Created by: Patrick Graham || Written by: Patrick Graham, Suhani Kumar
Directed by: Patrick Graham, Nikhil Mahajan || Starring: Vineet Kumar Singh, Aahana Kumra, Suchitra Pillai, Jatin Goswami, Jitendra Joshi, Siddharth Menon
No. of Episodes: 4 (~180 minutes total)
My selective tastes in movies and especially television series have served me well on Netflix, my preferred streaming subscription, as the site is well known for its mammoth amounts of content of extreme varying quality. My affection for South Asian filmmaking is well served there, as well, given its sizeable library of classical Bollywood and South Indian Cinema in addition to notable Netflix Original Indian projects (e.g. Bulbbul , Sacred Games [2018-2019]).
Every now and then I make a mistake (e.g. The Old Guard ), however, the most severe of which has been Marvel’s Punisher (2017, 2019) series, which cost me thirteen (13!) hours of my life I’ll never get back from its bloated, wholly unnecessary second season. A close second is Patrick Graham’s Betaal, a sort of zombie-horror action film co-produced by Blumhouse and Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment that seamlessly blends the worst cliches of American horror (e.g. comical demonic possession, toothless undead monsters) and Hindi melodrama (e.g. bloated, poorly paced storytelling, bad supporting characters, heavy-handed British colonialism). At the very least, Betaal is weirder and more entertaining than The Punisher’s second season, despite being just as bad, if not worse. At least it’s only three hours long and not thirteen.
To elaborate, Betaal is a Netflix mini or limited series about a fictionalized, almost Indiana Jones (1981,1984, 1989)-esque tomb cursed by various Hindu gods and corrupted in the 19th century by a platoon of the British East India Company. Our principle characters include a team of paramilitary commandos (e.g. Vineet Kumar Singh, Aahana Kumra, Suchitra Pillai) recruited by unscrupulous businessmen (Jitendra Joshi, Ankur Vikal) to forcibly relocate local villagers defending said forbidden tomb, an action that leads to the unleashing of the tomb’s curse: A horde of colonial era British Redcoat zombies, which terrorize our heroes.
The almost grindhouse, exploitation cinema flavor of this genre hybrid sounds intriguing and is what convinced me to take a chance on Betaal despite its terrible critical reviews. The opening episode of this four-part miniseries is strong, as it establishes its action or horror genre stock characters, implies its main villainy, and gives the titular undead curse and tomb an air of mysticism and dread characteristic of older fantasy-adventure films like Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) and Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999, 2001). Unfortunately, Graham fumbles the execution of this delicious premise big-time as the 2nd, 3rd, and final episodes meander from plot-point to plot, stretching his story’s pace to the breaking point and floundering in complicated demonic mythology that confuses more than it scares. Betaal has no idea how to progress its story for its entire middle act (episodes 2 and 3, or 90 minutes total), as its characters bicker with each other via tedious, overwritten dialogue and the zombie antagonists do nothing for the majority of the series.
Graham’s use of his undead monsters, the supposed main selling point of this “high-concept” limited series, is the most frustrating aspect of Betaal. For one, the zombies look ridiculous with their bulging, ruby red eyes and awful prosthetics. They don’t feel frightening and instead appear more like aliens from a goofy 1950s B-movie. Even worse is their impact on the story: They stand around doing nothing for much of the series, while some times they use 19th century muskets and coordinated battle tactics and at other times act like typical, rabid, mindless zombies — like they read the script in advance. Graham and co-writer Suhani Kanwar attempt to justify their antagonists’ inconsistent abilities and the show’s unclear diegetic rules through hackneyed plot-devices like spiritual (demonic?) possession and cheap character deaths. The show is also unwilling to show much hardcore action like soldiers blasting those undead Redcoats to pieces a la the space marines from Aliens (1986), a picture from which Graham clearly draws influence. Most every time a horde of zombies attack our heroes, the show either (a) kills them off immediately, (b) forces the characters inside another room to sidestep the action sequence, or (c) cuts away from the scene for no reason at all. I have no idea why the show does this, because given the scope and production values of the series, budgetary constraints are not the reason.
Outside of the general plot and lackluster script, Betaal fares somewhat better from a cinematographic and visual standpoint. The show’s set-designs are great and do much to establish the story’s ominous tone, while a few neat sequences like the paramilitary forces breaking up a village riot in slow-motion, Singh blowing away a dozen zombie Redcoats with a canon, and the surviving cast sneaking past hordes of zombies under cover of darkness against an extended dolly long-take stand apart from the rest. Betaal also avoids some tiresome zombie cliches, to its credit, such as the headshot requirement first introduced by George A. Romero’s Dead franchise (1968, 1978, 1985), which slows the pace of combat in every film in which it’s featured.
Aside from a strong opening episode and those notable stylistic exceptions, though, Betaal is an impotent, indecisive horror-action hybrid. It squanders as much potential as The Rise of Skywalker (2019) or The Walking Dead (2010-) with its cool premise and genre-hybrid flavor. Contemporary Indian commandos battling undead Redcoats from the British East India Company should be a grindhouse extravaganza more fun than a barrel of monkeys, but given a shitty script worthy of the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies (1994, 1996,1998, 2002), including but not limited to awful pacing, bland melodrama, inexplicable editing, and poorly explained in-universe mythology, Betaal is a failure.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Betaal represents the worst of both Red Chillies Entertainment and Blumhouse Productions, wasting a wonderful premise, a decent cast, and great production-design on a script that goes nowhere for 2/4 of its episodes and seems afraid to use its featured zombie antagonists for anything other than vague threats. Its editing frustrates action fans while its cornball possession subplot makes little sense to lovers of horror.
— However… Patrick Graham shows some potential with a handful of creative sequences. When the show stops teasing the viewer, its zombie action scenes aren’t bad.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED
? On the poster, Vineet Kumar Singh kind of looks like Shah Rukh Khan with his helmet on.