For those who grew up in the 90s and loved watching dhigil cinema, "Pathimoonam Number Veedu" is an unforgettable film. The 90s was probably the last decade when parents did not care much about what kids watched on TV and many of us enjoyed horror flicks, violent murder mysteries and worse without worrying about long-term damage.
The horror genre probably ages the worst when it comes to film. Revisiting "Pathimoonam Number Veedu" now is unlikely to give me sleepless nights as it did more than 20 years ago. The special effects are bound to look tacky, the creepy elements laughable and the production quality cheap. But for its time, "Pathimoonam Number Veedu" was spine-chilling.
The film begins on a stormy night. An artist is working on a painting with a man servant for company. Someone knocks at the door and despite his servant's warning, the artist orders him to open it. The visitor is a beautiful, young woman looking for shelter. The artist asks the woman if he could paint her looking at her own reflection in the mirror in the room, and she agrees.
The mirror is an old trick in horror films but it's one that works invariably. There is something about looking at an image that looks so real but isn't flesh and blood that is disturbing to the human mind. As ordinary people, we cannot get rid of our reflections but ghosts, the logic in the horror genre goes, can. Following this tradition, the female visitor in the opening scene, sits before the mirror with a stony stare and soon enough, her reflection disappears. When the puzzled artist goes up to her, he sees a terrifying (not any more though!) face in place of the beauteous one.
There are many more such creepy moments in the film - the greenish 'Onida' devil-like face on the wall, the scary doll which tries to strangle the child in the house, the running fan which lowers itself to the sleeping old man, the swing which goes back and forth by itself and so on.
We're now used to logical plots (even in this genre), sophisticated graphics, slick editing and creative BGM that builds the suspense just right and doesn't give the game away. Contemporary films like "Pizza" and "Pisaasu" which won critical acclaim and went on to do well at the box-office, are examples of this. And of late, the horror comedy genre has become popular in Tamil cinema after the success of "Muni", "Aranmanai", and most recently, "Kaashmora".
Older horror flicks thrived on shock value and obvious scare tactics. They were also quite misogynistic - the ghost was almost always a vengeful female and the hero was her vanquisher. Violence towards women was often presented graphically and as a plot point to justify the ghost's desire for revenge.
Take "Vaa Arugil Vaa" which was inspired by "Child's Play". Vaishnavi plays the ghost who resides in the evil doll (the infamous Chucky in "Child's Play"). She is the ill-treated wife of an "innocent" man who doesn't suspect what his family is up to. When she is murdered and he remarries, the doll starts killing the evil members of the family one by one. It's the second wife (Ramya Krishnan) who must put an end to her in order to save her thaali and the husband with it.
Quite a facepalm plot if we're to look at it today but the film was quite terrifying for its time - the murders had to be done by a tiny doll and they had to look believable without the kind of technology filmmakers have currently! Its melodramatic narrative wouldn't sell today but "Vaa Arugil Vaa" put us all off toys for quite some time when we first watched it.
Mohan's "Uruvam" is one of the few horror films in which the ghost inhabits a male body. Possibly as punishment for being an atheist who pooh-poohs the supernatural. "Uruvam" is built on black magic mumbo jumbo and like "Pathimoonam Number Veedu" is about a haunted mansion.
It doesn't have much of a plot to speak of but Mohan's transformation into the evil being is pretty effective - the Kollywood version of what happens to Jack Nicholson in "The Shining". Certain scenes like the one in which two children play with a ball and it disappears only to become a bloodied circle on the wall are still fresh in my memory because they were unexpected in those times. There are quite a few jumpy moments in the film and though it didn't do well at the box-office, it acquired a kind of cult status over the years. Ilayaraja's haunting music was a big plus too.
"Athisaya Manidhan" was another 90s horror flick - and it had Gautami as part of the cast. The film was a sequel to "Nalaya Manidhan", which was loosely based on "Frankenstein". Once again, the Athisaya Manidhan who roamed the screen in those times would appear like a hilariously dressed Halloween party goer now but he was crazy creepy in the 90s.
"Jenma Natchathiram", the Tamil remake of "The Omen" was quite high on the heebie-jeebies quotient too. The babysitter in the Tamil version was way scarier than the one in the Hollywood film for sure!
There was a lull in the Tamil horror scene with college romances taking over but the tide has turned again and we see more and more filmmakers exploring the genre. With bigger budgets, better technology, and clever storytelling, these new age horror films are oceans apart from what we watched in those days. But if my heart skips a beat even now if I have to stay in a hotel room with No. 13 on the door despite being a firm atheist, it's thanks to those childhood memories of delicious terror.