Milind Rau’s horror film, supposedly based on a true story, opens in the 1930s during colonial times. Against the backdrop of the Himalayas, a contented Chinese mother and daughter occupy a beautiful house.
Decades later, with the film now turning from grainy black and white to colour, the opening credits quickly take us through the courtship and wedding to the present life of Krish (Siddharth) and Lakshmi (Andrea Jeremiah). The couple lives in a cosy home with a view of the Himalayas. Krrish is a respected brain surgeon at a local hospital. The only interruption to their well-settled and peaceful life is the morning doorbell that marks the maid’s arrival. But things change when a new family moves into the house next door.
We know the vast colonial house next door to be the same one from the black and white bits seen earlier. It is now freshly occupied by a couple, two daughters, the grandfather and house help. But soon after they move in, the older daughter Jenny (Anisha Victor) starts behaving strangely. This is not just about flirting openly with Krish with scant disregard for Lakshmi, but about going into a daze, having fits and other inexplicable behaviour.
With the help of Krish, a local pastor and psychiatrist, Jenny’s father Paul (Atul Kulkarni) tries to understand what is troubling his child and what is haunting his new home.
By now, you have been taken through the wood-panelled corridors of the house next door and seen flashes of a passing shadow or heard things moving around at night. Rau does not shy away from liberally using the genre tropes and tools, but he does so very effectively.
The story brings in disquieting spirits, possession, exorcism, good versus evil and devil worship in serious ways, using low angles sparingly and, barring one or two instances, sidestepping cheesiness. Rau packs in the scares even as he and co-writer Siddharth pay blatant homage to their favourite stories in the genre. In one scene, Jenny is reading William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist on Friday the 13th.
The sound effects, lighting, special effects and music elevate the eeriness and sense of dread. The pre-interval set piece is notable for being tautly executed and impressively performed – by Victor in particular. However, the story should have crisply come together thereafter. At 140 minutes, we are introduced to fresh theories, slowly unfolding discoveries and new characters after the interval. Snipping a few scenes would have speeded up the pulse rate.
The execution and acting make up for what the screenplay squanders. Victor, Jeremiah and Siddharth bring in the right dose of lightness, depth, fear and frenzy to their parts. The House Next Door is very well crafted and a commendable addition to the genre.