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'He Will Rise Again'

Darkness Visible (review)

A review of Darkness Visible, Neil Biswas’ unsettling and atmospheric British/Indian horror tale, by Ellis Reed...

Before Darkness Visible, Neil Biswas always wanted to make a film about Kolkata. 

My parents have been taking me there since I was a little kid,” he told Asian Culture Vulture. “I’ve always felt this huge attachment… yet at the same time, I’ve always felt apart from it by being British. And I guess I wanted to find a way—a story—that captured this strange conflicted relationship.

The result is a beautifully shot, hauntingly told thriller that has a long and lingering finish. A year after release, we took the opportunity to rewatch it and ask Biswas some questions of our own. “I’m so happy that my first film was set in Kolkata, with an almost entirely Indian cast,” he told us, “and yet still—very British in its DNA. It somehow defines my vision.”

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The film begins not in India but in London. As video producer for his girlfriend’s band, Ronnie (Jaz Deol) could be almost anywhere. After the dry ice and lasers of a gig, we go first to a generic bar and then his hip urban flat, which has guitars in the corner and graffiti on the exposed brickwork.

However, something is calling him elsewhere. When he touches a scar on his chest, he has a brief vision of a four-armed burning statue, which inspires him to paint an enormous eerie dreamscape. For the eagle-eyed, there are clues that it is, if not quite Kolkata, at least a fever dream of that city; we even see the distinctive beams of the Howrah Bridge.

Layered on top of this are apocalyptic scenes in miniature. Bodies hang beneath the bridge. Someone ferries skulls across the water. Biswas told us that his uncles’ ghost stories gave “a bedrock for the tone of the film… a feeling of increasing creepy tension, that I desperately wanted to capture… Kolkata locations that felt lawless—and imbued with spiritual movements—at night.” In a sense, Ronnie’s painting is almost a mission statement for the film that follows. After completing it, he finds himself flying there in confusing circumstances because his mother is not only back in Kolkata but lying in a coma—and so the story begins.

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The first thing to say about Darkness Visible is that it is, in spite of the “indie” label, completely cinematic. It was made for a budget of £1.3 million, which isn’t even a tenth of what The Conjuring had (which was made for less than a tenth of The Avengers). The visual highlights of the film are the night-time shots of Kolkata, which were the result of careful planning by the director and his DoP, Robert Baumgartner. There are moments when the entire city seems to be taking Ronnie deeper and down the rabbit-hole, and clever use of audio only heightens the effect. In one standout sequence, he follows a mysterious woman in purple through streets bathed in blue and amber, till he comes at last to the overgrown ruins of a colonial mansion. “The Elgin House location is in real life, incredible,” Biswas told us. “And utterly wild. We had to clear it of snakes and scorpions before we let Jaz on set, and there were huge fruit bats flying overhead…

The lush visuals are partly due to the locations themselves—which, as you can imagine, have enormous character—but also depend on a large dose of movie-making magic. “I’d already spent a long time thinking about the ‘look’ I wanted for the film,” Biswas explained, “and… I carefully planned a way of shooting to achieve it. Kolkata is an incredibly atmospheric city, and the trick was to bring it to the screen with the right tone for the film.” Like his artist-protagonist, Biswas pays close attention to colour: “Defining the colour palette was a very important task for us, as well as working out how much light we actually needed—and how much we could work with streetlights and darkness.” The result of this careful work is a lush visual landscape, produced on about two percent of the budget for IT: Chapter 2.

In terms of story, Darkness Visible is the kind of horror movie where a supernatural menace works towards a specific objective, and the slow reveal of this is the film’s narrative backbone. The connection to Ronnie’s mother makes the mystery personal, while ritual murders add a touch of crime drama. Ronnie is a suspect, but police photographer Asha (Sayani Gupta) is drawn into his confidence and swept up in a journey to the truth. The result is an engrossing story with solid pacing and a satisfying payoff.

Aside from cinematography, another thing that distinguishes Darkness Visible is the use of Hindu rather than Judeo-Christian myth. Black Tantras play a part, as do the Yamaduttas who drag souls to hell. A spirit house was built on an old sound stage for some of the scenes. In genre terms, the story is solid and fresh at the same time; the Indian myths provide an assortment of creepy visuals, and Ronnie’s perspective only heightens the sense of general unease. As a horror film, it doesn’t rely on outright jump-scares, but the tension mounts wonderfully as we move closer and closer to the truth. The ending—without giving spoilers—fulfils the promise of the nail-biting build-up.

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I first saw the film last October and am surprised it isn’t discussed more. Certainly, I consider it one of the premier titles of recent British horror. In terms of production, it has a triple-A sheen that’s rare at this price point, with strong performances and a chilling plot. In short, Darkness Visible is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys supernatural thrillers with lush cinematography, and it’s available to stream now on various platforms.

Watch the Darkness Visible trailer

Ellis Reed

Ellis Reed

To pass the time during lockdown, I decided to write some English ghost stories, which you can read for free on my blog.

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