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Film Review: 1920 (2008)

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SYNOPSIS:

A young architect and his bride are sent to an old mansion to plan its deconstruction. Mysterious forces soon take an interest in the young woman and a local priest may be the couples’ only hope.

REVIEW:

For many movie fans, even those who explore foreign cinema, the Indian film industry can seem unapproachable. Most of us know of the crazy musical numbers and over the top action, yet understand so little of the culture that viewing their cinema becomes a daunting task. Thankfully, like all major markets, there are a few popular series which, for better or worse, offer an easy entry point for new viewers. Which is exactly how this reviewer found himself sitting down to watch 1920, the first in a franchise of haunted house/possession movies. Only this installment can’t quite figure out what it wants to be.

The first ten-minutes offer all the basic horror comforts. An architect summoned to a giant mansion in hopes of turning the property into a luxury hotel is stalked and killed by an unseen force. While the experience offered little beyond standard chills, it showcases that the filmmakers at least have a decent handle on atmosphere and mood.

The film switches gears as we are introduced to the films proper leads. Arjun (Rajniesh Duggall) is a devout worshiper of Lord Hannuman who, despite his family’s displeasure, loves a mixed-race catholic girl named Lisa (Adah Sharma). So upset is his family over the pairing that they attempt to kill Lisa, prompting Arjun to renounce his blood and god before running away with her to the city and becoming an architect. It’s not long before his firm offers the job of visiting the mansion in order to design the new property. Naturally they fail to mention that he is the third man put on this task, the previous two having been mysteriously killed. This first arc is complete tonal shift from the opening, playing out more like a romantic drama than anything based in terror.

Upon arriving at the manor, Lisa becomes our primary character as she is regularly terrified by the unknown forces of the house and a mysterious room within that initially will only open for her. Still a religious woman despite her husband’s lack of faith, Lisa seeks comfort from a local catholic priest, Father Thomas (Raj Zutshi), who does his best to aid the couple.

At last the story turns into a full scale possession flick as the evil spirit takes over Lisa’s body, forcing Arjun to seek answers from medical science and the priest, even causing him to reconsider his own faith. This tale of man struggling with faith still has one more detour, however, with a whopping 20 minute flashback sequence featuring a whole different cast of characters. Only with that cleared are we allowed to return to the spooky story at hand.

Given its place of origin, we have to talk about the elephant in the room. India is known for cramming musical numbers into movies, and yes, they do pop up within the horror genre as well. In this case the filmmakers were wise enough to mostly keep the musical interludes to montages which keeps the plot moving while generic love ballads echo. There is one true song and dance number smack dab in the middle of the film, and while it may seem out of place, it makes for a welcome change of pace.

It should be obvious by now that 1920 suffers a bit when it comes to consistent focus and tone. The story struggles to juggle romantic drama, crisis of faith, and horror, usually by letting one or more elements disappear for long stretches. This is only made more noticeable by the films runtime of nearly two and a half hours. Far too long for such a simplistic story.

Production quality is a total mixed-bag. The music is sometimes decent and other times reminiscent of cheap straight-to-video fair. The mansion itself is quite a sight to behold, yet the audience is only treated to roughly the same five rooms. The period setting is nicely done, though instances of out-of-focus photography take the viewer out of the film.

The biggest issue with a movie like 1920 is that so much of its content has been done before, and done better. It’s a relatively solid film, but there are countless haunting and possession flicks outranking it. The scares are generic, the story is very simplistic, and the characters are two-dimensional. There are only a few interesting cultural touches to keep it from being completely forgettable, such as how reincarnation is treated as matter-of-fact rather than an outlandish theory.

1920 is a difficult film to rate. While not outright terrible, the movie is so painfully basic as to not offer much lasting entertainment. Normally a movie like this would be a prime candidate for a rainy afternoon, only it’s too long for that purpose. At best it’s a safe and easy entry point for horror fans who’d like to check out what India has to offer. There’s enough regional flavor without anything too outlandish to throw off viewers. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, then by all means give it a shot. Just don’t expect much. Two stars out of five.

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