The Underbug is a surprisingly effective haunted house horror from director Shujaat Saudagar who co-wrote the film with its star Hussain Dalal and Abbas Dalal. As India is ravaged by sectarian violence on the eve of its Independence Day, we follow the encounter of two rioters who take refuge in an abandoned house. The film continually subverts expectations as the story unfolds.
As the film begins, we’re enveloped by the sounds of crackling thunder, rain, and insects in a lush, green forest. A bloodied man (Dalal), stumbles upon a house in the darkness of the overcast sky. Entering the dim and abandoned dwelling, the injured man limps slowly through the rooms bracing for danger — smears of blood streak the floors and walls to signal that death lingers. The stunning cinematography and sound design set the atmosphere of dread as the man cautiously pushes forward. As the lens focuses on him, what haunts the house taunts him and the audience on the blurred edges of the camera. We are gripped tightly by his feelings of anxiety — with sweat and blood dripping from his body — as he searches for safety within the home.
It isn’t long before another unnamed man (Ali Fazal) takes shelter in the house. Conflict arises between the two men fostered by the conflict raging outside. Together, they must navigate the haunting occurrences happening around them as they hide from the dangers outside. As they search the house, they continued to be taunted by the darkness that resides there. These moments are enhanced by an incredibly ominous score, bringing with it intense feelings of unease.
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As the eerie presence blankets their encounter as they engage in both moments of mistrust, terror, and mutual understanding. However, the sanity of both men begins to deteriorate as they are plagued by disturbing occurrences. We experience a distortion of reality alongside them as they become increasingly unhinged.
Fazal delivers a compelling and layered performance, in one scene becoming convincingly possessed by grief when faced with the realities of the deaths that occurred in the house. When he holds up the doll of a little girl, falls to his knees, and sobs softly, it is impossible not to share in his anguish at the atrocity. Dalal’s fear is also palpable as he experiences visions of a little girl’s body being dragged away in the darkness. Saudagar’s frightening narrative wouldn’t be as effective without its brilliant lead performances.
The Underbug is a captivating and acutely frightening supernatural horror supported by the backdrop of political unrest and excellent performances. There is an intriguing final conflict between the two men as revelations about the character of each man come to light. The film is delightfully frightening, and well-directed, with a brilliantly shocking conclusion.