spiked metal ball that he swings on a chain--a conceit that sounds rather silly until you see it in action.) And, like his Texas counterpart, Baby's a cross-dresser, wearing a burqa on his killing spree (Mama also refers to him as her daughter, further adding to his gender-confusion).

Despite Khan's unabashed love for American horror and his fervent enthusiasm, HELL'S GROUND still has its share of flaws. The rather slow build-up of the first act never really gains any momentum, and there are quite a few dry spells in between the bursts of gore and mayhem. And what should've been a gut-wrenching climax as Baby hunts down the surviving cast members is hindered by poor pacing and clumsy timing of its shocks, as well as constant shifts in tone.

However, I'd still recommend it, if only to see so many beloved classics of the genre reinterpreted in new ways. Unlike other fan-oriented films like PLAGA ZOMBIE: MUTANT ZONE which simply regurgitate the favorite portions of its inspirations, Khan attempts to imbue his rehashes with his own personal style and vision (and there are several moments where he shows off his imaginative directorial flair). It can be uneven and sloppy at times, but the results are always fascinating.

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