A pastiche of era-specific genres and ephemeral curiosities, Bhoot Bungla blends elements of American beach party films and fright flicks with Bollywood’s romantic tradition, approaching the youth market from all angles and with reckless abandon. Flashes of brilliance exist beneath the incoherence, fostered by lively dance numbers and cartoonish characterizations, but no single idea is fully realized, floundering beneath the weight of a scattershot screenplay. The end product is ungainly, if innocuous, best suited for curious viewers with insomnia and low expectations.
Details of the exposition are bewildering from the first shot, capturing a dying man as he collapses atop a staircase without preamble or visual clarification. Narration eventually reveals that the murder was unsolved and the victim’s descendants still occupy his “bungalow,” grappling with the mental illness imbued by the cursed grounds. Old chestnuts of horror’s past peak out from the mansion’s dark corridors: eerie blasts of off-key organ, menacing nocturnal footsteps, glacial breezes and a grotesque domestic staff. The film teeters into black humor in its use of prop and makeup, arming its ridiculously hideous gardener with a razor-sharp, protruding cuspid that closely resembles the fangs of a vampire. Sadly, the film leaves all of its panache in the costume department, treating its murder sequences as road bumps in the way of its forthcoming musical numbers.
Director and leading man Mehmood indulges in the non-violent tropes of macabre cinema, recycling stylistic cues from House on Haunted Hill, particularly its theatricality and penchant for jump scares. Sequences shot in the eponymous haunted house engage when allowed to blossom, particularly as characters are forced into confined spaces and besieged by plumes of artificial fog, swinging shutters and pitch-black abysses. Bouts of comic relief even function in this restrictive setting, imparting a dizzying, funhouse lunacy to a song and dance boasting hoofers in skeletal pajamas, diabolical surgeons and growling ornamental tigers.
The only thing holding back the terror is Mehmood’s insatiable desire to shift gears before a setpiece builds steam, either to maintain a furious pace or force in every disparate ingredient from a cluttered script. The extraneous “Beach Club Competition” segments bring all momentum to a screeching halt, devoting nearly 30 minutes to a desperate rendition of “The Twist” and undeveloped intergender rivalry. Though it may be impossible to deny the musical passages their bravado, particularly the outlandish West Side Story appropriation, they’re as distracting as the central mystery’s red herrings and just as malnourished. The divergent narrative threads are begging for the restraint of an accomplished filmmaker, one astute enough to trim the excess fat from a gratuitous and shapeless hodgepodge.
Bhoot Bungla (Mumtaz Films, 1965)
Directed by Mehmood
Written by Ranjan Bose (screenplay), Mehmood (story) and Akhtar-Ul-Iman (dialogue)
Photographed by Dara Engineer