‘Blue Moon’ will never sound the same once you’ve seen An American Werewolf in London. David isn’t doing too badly for someone who not long ago lost his friend in a wolf attack and was himself bitten. Yes, he sees dead people, but he’s also struck up a relationship with a pretty nurse. We see him alone in his apartment. He’s normal at first but then clutches his arm as Creedence Clearwater Revival warns about a bad moon on the rise. What follows is a classic horror scene, David transforming, with the assistance of Rick Baker’s masterful practical effects, into a werewolf. His painful groans are made even rougher by the song that accompanies his transformation: Sam Cooke’s satin-smooth version of ‘Blue Moon’.
I wouldn’t be surprised if American Werewolf was the model for Amar Kaushik's Bhediya. Bhaskar (Varun Dhawan), an ambitious contractor, is also bitten by a wolf in the wilderness—the forests of Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh, where he’s trying to garner local support for a road project. He too falls for a doctor, a vet named Anika (Kriti Sanon, fetching in shoulder-length hair). And he transforms in a room by himself, contorting painfully just as David did. It’s not as scary or memorable as American Werewolf, though. This could be because of the CGI, which while serviceable doesn’t have anything like the tactility of Baker’s work. But it’s also the music, a blatant rip-off of the Stranger Things theme, which blandly reinforces what we’re seeing rather than providing a counterpoint.
It's not like Bhediya can’t do musical jokes. After one of Bhaskar’s transformations, his friends Janardan (Abhishek Banerjee, funny even the jokes aren't) and Jomin (Paalin Kabak) go looking for him. With no way to contact their friend, they try howling into the night. It doesn’t work, of course, but then Tera Suroor starts playing in the car, the closest thing in Hindi film music to an animal yowl. The wolf immediately appears. The next gag is even better—“chaddi pehen ke phool khila hai” playing as a penitent Bhaskar holds the same briefs he was wearing the previous night when he transformed (it’s a pity they couldn’t resist putting it in the trailer). In a later scene, we hear a few lines of ‘Aanewala Aayega’, a nice little nod to the 1949 gothic ghost classic, Mahal.
Himesh, Jungle Book, Kamal Amrohi, some Shaun of the Dead, some John Landis. This might seem a surprisingly eclectic mix, but as the recent Phone Bhoot showed, recent Hindi horror-comedy owes at least as much to Hollywood templates as homegrown ones. Bhediya knows it’s speaking to an audience that’ll recognise a Breaking Bad reference and also chuckle at a mention of Jaani Dushman or Junoon (even if they haven’t seen them). Kaushik is something of a template-setter himself; his Stree jumpstarted Hindi comic horror in 2018. It’s been diminishing returns for the subgenre since—a trend that Bhediya doesn’t quite reverse.
Part of the problem is Kaushik and screenwriter Niren Bhatt’s rendering of Arunachal Pradesh. They want to make jokes about chow mein and Bruce Lee, in line with the film’s unapologetically juvenile humour. They also want to show that they know better. So they try everything. There are racist jokes, but also a hurt lecture by Jomin. The locals are superstitious and gullible. There’s an ancient healer. A private militia turns up for no good reason. But Bhaskar and Janardan are also parodies of a certain kind of dumb north Indian.
During the initial wolf attack, Bhaskar shimmies up one of the trees he’s so keen to clear away, only to have it crack and bend, exposing his backside to the animal’s claws. It’s an early sign of the forest turning on him, a way of saying ‘reckless deforestation is bad’ without actually saying it. Of course, there’s only so much subtext a Hindi film will indulge. As an outsider to the state and an enemy of the environment, Bhaskar is always headed for a major talking-to. It comes via Anika, healer of animals, lover of nature, the one articulate representative of the region who just happens to look nothing like the other locals.
Bhediya is not on the level of Stree, which had a better comic ensemble and a way with language. It's a sight better than Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 and Phone Bhoot, the other horror comedies this year. I’m not ungrateful for small mercies, though it’s also becoming clear the genre needs a transformation soon, preferably with a cool soundtrack.