John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: If it's October, this horror film and series are a must-see

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'GHOUL' (NETFLIX) It's not a typical combination — dystopian fiction and supernatural horror — but this three-episode series from India manages to put them together with a lot of skill, thrills and chills and achieves the unlikely victory of having each element built off each other to admirable effect.

Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte) is an eager advocate of the authoritarian government who spars with her father, an aging liberal academic who consistently undermines directives. When Nida is assigned as an interrogator, her devotion to the state is challenged both in terms of the reality of her assignment and the unreality of a visitation that threatens her life.

At the center of the foreboding is a Muslim terrorist who has murdered a huge number of citizens, but there is tension because her fellow interrogators are concerned that his Muslim practice will interfere somehow with her ability to do her job against Muslim enemies of the state. Actually, her faith is the least of her problems — the corruption of the staff, the hellish mesmerism of the terrorist and her own personal guilt will all conspire to create the actual nightmare.

"Ghoul" walks an fascinating tightrope and is all the more admirable for doing it with perfect balance. It's a slow burn of tension with bursts of kineticism and terror where the atmosphere drapes all over the characters with a dispassionate fog that threatens to explode at any moment — think Berberian Sound Studio crossed with Alien.

The perfect presentation of terror doesn't take away from the deeper themes that inhabit the show. Guilt, blind patriotism, fanaticism, blind revenge, government-approved atrocities, these are all part of the mix, as well as the small monsters that lurk in any human and which extreme situations bring to the fore. As a bonus, it inverts so many of the action tropes we're conditioned with, making the Muslim woman the focus and, ultimately, the hero.

This means that even with a top-notch realization, it all hinges on Apte, whose strong performance and commanding presence center all the action, all the ideas, and help turn it into a cohesive whole that has a human heart. And in its presentation of the fight against totalitarianism, it becomes more prescient than you'd initially expect.

'THE RITUAL' (NETFLIX)

One general way to read horror movies is that the terror reckoned with is really a vehicle to discover the cracks in any given group, to examine the dynamics and reveal the weaknesses. Horror happens to individuals, but mostly it happens to groups — towns, families, friends, co-workers, crew members and, of course, strangers who must band together. Sometimes the group will survive, while other times only certain members, or even a solitary member, will come out of the horror alive, usually the result of personality aspects that might previously have been a detriment, but now reveals the character in their element.

"The Ritual" puts this rubric into narrative action when a group of old friends goes to the Swedish wilderness to hike in honor of one of their own, who died in a vicious way. One of the friends, Luke (Rafe Spall) was witness to that death and carries a hefty weight of guilt in regard to it, and the hiking trip is partly his way of seeking redemption.

But redemption is never easy, and as the crew pays tribute to their friend, they begin their march homeward with only their hubris obstructing their clear passage. The beautiful, foreboding forests of Sweden become the scene of suspense and terror that pulls from the classic city-people-against-the-evil-ancient-forces-the-land trope and offers some pretty good chills in the process.

Character development and good acting are two of the unsung most important elements of the horror genre, since its empathy for the characters that make a horror movie more than just an exercise in watching people get slaughtered. "The Ritual" does well there, presenting decent, well-realized characters even as it marches into the less-trodden region of horrific Nordic legend within a forest that oozes discomfort.

John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at johnseven.me


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