The clustered cities of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK) resemble Wild West villages. They stretch out along the dusty smuggler’s roads that run into Pakistan from the Afghan mountains. The region has just enough people to keep alive a local cinema scene. Pashto films, though little known in the West, are notorious from Madras to Dubai on account of their ridiculously low production values and earthy, if not vulgar content. Each picture will feature copious amounts of heavy set dancing women, lewd shots and comic strip violence.

Since the 1990s, the province has given rise to a very strange brand of horror films. It is a renaissance that has spawned at least four milestones in the world-horror genre: Cannibal (Adam Khor, 1991), Monster (Balaa, 1992), Undertaker (Goorkund, 1995) and Beautiful As The 14th Moon (Da Khwar Lasme Spogmay, 1997).

A crude billboard painting endorses the front of a small movie theatre on Cinema Road in Peshawar, the dusty capital of KPK. On it we see a terrifying portrait of the hunchbacked protagonist of Imran Khan and Shehnaz Begum’s Undertaker (1995). The character on the poster, Goorkund Baba, visits a graveyard where he witnesses the burial of a virgin girl’s fresh corpse. That night, he hurries to the spot and digs up the body, encouraged by a bizarre crowd of ghosts and snakes. Once in his wooden shack, Baba starts to assault the defenseless body. Soon we learn that soon it is merely an apparent death, because the girl wakes up from her cataleptic state, only to find that her new situation is even worse, with the insanely drooling hunchback all over her. Suddenly, the Pashto action hero Badar Munir appears and proceeds to beat Baba to a pulp.

It is as twisted and sadistic a scene as anything from The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). It makes Undertaker easy prey for the old criticism: that horror films are, in essence, deeply misogynistic. The fact that this one has been in a region with perhaps the world’s most conservative attitudes towards gender and sexuality makes such a charge even more valid.

Yet Undertaker’s second storyline turns the misogynistic thrust of the action right around. Here, the hundred-kilos plus actress Shehnaz Begum plays the role of a female Dirty Harry who deals with underworld characters in savage fashion. With some well-paced kung fu blows she also punishes the nasty graveyard-dweller and necrophile Baba. And during all these fist fights a half-smoked cigarette never once leaves his lips.

After making some inquiries, I learned that actress Shehnaz Begum co-wrote and co-directed Undertaker.

Pashto productions came into being after the relaxation of morality codes that followed the election of socialist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1971. Soon there was a tidal wave of entertaining Urdu-and-Punjabi-cult films. Also common were films set against rural backdrops focusing on sex and violence, and replete with thunderous monologues and dusty stick fights, such as Aslam Dar’s notorious Basheera (Male name, 1972). At the other end of the spectrum were hip crime films that created jazzily alienating urban atmosphere with nothing more than a few location scenes featuring international hotels and a stack of cardboard sets. Among the most famous are Rehmat Ali’s Dangerous (Khatharnak) from 1974 and Zahoor Hussain’s Man from Rawalpindi (Pindi Walla) from 1976. The biggest star of both genres was Sultan Rahi, an actor best remembered for his ability to dismember enemies with the help of an enormous axe or gandasa in 1979’s extremely bloody Punjabi film Maula Jatt (Directed by Younis Malik).

A third kind of film, the social satire, emerged during the 1970s. it tended to deal with questions of gender; in Fifty Fifty (1979), men are shown as being under the whip hand of women who spend their time reading horror and crime magazines while drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco. Only one horror film was made, Khwaja Sarfarz’s remarkable Living Corpse (Zinda Laash), which is based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

‘Zinda Laash’ (1967).

The very first Pashto film, Yousaf Khan Sher Bano, was made in 1970. The first Gujarati film, Mother and Mother (Ma ate Maa), was also released in the same year. Soon the Pashtuns were enthusiastically producing a growing number of exploitation flicks. For a while, five Pashto movies were being made every year. Then, in 1975 came the first box-office smash: Mumtaz Ali Khan’s Bride for a Single Night (Naave Da Yoshe).

In the first scene, the ubiquitous Badar Munir has to get rid of LSD-swallowing hippies who have disgraced a guesthouse run by Badar’s father. Munir’s evacuation is accompanied by an acid-rock soundtrack, and followed by a strong horror scene, in which an old woman is poisoned by a sinister guru. This leaves her beautiful daughter in the hands of nasty villains. Of course, Munir saves the day by turning up just before the girl is dishonoured and then asks her to marry him.

Bride for a Single Night’s plot is adequate and the film is technically passable. The same cannot be said about the Pashto films made in its wake. One frenzied disaster after another was sent in to the world. Movies starring Badar Munir and Mussarrat Shaheen were tolerably professional, especially Baqar Rizvi’s hilarious Black Cat, aka Lady Boss (1997) in which the actors were clothed in unbelievably cheap suits – black bags and eyes cut out – to give shape to the cat creatures. Other films, populated by unrecognizably disgusted actors and huge, hermaphrodite women, ceased telling stories altogether and presented and endless chain of obscene dances, deafening songs and impossible acts of heroism. There must have been a huge appetite for these films, since by 1984 up to twenty-five Pashto films were being made every year.

It took the Pashtuns until 1990 to come up with a new artistic success. This was Saeed Ali Khan’s frenzied Haseena Atom Bomb. It was a star-vehicle for Mussarrat Shaheen, the diva from Bride for a Single Night, who was now playing the dangerous lady boss Haseena. The film muses on Pakistani’s first atomic weapon, acquired that same year – but only in its title and thunderous prologue. It enjoys a cult status partly because it is so anarchically unconcerned about the end of the world. Haseena Atom Bomb was meant as a moving comic book in the style of a James Bond picture. In some scenes the sets are replaced by pop-art paintings. Futuristic gadgets crop up everywhere. At one point, the ever present Munir sucks his antagonists dry with the help of an injection needle as big as a full-grown man!

A song from ‘Haseena Atom Bomb’ (1990).

The current Pashto horror trend started in 1991, with Qaiser Sanober’s bizarre Cannibal (Adam Khor). The plot swings back and forth between the blood revenge that keeps a Pashto village in its grip, a mysterious hairy monster who mauls several victims, and a cannibalistic Fu Manchu look-alike who lives in the hills and who regularly sates his appetite for the flesh of small children. The cannibal is confronted by Shehnaz Begum, who is seen here for the first time in her new popular role as a babe battling an array of perverse monsters.

In the Undertaker, Shehnaz’s debut as co-director, she already demonstrated a very exceptional view on the world, taking into account the necrophiles, spirits, snakes and comic book monsters that populated the film. In 1997, she went solo and wrote, directed and produced Beautiful as the 14th Moon, arguably the only masterpiece ever to come out of the KPK. Aided by a wide-angle lens and vast quantities of ghastly blue light, dusty Peshawar appears as a magical inferno, made unsafe by lecherous demons who are high on heroin and who keep addicted slaves in their underground lairs. Whereas the earlier horror films moved away from the vulgarity associated with Pashto cinema. Shehnaz treated the audience to several grotesquely vulgar dances which she performs herself.

In 2000, a year after General Musharaf’s coup in Pakistan, the English daily newspaper The Dawn announced that Pashto film-makers would voluntarily conform to the national standards of mortality and switch to producing family films. Since then there has been an American-led war in Afghanistan, and in 2002, the landslide victory of the MMA (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal), an alliance of multiple religious parties. It has been reported that cinemas in Peshawar have had to pull down their more sensuous billboards. ‘Guns and bums’ posters were banned altogether.

Yet a recent inquiry proved that Pashto cinemas are still in business. Recent Pashto titles, as violent as before, include Kukay Khan, about the notorious real-life bandit of the same name; and Man from Hashtnagar, about family feuds in Hashtnagar, a small village known for its history of violence and disproportionately huge cemetery.

It is safe to say though, that the 1990’s trend of marrying imaginative horror to music and sex has been left behind for the time being. But somehow I have no doubt that horror films will re-emerge in KPK in the near future.

Excerpted with permission from Cinema and Society Film and Social Change in Pakistan, edited by Ali Khan and Ali Nobil Ahmad, Oxford University Press Pakistan.