Thursday, February 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: '13B' (2009)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Bollywood is one of my major movie blind spots, but as I've said before, this feature often exposes me to new genres or movements with which I was previously unfamiliar. My guess is that 13B is not exactly a great starting point for exploring Bollywood movies, but it fits with the theme, so here it is. Unlike the typical Bollywood production, 13B isn't filled with lavish musical numbers, nor does it have any large-scale action or romance. Instead it's a sort of Bollywood-ized version of the J-horror trend, with a story about ghostly infestations terrorizing a family (mostly via technology) in an urban apartment building.

Although writer-director Vikram K. Kumar doesn't follow every Bollywood convention, the movie does have an inflated running time (just over two hours in the version I saw, although IMDb lists a version that's 20 minutes longer), and the action stops abruptly at one point for a completely incongruous musical number, which comes off as sort of a fantasy sequence featuring the two main characters (there's no explanation for why the harried businessman and his stay-at-home wife are suddenly glamorous pop stars for three minutes). The rest of the songs are confined to one time-passing montage and a music video that plays over the closing credits, so that Kumar can work on building tension in his haunted-house story without the characters having to stop and sing every few minutes.

Not that he does a very good job of creating suspense, however. The movie begins with an extended family moving into a brand-new high-rise condo (the title refers to their unit number), where inexplicable spooky things immediately start to happen (the milk always goes sour, the elevator doesn't work, cell phones take distorted pictures). But Kumar eventually focuses his attention on just one creepy element, a daily soap opera that appears to air only on the family's TV, with events that mirror (and foreshadow) their own lives. The logistics of this concept are completely nonsensical, especially when main character Manu (R. Madhavan) eventually tracks down an explanation. The whole second half of the movie is a mess of belabored exposition that completely undermines any creepy atmosphere developed early on.

Aside from the occasional musical interludes, 13B's other main Bollywood characteristic is the broad, melodramatic acting style of its cast, which goes against the subdued, ominous tone of Kumar's J-horror influences. Even when terrified, the characters are constantly mugging and overemoting, so the supernatural happenings come off as more goofy than scary. It doesn't help that the special effects are chintzy and the cinematography is flat. Clearly there are a lot of things that Bollywood movies do well (and I probably ought to expand my horizons in that area), but horror is not one of them.