Ankur Pathak writes Percept Pictures' ? is a bad copy of The Blairwitch Project.
In the year 1999, the American studio Haxan Films financed an unusual film about three teenagers going into the woods to film a documentary. They never return, but their technical equipment is later discovered, through which the film unspools.
The film, called The Blair Witch Project, inspired from a local legend, terrified American viewers like no psychological horror film had before and had a fantastic run at the box office, raking in millions compared to its miniscule budget.
Not only did it make the 'found-footage' genre a lucrative and rewarding experiment, but also inspired emulation although the narrative technique dated back to the unpopular 1980s film Cannibal Holocaust.
Cashing in on the unexpected popularity of this genre, Ekta Kapoor rolled out her sex-induced paranormal thriller Ragini MMS, a terrifyingly real tape of a couple on a naughty weekend in the woods.
Now, Percept Pictures' untitled film, known only as ? opens along the same lines as The Blair Witch Project but, unlike that hauntingly classic footage, this one doesn't quite live up to its promise.
Part of the reason is the director's decision to deliberately stay away from blood-and-gore, probably to evoke more of a psychological scare than a visual one.
The film is about a group of seven media students drawn from every stereotype -- the exaggerated dude, the filmi type, the clown, the reserved girl, the firecracker, and the one who takes the middle path. There is also the 'peacemaker' who is the director of the short-film these media students intend to shoot.
As soon as they land at the visibly creepy country house in the middle of a thick forest, the film they are supposed to make becomes a distant job-to-be-done, whereas alcohol dominates over rounds of Monopoly and hide-and-seek. It's initially quite engaging and plausible as it paints an absolutely realistic picture of adolescent inanity.
The immediacy with which this set-up hooks you can be credited to the writers, who pen eerily conversational dialogues and incorporate instances of dumbness that collegians are allegedly infamous for. Like religiously cremating a doll found in the woods, followed by a two-minute silence.
In one particular sequence that immediately connects with the viewer, the group sits around a bonfire and has this elaborate conversation about the existence of spirits and their parallel universe. Later, when a spooky incident occurs, one of the guys comments that they should let the spirits be, and asks for forgiveness for disturbing the serenity of the secluded spot. It seems like a somewhat touching attempt to placate the malevolent forces that are soon to take over their world.
Once that happens, though, and the undefined spirit takes over one of the girls, Simran, monotony rather than suspense or horror takes over. She shrieks and shrieks, complains of weakness and headache and in one comical scene, starts to frantically roll her head.
Then the car keys go missing. Some of the group set off with the hope of getting help. There is relentless conflict among those left behind, triggered probably by a sense of helplessness. The emotion may be genuine, but the cast seems unable to react to and convey their horror as convincingly as they did the spirit of carefree college students.
There ought to have been a back-story to the paranormal spirit that possesses Simran and goes on to the others. Allowing it to remain undefined so that the viewer can interpret it as he or she likes, hampers more than helps.
The best that can be said for this unimaginatively titled experiment is that it attempts a new genre in an industry devoid of path-breaking technique or content.