Netflix's New Horror Series 'Ghoul' Ramps Up to a Terrifying, Gory Ending
Continuing its efforts to break into the massive television market in India, Netflix followed up Sacred Games with another Phantom Films series, co-produced by Blumhouse: the three-part horror miniseries Ghoul. Set in a military interrogation center where suspected terrorists are tortured for information, Ghoul pulls from Arabic folklore to craft a tense, tightly edited monster movie with a fantastic leading woman.
That leading woman, in fact, connects Ghoul and Sacred Games. Radhika Apte stars in both, though her character is given much more to do here. As Nida Rahim, a gifted interrogator-in-training in a dystopian near-future version of India under strict authoritarian rule, where riots and bombings are common and dissidents are imprisoned, she turned in her own father for seditious activities, including the Fahrenheit 451-inspired crime of stashing illegal books. After handing over her dad, she's specially tapped to take part in the interrogation of a high-profile terrorist suspect, though she's distrusted by her colleagues for her association with her father, her religion (she's Muslim), and her hesitance to use violence to extract information from inmates. Of course, things are not what they seem here, and the mysterious dynamic between Nida, the government, and the otherworldly goal of the imprisoned -- summoning the Ghoul, or jinn -- mysteriously unfold.
Burdening the emotional fallout for her act of governmental loyalty, Nida harnesses most of the dramatic weight in the series. She commands the screen, remaining its most electrifying force, and watching the horror play out through her eyes as a suspected heretic raises the stakes, bringing the fear and claustrophobic tension of the setting -- a labyrinthine maximum-security prison where the windows are blacked out and classical music is constantly playing over the loudspeakers -- to the surface.
Horror movies have become more nuanced lately, and Ghoul, while still a thrilling watch, is anything but. It’d be silly to call the ghoul a metaphor for guilt; it’s a literal guilt monster. The final episode’s title -- "Finish the Task, Reveal Their Guilt, Eat Their Flesh" -- rather succinctly summarizes this one’s schtick. The ghoul unearths dark secrets among the characters, throwing the interrogation center into violent chaos as they come to light. Given its lack of subtlety and very straightforward mythology -- spelled out by an aging prisoner with one eye -- Ghoul feels like a throwback monster movie, old-school in its approach, a zombie story with a modernized look but old tropes and story structures.
Ghoul remains judicious in its jump-scares but gratuitous in its violence, some of its scenes verging on torture porn. It wants to unsettle more than it wants to terrify, and it’s mostly successful, playing with sound and lighting in its scarier moments to intensify the the creepiness. The monster itself looks nightmarish but strays from ever being too campy by reigning in any lingering reveals. Its sallow face hovering behind an unknowing Nida evokes the most disturbing shot from Insidious, one of the best monster movies of the past decade. But that’s the thing: Ghoul struggles to stand on its own, and while it doesn’t feel like it’s merely cribbing other works, it still comes off as derivative.
In some ways, the script Ghoul follows is nostalgic, a stripping down of the genre to its simplest parts. But that also means it's predictable at times, and high on twists but low on the sort of innovation that made movies like Hereditary and Get Out such exciting recent releases. It falls prey to the same trappings that can weaken horror’s power: plot developments that seem almost too convenient and rushed character development. Some of its more interesting aspects, like the dystopian drama of its world, remain too broad to really add color or freshness to the series. What exactly does the regime stand for, and why are outsider factions raging against it? At the same time, the world-building that happens in the first episode nearly drags out too long, contextualizing Nida’s internal struggle but also giving the series a tedious start.
It's not until the back half of the series does the ghoulish horror really ramp up, culminating in an action-packed third act that's better to watch with the lights on. Ghoul was originally conceived as a movie until Netflix came into the picture, and maybe it would have been better delivered with some of its looser parts trimmed. The way the first episode ends doesn’t exactly inspire the gotta-play-the-next-one impulse; it's more a first act to a film, dripping in exposition. But by early in the second episode, Ghoul settles into a more frantic pacing and tone. It’s a quick watch, and its tropes aren’t damning; just familiar. But sometimes a classic monster movie does just the trick.