Every culture has a version of the ghoul.
In Filipino lower mythology the horrid Balbal of Palawan's Tagbanua tribe has curved nails and a long tongue that replaces a corpse with a carved banana trunk. In Arabic folklore, the ghoul is a demon drawn from Muslim legend that digs up graves, preys on corpses or insane humans who are weakened and weighed down by their sins.
Whether as coffin raider or sin eater, all ghouls share a shared cross-cultural trait: it is a foul thing that can change appearance like a chameleon and move among its prey undetected, and it can be summoned through a blood sacrifice.
When all hell breaks loose in Netflix's horror mini-series Ghoul, military interrogator Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte) realizes that it is also a force to be reckoned with, even by trained soldiers.
One thing we love about this short but intense series is how it doesn't pull any punches, whether in gore or story. The setting, for one, is a commentary on our modern terrorist fears: an alternate future in India when the government has declared a ban on non-state approved education, entertainment, and literature as part of the clamp down against jihadists and extremists of all stripes.
In the first episode we find out that Nida, an aspiring secret services agent, has a father whose professorial duties aren't exactly abiding by the sanctioned curriculum. This means he is teaching subversive, treasonous ideas to teens and kids. While he's sworn to Nida that he has stopped his errant ways, she later finds out that his anti-government activism and illicit educational practices continue unabated—even emboldened by the fact that his daughter is working for the secret police and he thinks he can get away anytime through her intervention.
Days later, their house is raided, her father is arrested, and his prohibited books confiscated. Who turned him in? Nida. Supposedly dutiful and sweet daughter Nida.
Months later, Nida turning in her dad for imprisonment has earned her cred among the state head honchos. Also, she has accumulated high scores and risen through the ranks, completing her training as a military interrogator.
Given her choice of assignment, she opts to be transferred to a remote and very covert information extraction center, India's cross between a Russian Gulag and American Guantanamo Bay, where her first assignment is to break the notorious terrorist bomber Ali Saeed Al Yacoub (Mahesh Balraj).
The noob interrogator needs to draw a confession out of the terror cell leader while allaying the stigma that comes with being the daughter of a proven traitor.
During the course of her interrogation, Nida experiences unexplainable nightmares and phenomena, finds a strange symbol drawn in blood, and generally feels way in over her head. As it's revealed that Saeed isn't just your run of the mill terrorist, suspicions rise, betrayals become mutiny, and the most shameful secrets of the military personnel are revealed.
All the while the ghoul of legend fulfills its promise and feasts on the flesh of the sinful. So much damn blood we spilled!
Some of the best work in Ghoul is its ability for old school terror and body horror to come forth in the Grand Guignol scenes without compromising the suspense or the lingering questions of the plot. The weak of heart may feel the need to vomit in some sequences.
We expected nothing less from Patrick Graham, who has helmed TV movies like 2008's Slaughterhouse and from Blumhouse, the people behind Insidious, Get Out, and HBO's Sharp Objects, and they have quietly, efficiently delivered.
There's a respect paid to old school slasher and body horror movies from Fright Night to Phantasm, but again the cinematography of the totally lightless interrogation house and being committed to the classic story revelations of the creature hunting down people in an enclosed space is made newly exciting and invigorating to the genre.
What makes Ghoul a great addition to the modern canon of Asian horror is how Radhika Apte, the Bollywood stage actress and dramatic starrer in Netflix's crime thriller Sacred Games, has gone beyond leading lady type and lends her thespian chops well to this kind of milieu even as she confronts the creature who's turning the tables on its interrogators, exposing their most reviled secrets all the while making you ask: who summoned the ghoul and what is its mission?
Nida asks the right questions for someone battling a supernatural evil: how do we avoid getting damaged while finding out how to kill this shape-shifting entity? How do you fight the demons when you haven't even exorcised your own? How do you call for backup when you're at an off-the-books black ops detention center?
There's nary a stupid, deus ex kind of moment in these three episodes of around 45 minutes each and the terror rises and falls like concussive waves under the directorial baton of Graham.
The supporting cast also play their genre roles well, whether it's the well-meaning and level-headed commanding officer Lt. Dacunha (Tumhari Sulu) who can't come to grips with the supernatural nature of the enemy, or Sergeant Laxmi (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee), as the archetypal mean girl in this story who believes that Nida is a deep cover anti-government mole who's been sent to undermine the center's operations.
Apte as the zealous but emotionally embattled Nida is hands down credible whether holding a shotgun and shooting the bejezus out of things or agonizing over her choices as a dutiful daughter or an agent of the state. She carries this series with her charm offensive: her expressive, huge almond eyes and a propensity to be powerful on-screen at the right times without going full retard with the screaming or the panic.
Nida is now part of the empowered female horror action hero—among the high trees of Ellen Ripley, Jane Levy's Mia (in that excellent Evil Dead reboot), and the women of The Descent. The ending of this mini-series will enthrall you, even as you nod your head at the aptness of its lessons.
Some trivia (that we don't recommend you try): they say if you shed your blood and say the name of the ghoul five times in the dead of night in front of a mirror it will come and do your bidding.
Ghoul is available for streaming on Netflix by August 24.