THE UNDERBUG (Slamdance 2023) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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It’s the evening before Independence Day in India, an event that plays a significant although subtle backdrop to the events that unfold in Shujaat Saudagar’s gripping supernatural chamber piece The Underbug. While the radio talkback shows that pepper the film in the background feature a steady flow of callers chatting with the host about what “freedom” means to them, we have already, at the outset of the film, learned that not everyone is feeling so celebratory. Riots have broken out with terrifying violence permeating some areas, and people are warned to stay indoors.

This is the context in which we meet one of the film’s two, unnamed central characters. Played by Hussain Dalal, the film begins as he walks through the wet bushland to find an abandoned mansion within which to hide out. Before long, however, another man (played by the charismatic Ali Fazal from Death on the Nile and Furious 7) – seemingly also on the run and looking for protection – joins him. What plays out is an emotional confrontation where the politics running rampant outside the house manifests in what breaks down to somewhat heated and often violent interactions between the two inside the house they have taken over. At other times, however, there are surprising connections, as the two men must face the reality of the strange, supernatural events that are taking place around them.

The Underbug in many ways would function just as successfully as a stage play as a feature film, so dependent is it upon the strong performances of its two male leads in what in practical terms play out in very limited, simple physical spaces within the central house location. There’s a lowkey magic of sorts taking place in the collaboration between Saudagar, Dalal and Fazal; if even one of these elements was weaker, the film as a whole would probably not work as well as it does.

This short feature clocks in at just over an hour in length, but it doesn’t waste a frame and – thankfully – doesn’t stretch its story out any longer than it needs to be. This is a film that actively rejects any assumptions a western viewer may have about what Indian cinema “is” going in, and is all the more refreshing for it. This is captivating stuff, a canny genre work and a powerful viewing experience.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic for ABC Radio in Australia, She has written for Film International, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Peter Strickland, and Alice in Wonderland in film. She frequently contributes commentaries, liner notes and video essays to home entertainment releases from companies such as Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Eureka Entertainment, Second Sight and Severin Films. She is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).