There’s no denying the widespread influence Mari Bava has had on cinema, especially horror. Bava’s masterful 1964 crime thriller Blood & Black Lace, April’s Movie of the Month, has been credited as ground zero for not only giallo as a film gene, but also body count slasher films at large. Its influence can also be detected in unexpected places, such as William Friedkin’s controversial Cruising and essentially any film ever directed by Brian DePalma. Even these connections are less surprising to me, however, than the influence Blood & Black Lace had on the 1988 Bollywood horror film Veerana.
Admittedly, I have a limited knowledge of Bollywood films as a genre, having only seen a couple titles here or there, so there was plenty of room for Veerana to surprise me. It was most certainly the very first Bollywood horror film I had ever seen, so there was an almost complete lack of genre expectations I may have had if I’d seen, say, any other film produced by the infamous Ramsay Brothers before. What I found the most surprising was how easily the film gets easily distracted. At a whopping 145 minutes, Veerana is undeniably overstuffed, having no qualms with putting its horror movie plot on hold for extended song & dance sequences, underwhelming martial arts, and painfully corny stabs at humor. However, if you re-cut the film with about 45 min less of the dillydallying (about a third of the run-time), I honestly believe you’d have a verifiable masterpiece on your hands.
The horror movie at the heart of Veerana is a beautiful work of art. Smoke, bats, black magic, Satanic statues, cartoon lightning, humanoid rocks, telepathy, ghosts, witches & warlocks all haunt the screen in a dazzling display. The film wastes no time getting there either. The opening scene & credits plunder the Mario Bava aesthetic immediately, attacking the viewer with strangely colored lights, intense sound design, and ludicrous camera angles. The synths that accompany these images sound like they could be an experimental side-project from giallo soundtrack legends Goblin where they tried to incorporate more Eastern influences in their work. The film is downright overwhelming in these stretches, but in an admirably eccentric way. The juxtaposition with the horror segments with the more traditional Bollywood tropes in the humor & dance numbers is fascinating (and somewhat of a relief), but it’s in the depictions of black magic & evil deeds that the film truly shines as a unique work.
Produced over two decades after Blood & Black Lace, Veerana helps to solidify Bava’s classic whodunit as a seminal work with a stylistic influence that was felt literally across the world. There are some basic genre tropes that the Bollywood version gets wrong about giallo, especially in its tendency to over-explain why everything looks & sounds the way it does. An opening warning urges the audience to “watch this film only for entertainment,” explaining, “This film has no connection to reality,” but is instead “influenced by old folklores.” There’s also the push to blame the visual witchcraft on straight-forward Satan worship (or “evil god” worship), which leads to truly beautiful imagery like a towering demon statue on fire, but feels oddly old-fashioned when compared to more eccentric, detached-from-reality giallo like Argento’s Phenomena or the much more recent The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears.
It’s interesting what Veerana did & did not pick up from the genre Bava inadvertently birthed with Blood & Black Lace. In addition to the stylistic tropes mentioned above, it also borrowed ideas like site-specific kills (in this case a lumber yard) and a general air of mysticism. However, it also missed the mark a bit on where that mysticism originates as well as an opportunity to give itself the obnoxiously long, complicated titles that accompany giallo movies (“Veerana” is translated as “Creepy Forrest”; not all that awe-inspiring when other genre titles include Black Belly of the Tarantula & The Devil Has Seven Faces). Veerana is an interesting film for giallo fans to see where it lines up with its Bava ancestry as well as where it deviates. It 100% delivers on the premise of Bava Meets Bollywood, displaying a healthy dose of both seemingly irreconcilable genres. Sometimes they mix perfectly and other times they sit side by side, confusing the audience thoroughly, but it’s a fascinating clash even when it doesn’t work.