'Betaal' review: Corny acting stifles potential

'Betaal' review: Corny acting and tonal inconsistency stifle what is otherwise horror with potential

Screenshot: YouTube/Netflix

Director: Patrick Graham, Nikhil Mahajan
Cast: Vineet Kumar Singh, Aahana Kumra, Richard Dillane
Score: 2.5

Human greed is a fairly standard trope in horror. The greed for power, the greed for knowledge, and when combined with either the stupidity or genius of its characters, the genre can prove to be an effective medium. Betaal, to its credit, tries to tip-toe across a narrow margin across those tropes, and while it does stick the landing in some areas, the others are a bit of a letdown.

The story of Betaal is rather simple and easy to follow: Greedy property developer Ajay Mudhalvan wants to build a highway that cuts into a sealed British Raj-era tunnel, but the local villagers who believe in the curse of a 'Betaal', stand against him.

Mudhalvan has the villagers branded as Naxals, has the news splattered across nationalistic chest-thumping news channels, and hires a military squadron with a corrupt leader to get rid of them. And while this works for the developer in the short term, everyone soon realises they are in way over their heads when the zombies come scrambling out with an insatiable hunger. And all of this occurs over just one night.

Betaal is a zombie show attempting to look into the stiffness of military regulations, the effect of PTSD, corruption and rampant abuse of nationalism to achieve petty personal goals. It tries its best to be serious, and at many points even manages to hit the grim tone it is going for.

However, more often than not, it is let down by some of the very things it is trying to portray, namely the military stiffness and rampant nationalism. It's not in the vein of Ghoul, another Netflix horror show that portrays militarised nationalism, but it certainly does the trick: The military characters, for whatever reason, suffer from a rampant case of colonial hangover, which leaves all sense of sanity in the dust when they scream revenge for past tragedies or quote Brexit while shooting zombies.

The show also suffers from a form of tonal inconsistency that cuts down on the build-up to the bloody violent night the characters face. Many key changes to some of the characters are put aside in small expositions or flashbacks, while some others are completely ignored till the last possible moment. Even the lead character, Vikram Sirohi, gets a bait-and-switch flashback in the place of real character development, making his supposed turmoil feel emptier than the eyes of the living dead.

The zombies in the show are also kind of odd. They follow most of the classic zombie tropes such as the creatures' bloodthirst, and how the zombie bites are infectious and turn even scratched victims into one of them. On the other hand, the show relies heavily on the supernatural and a 'curse' to explain some of the more complicated mechanics of the beasts. This clash of sources for the zombies ironically concentrates some of the effectiveness of the use of these creatures, whilst simultaneously hand-waving some of their elements away, such as their hive mind or the possession effects the leader of the zombies has on the characters.

But for all its faults, the show certainly does a few things right: Its prologue is certainly quite haunting, as an old lady comes in contact with the statue of 'Betaal' and has a bloody vision of the evil in the tunnel. It also has just the right level of build-up to the violence that transpires through the night with a pretty good use of "The enemy of my enemy is my friend", with a number of caveats to the truce the military folk have with the surviving locals, and the Colonel, while flimsy as a character, is a force to behold with his ability to make anyone succumb to his will.

To close, Betaal is like the kid in class who gets an A for effort, but a C for actual results. There is a lot of potential, but the writing and acting will require a significant amount of refining if a sequel ever comes to pass.

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