Review by Sean Boelman
International horror is always fascinating to watch, because it’s intriguing to see how different cultures define what they think is “scary.” The Indian independent horror film The Underbug doesn’t have the jump scares, gore, or even the low-concept character-driven horror American audiences expect, but it creates an atmosphere that is uniquely arresting.
The film follows two rioters who take refuge in an abandoned house, only to discover that they might not be alone — with a mysterious presence pushing them to the edge of their sanity. Of course, this threat is more metaphorical than anything else, but the film manages to be genuinely unsettling nonetheless.
Perhaps the most impressive thing that director Shujaat Saudagar is able to accomplish is the creation of an atmosphere that is absolutely dread-inducing. It’s a supernatural horror film, but given the low budget, Saudagar wisely frames it in a more psychological way, almost tricking the audience into feeling disturbed.
Clocking in at just over an hour, the film manages to do quite a bit in very little time. It starts off as a slow burn, creeping its way under your skin, and the atmospheric filmmaking does a lot of the heavy lifting. But once the conflict between the two characters begins, it’s an absolute rollercoaster, with moments of false security giving way to an unnerving sense of paranoia.
There is clearly a very dense social and historical context to the film, and while American audiences are unlikely to be familiar with the intricacies of the issues being commented on, it’s hard not to respect the writers for taking such a big swing. The questions that are asked by the film are certainly interesting, even if it will be hard for many viewers to answer them.
Perhaps that added context would have given a bit more background to the characters, but there’s still enough here for audiences to pick up on the basic Sartre-esque “hate is the real enemy” message. However, for a psychological horror, we know unexpectedly little about these characters to be able to get inside their heads.
The two actors — Ali Fazal and Hussain Dalal — both do a very solid job in their roles. The success of this film very much hinges on the two performances, as they determine whether or not the audience believes the suffering the characters experience. Thankfully, Falzal and Dalal do a good job of antagonizing each other without ever feeling like they are being unapproachably hostile.
The Underbug succeeds as a horror film because it manages to be rather disturbing despite the fact that many won’t understand its social and historical context. While it will probably resonate more for those who are more familiar with Indian culture and society, Shujaat Saudagar has made a film that will make viewers across the board feel undeniably uneasy.
The Underbug is playing as part of the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival, which runs in-person in Park City, UT from January 20-26 and online from January 23-29.