Among the joys of movie-watching is the ability to visit exotic fantasy worlds, far removed from one's everyday reality. Sometimes it's an enormous palace in the jungles of India. Sometimes it's a nightclub with a disco ball and a bubble machine, where the singer gyrates in gold fringed hot pants and halter top, shiny black go-go boots, and a bizarre feathered headress, occasionally pausing to flirt with guys in white Travolta leisure suits. Sometimes a person is lucky enough to get both of them in the same movie, and all is right with the world.
That movie is 1984's Purana Mandir, usually credited with kick-starting a trend for actual supernatural horror in Bollywood cinema, currently available on DVD from the fine people at Mondo Macabro.
Modern college student Suman thinks her wealthy father disapproves of Sanjay, her true love, just because he's poor. She doesn't know that her family line was cursed by an ancient demon in the pre-credits sequence, and her father is trying to thwart her death in childbirth by preventing her from getting married. Once they know the truth, the young couple and their friends travel to Suman's distant ancestral palace, the site of the dark dealings long ago, in order to prove it's all a superstition. But boy, are they wrong about that.
The story includes a fairly racy fantasy sequence, in which friend Sapna imagines herself naked in a haystack. You don't see anything, but it's eyebrow-raising for Bollywood. Just after that, the girl is set upon by face-painted natives (dressed like they came off a Tarzan set) and caught in a net, only to be rescued immediately by her body-building, martial artist boyfriend. He fights them off her attackers such an over-the-top way that I thought it was another fantasy scene, but alas, no. It was all supposed to be really happening, although nobody seems concerned about it later. The leader of the tribesmen meanders off into a whole subplot that's obviously a parody of Sholay, but trust me, having seen Sholay doesn't make it any funnier. These scenes have the kind of ineptitude on display in the Ramsay's later bomb Dhund, and will definitely be fast-forwardable in later viewings.
The main meat of the story, though, is actually suspenseful, and loaded with Hammer-esque atmosphere. Importantly, the music is quite good, which sets this apart from true cheesy low-budget Bollywood, where the soundtrack is usually the first thing to suffer. Even the background music is a cut above, with an eerie electronic rock score that would be right at home in a Dario Argento movie.
Special kudos: during one of the "what the?" plot twists, our protagonists are about to be sacrificed by villagers, who want to save themselves from Saamri, the evil demon from the past who's been inadvertently resurrected. I can't help likening this scene to the part in an American movie where the big-city protagonists are menaced by sinister hillbillies. Anyway, the accompanying dance number is so hip-shakingly up-beat, it's like the Solid Gold Dancers with knives. Proving once and for all that even human sacrifice is better with disco!
There's also a hymn and a ceremony to Shiva, along with a whole subplot about how Shiva's trident is the only weapon that can defeat Saamri. I mean, duh.
The only actor I recognized was caretaker Sadashiv Amarapurkar, who played the bizarre-o villain in the Ajay Devgan/Mithun Chakraborty action drama Jung, but Ajay Agarwal is great as the snarling, demonic Saamri. I can't wait for his return engagement in Purana Mandir 2: Saamri, which is on its way from India via eBay right now. I plan to become North Dakota's premier expert on the horror films of the Ramsay Brothers. You know, because North Dakota has such a demand.
(FYI the trailer features many of the highlights and is online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60QQXdQLdFw&feature=related)