Bhoothakaalam really has no business being this good. It is a sign of the ongoing renaissance in Malayalam cinema since the last decade and more that even a weary genre like horror, where most movies only look to cash in on jump scares without exploring the themes of psychological fear or have any rich character portraits, can provide an incredibly memorable viewing experience. And before the usual horror buffs get turned off, I should mention that it is utterly scary too with minimal effects. I’m still haunted by the closing scenes of the film.

The movie is mostly set in a small, nondescript house and the mother and son, Asha (Revathi) and Vinu (Shane Nigam), who live there. There is a grandmother (Valsala Menon) who is living with them initially, but she is old and infirm, unable to do much for herself and dependent on the mother and son for her basic needs. As the movie opens, she ominously comes and sits on her grandson’s bed, startling him. When he resentfully helps his mother change her diaper, there is a feeling that the grandmother understands that he considers her a burden. And her passing, even if it appears natural, leaves a sliver of doubt with a scene that shows her eyes suddenly focusing for a moment at something or someone.

After her death though, things take a more sinister turn for Asha and Vinu. What should have been his ticket to live a freer life and perhaps finally find a job somewhere leads instead to a slow mental disintegration in Vinu and in turn his relationship with Asha. As he starts noticing a sinister presence in the house, he is unable to convince anyone, including his mother, of their veracity. And perhaps, neither the viewer. Are the shadows and signs he sees only the workings of a hyperactive, depressed imagination? Asha herself suffers from clinical depression, which she discusses in her regular visits to her psychiatrist. And it is not a stretch to believe that the visions which even she may see after a point could be a result of the constrained circumstances she finds herself in; losing her mother, who was a pillar of support in earlier years, as well as a wantaway son who is also alcoholic and jobless. She is at heart a string and independent woman who virtually raised her son on her own, but who suffers immensely from her mental condition and personal straits.  Soon, a relative suggest bringing in a counsellor (Saiju Kurup) to meet with Vinu. And while Vinu doesn’t take too kindly to him, the counsellor decides to find out about the house’s history. What he finds is a painful past which even he starts suspecting is affecting its present inhabitants. But how much do the mother and son want to be helped, and can they be really helped or are they doomed?

Amazingly, this movie brought about Revathi’s first Kerala State Award. Considering her longevity and substance, its remarkable that finally it was a genre she was hardly amenable to initially which brought her the accolade, but it’s well deserved. She is brilliant, conveying decades of mental trauma and hardships with just a look or word. As is Shane Nigam in the extremely tough role of Vinu, a young man haunted by both ghosts and his inner demons, while also convincing us that perhaps they are both one and the same. And that is the genius of this film. For its whole running time, it plants the seed of doubt in our minds on whether happenings are truly supernatural or a product of anxious, melancholy minds. If you’re a movie watcher who loves to interpret individual scenes for their hidden meanings, this movie will provide a wealth of them. But if you just want to have a rollickingly scary time, the movie will still satisfy. The final quarter of the film was a veritably chilly affair, with the house seemingly intent on not clawing back any inhabitants who want to escape its pull. And while the usual haunted house mystery has as its setting old, dilapidated mansions set in the middle of nowhere, here it’s an everyday middle-class abode. The final shots again leave the question mark in one’s mind. Ghosts or figments of the mind? Can a normal building of bricks and mortar really cause problems for its residents or as always, is it humans who bring about the horror themselves?

The director of this small masterpiece, Rahul Sadasivan, has only made one movie prior; in 2013 he made a movie called Red Rain, starring Narain in the lead, which though ultimately not wholly effective, still setup a very intriguing premise and was perhaps the only alien-based flick I’ve seen in Malayalam. But with this film he has truly set a marker to watch out for. It is after a while that I’ve seen a horror movie worthy of all the accolades that come its way.