Film Review: 13B

J-horror-styled supernatural thriller from India doesn't have the gore or intensity of the real thing, and for many in the mainstream, that's a relief. Low-budget-looking but effective, with a great central gimmick.

Taking a cue from its Asian neighbors, the Indian supernatural thriller 13B blends the domestic-terror dread of Japanese horror and its Korean and Thai brethren— all down the alphabet from J-horror to K-horror to T-horror—with beige/brown, washed-out, 1970s-style cinematography. The result is an unsettling hybrid, in the best sense: Plagued as it is by a low-budget look and a bevy of suspense tropes, this Hindi-language feature debut by writer-director Vikram K. Kumar (whose 10-minute "Silent Scream" won, of all things, his country's National Film Award for Best Educational/Motivational/Instructional Film in 1999) supplies ghostly chills effectively and through a marvelously original conceit.

Civil engineer Mannu Manohar (the well-regarded actor and activist Madhavan Ranganathan) has just moved with his extended family into a deee-luxe apartment in the sky-ai-ai. He and his brother Manoj, a fellow professional, may have overextended themselves, but their duplex apartment 13B is a modernistic oasis for them and their mother (Poonam Dhillon); their collegiate sister Divya; Mannu's wife Priya (Neetu Chandra); and Manoj's wife and two young kids. The elevator doesn't seem to work when Mannu wants to take it, but hey, it's a new building and some bugs need to be worked out.

So do a lot of other things, as it happens. Photos taken on Mannu's mobile phone come out twisted and grotesque when shot in the apartment, and nowhere else. The blind old neighbor's great big protective dog whimpers like a scared puppy at the threshold of the apartment. And the sisters-in-law and Mom start watching a soap opera, "Sab Khairiyat" ("All is Well") that airs at 13:00 hours on channel 13—in apartment 13B only, as Mannu discovers to his growing horror. That only intensifies when the family and events onscreen mirror his own almost exactly, with a barely fictionalized veneer. When the soap opera begins depicting terrible tragedies that start coming true, Mannu becomes emboldened enough to tell his old friend, police sub-inspector Shiva (Murli Sharma), and to visit Mom's doctor, Balram Shinde (Sachin Khedekar), whose in extremis work has led him to believe in the paranormal.

Mannu's increasingly obsessive quest for the root of what's occurring leads him and Shiva to unearth—literally, as it happens—details of a horrific mass murder of a family at this same building site in 1977. The TV set is their medium, and the program is their message—sort of. Why the powers-that-be do what they do makes no sense whatsoever in retrospect, but Kumar's brisk and knowing way with this type of story makes all that slip by as you watch a decent, ordinary man suspensefully fall deeper and deeper into hell through no fault of his own.

Two unexceptional ballads by the star songwriting team of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy play over family montages, but there's a kick-ass song over the end credits—the completely incongruous "Oh Sexy Mama," in which Madhavan, Chandra and many bump-and-grind beauties in PVC short-shorts gyrate to a dance number that would have done Robert Palmer proud.

Very unusually, perhaps unprecedentedly since the days of early talkies, the movie was shot in two versions simultaneously, with mostly the same cast, in two languages, with the Tamil Yavarum Nalam and the Hindi 13B being released the same day. (Kumar has previously worked in the Tamil and Telugu languages.) While Tamil movies are often remade in Hindi, this maximizing of sets and actors doesn't seem to happen much, if at all. Unusual in a bad sense are the poor subtitle graphics, too often white-on-white and unreadable.