This is a film which poses the reviewer problems. On the one hand, it is in familiar horror morality play territory, as a group of teens go off the beaten track and are punished for their transgressions. On the other, it's from Pakistan, a country not known for its cinema, least of all for its horror cinema.

We open with sights and sounds that could easily be from a Hollywood film: a full moon, a lonely road late at night, a car racing along, hard rock blaring from the speakers.

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Yet, looking and listening closer, we notice the little things: the Islamabad license plate on the car, the less recognisable language of the song's lyrics.

Something appears in front of the car, causing the driver to swerve and crash. Lightly injured, he gets out and tries to find his bearings. Something attacks and everything goes black...

It's another death on this ill-starred road, but nothing for anyone to be overly concerned about, not least our high school and college age protagonists, a mixed group of four boys and two girls with various types present and correct, including the spoilt, privileged Roxy; good girl Ayesha, stoner and horror fan OJ and, least familiar and most interesting, the Christian Simon, a poor boy hoping for a scholarship.

Having scored tickets for a rock concert they've concocted a story about a school trip to get round the more conservative and protective parents, like Ayesha's, and, equipped with plentiful supplies of dope and music, pile into the van and set off on the road to hell.

After being delayed by environmental protestors for a while, they stop at a roadside tea shack for refreshments. The proprietor warns them of the mortal danger should they continue on their current course, but in time-honoured fashion, they ignore him until it's too late.

Taken as a horror film, Hell’s Road (Zibahkhana) is easy enough to judge. The question is simple: does it deliver the shocks, suspense and splatter one would expect? With the filmmakers quoting from the likes of The Evil Dead, Zombie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Pieces and the Italian giallo, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Moreover, they reach beyond these necessary, but not sufficient, elements by giving us credible dialogue, characterisation and performances that actually make us care about the protagonists and their fates.

Taken as a cultural document, which, underneath, I would argue that most horror films are, with some of the richest subtexts to be found anywhere in cinema, Hells's Ground is a whole lot more difficult to get a handle on.

Even with, or maybe partly because of, a set of relatively Westernised characters, each of whom slips easily between English and Urdu and clearly have spent more time out of Pakistan than in it, the contours of the culture and society are just that bit less discernible to the typical Anglophone viewer.

It's difficult to know how far the filmmakers' stance is conservative, progressive or a combination of the two, and whether this is related to the apparently controversial nature of the film within Pakistan, or whether the simple act of making a horror movie was itself felt to be a challenge by the establishment.

Certainly we're given a set of juxtapositions - traditional and modern, indigenous and foreign/hybridised, rural and urban, religious and secular, Muslim and non-Muslim, science/technology and magic/belief - that offers a route in, but what the non-Pakistani viewer needs is a basic primer and set of comparison points with more familiar Western slasher film models.

Does telling your parents that you are going on a study excursion, rather than to a rock concert, count as a mortal transgression? Does smoking dope? Does failing to go to the mosque, or say one's prayers? Does being together unchaperoned with a member of the opposite sex? Does the notion of a masculinised/asexualised girl apply, especially given that the film's most striking monster, a Leatherface type male figure, dressed in a burqa, is clearly transgressing conventional gender boundaries in the opposite direction to the manner of his Hollywood counterpart.

In a sense, it is not the filmmakers’ fault that they cannot provide answers. This is an experimental movie, doing something no one has attempted within Pakistani cinema before and, therefore, is more about raising questions than answering them.

It can be argued that in an age of globalisation, internationalisation and hybridisation of identity it is more important to emphasise the process of working and thinking through such questions instead of pretending we know the answers.

One thing is clear. The filmmakers have a genuine knowledge and appreciation for their chosen art form. The proof comes from the quoting of the first ever Pakistani horror film, Zinda Laash (Dracula In Istanbul) and an amusing cameo from its star, as the tea shack prophet of doom, along with an extra-diegetic awareness of where Hell's Ground's backers, Mondo Macabro, are coming from.

Though avowedly celebrating the wondrous weirdness of world cinema and marketing their product in those admittedly exploitative terms, Mondo Macabro's genuine commitment to and knowledge of their cinema, as well as their ability to contextualise it so that it makes anthopological and sociological sense, is clear to anyone who has ever watched one of their Eurotika, Mondo Macabro or DVD featurette documentaries.

If the difficulty here is that they and we don't have the hindsight to be able to judge what Hell's Ground may mean, who's to say that in 20 years time it won't be celebrated as the Zinda Laash for a new generation, or as the film which ushered in a new wave of Pakistani horror in its own right?

Recommended to the adventurous fan with a willingness to look beyond Hollywood, or the current wave of J-, K- and Spanish horror.

Reviewed on: 09 Aug 2008
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Pakistani horror flick along traditional slasher lines - young people, road trip, Leatherface lookalike, oops!
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Director: Omar Khan

Writer: Omar Khan, Pete Tombs

Starring: Ashfaq Bhatti, Sultan Billa, Osman Khalid Butt, Rubya Chaudhry, Rooshanie Ejaz, Najma Malik, Salim Meraj, Haider Raza, Rehan, Kunwar Ali Roshan

Year: 2007

Runtime: 78 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Pakistan


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