7 Movies for a Rainy Evening to Give Yourself a Serious Craving for Chamber Drama

If, like me, you grew up in the 80s and early 90s of India (and I’m not going to deny that just thinking about it makes me feel a bit ancient), then you probably understand the value of “less is more” when it comes to quality television. There were only a handful of T.V serials playing on Doordarshan back then, but all of them had strong stories and were thoughtfully executed with actors who knew how to keep their acts sensitive and balanced. Many of us did not have a television set at home, so we used to flock the neighbors’ houses, which became mini cinema halls and a prime aspect of social gatherings in that era. I get especially nostalgic when I think of the Sunday evenings, when they showed popular Bengali movies. The list was not unlimited and some movies were always on demand, so they were repeated often. One such movie that planted the seed of the future movie buff in me was “Thana Theke Aschi”, a 1965 thriller with a stellar cast assembling many stalwarts of Bengali cinema: Uttam Kumar, Madhabi Mukherjee, Kamal Mitra and Chaya Devi, to name a few.

The story of “Thana Theke Aschi” takes place on a singular night when a Sub-inspector named Tinkari Haldar visits an upper-middleclass home of an industrialist to investigate the suicide of a woman. As he interrogates each family member while reading from the diary of the deceased, and in the process unravels their connection with the suicide, the smug family drawing room becomes the center of simmering suspense. This is a brilliant example of a drawing room drama and it was only recently that I discovered that the movie was a Bengali adaptation of English dramatist J. B Priestly’s 1945 classic “An Inspector Calls”. So, that’s how started my life-long love for chamber drama (another term I learned recently), a movie or play with a small cast and minimalist setting, often a single set, that depicts the action taking place over a short period of time, often only a few hours or less. The story or concept used in these movies is often highly innovative and dialogue-based because these are the core elements on which rests their appeal. Here are a few recommendations based on the chamber pieces that are in my list of favorites, arranged in the sequence of the year of release. This is no way an inclusive list and the reason I have selected these movies is because they follow a similar pattern: guests/strangers find themselves in a room and deliberate on a serious situation that concerns them all.

Rope (1948); Director: Alfred Hitchcock

I grew up listening to adults gasping about “Psycho” and other Hitchcock classics, but I don’t remember any of them mentioning this movie. It was much later during my University years, when I started collaborating with my uncle on his DVD collection, that I was introduced to this movie. And needless to say that I found the story fascinating. Two young men murder a friend on an intellectual whim because they are inspired by a conversation they once had with their prep-school teacher on the “art of murder” as a way of showing one’s intellectual superiority over others. After the murder, they hide the body inside an old chest and decks this antique piece up to serve as a dinner table for the guests, among whom are present the dead guy’s fiancé, his father and their prep-school teacher, Rupert Cadell himself. Rupert grows increasing suspicious about the missing guest and the anxious behavior of his former students. Would he be able to outsmart the murderers and talk them into admitting their crime? Watch this gem to decide if it is not one of Hitchcock’s most underrated classics.

12 Angry Men (1957); Director: Sidney Lumet

This movie is bound to appear in every single list that shows up on Internet search results for chamber plays. It’s widely acknowledged as a timeless classic and has inspired movie makers and movie lovers alike since it’s first release. The plot revolves around the jury of 12 men who need to deliberate and come to an unanimous decision about the guilt or innocence of a 18 year old boy who allegedly stabbed his father to death. All except one jury member are convinced of the boy’s guilt beyond “reasonable doubt”. So, this one member, determined to prevent a miscarriage of justice with a hurried decision, must reason with the other members to prove his point. How does he succeed to convince the remaining jury members of “reasonable doubt” and do they finally reach an unanimous decision? Watch the movie to experience the intense drama that unfolds within a closed room with these 12 men and you will know why the movie buffs swear by it.

After two unforgettable classics, it’s time to look at a more contemporary landscape where more and more young directors seem to be taking the chamber play route to depict the existential crisis of a fast, competitive, and terrifyingly self-centric world.

Exam (2009); Director: Stuart Hazeldine

Minimalism at its best and brilliantly crafted, this movie is an absolute delight to watch. Eight candidates are shortlisted for the final test for a coveted position in a prestigious firm. Rules are laid out and they are left alone in a room with their question papers. To pass the test, they must answer one question in the allotted 80 minutes. But the most puzzling part of the test is that all candidates are given blank papers. So, they must use most of the 80 minutes to cooperate with each other and figure out what the question is before they can think of the answer. Who of the eight applicants will finally crack the exam? You will never know how your time will pass while you try to figure out the answer.

Circle (2015); Directors: Aaron Hana, Mario Miscione

Another remarkable piece of craft in minimalism, this movie is a new age apocalyptic take on the survival of the fittest. 50 strangers wake up to find themselves standing in circles inside a room that looks like a chamber in an alien ship. They realize that they are being randomly killed off, or may be it’s not so random. They soon figure out that they can vote using their mind to decide who should be eliminated. This frightening discovery drives the action for the rest of the movie as people team up, play politics, take sides and resort to nastiest maneuvers to stay in the game and emerge the last person standing. The twist at the end too is fittingly terrifying in its implication of earth’s future and leaves you floating in deep discomforting thoughts.

The Invitation (2015); Director: Karyn Kusama

It feels unnaturally sweet and even ominous to Will that his ex wife, who mysteriously disappeared two years ago, is suddenly back and wants him, his girlfriend and their group of mutual friends to join her and her partner for a get-together at their plush home. It may be an innocuous attempt to let bygones be bygones and make a fresh start, but something does not seem right about the place. There are a lot of sad memories too associated with the place. Do they make Will overthink and see a hidden agenda behind his ex’s genuine attempt at a fresh beginning? Or is the invitation a well-laid trap for something too horrifying for even Will to imagine? This is a slow burn movie that will keep you at the edge of your seat for the whole one hour and forty minutes and leave its lingering effect long after it’s over.

7 anos (2016); Director: Roger Gual

7 anos, literally translated as 7 years, is a Spanish movie about four friends who are partners in a successful company. The company is being investigated for a massive tax fraud and the four are facing a situation where they need to decide who among them would sacrifice his or her freedom, that is, take the blame to go to prison so that they can save the company they built together. Time is running out and if they can’t make a decision, all four will face prison. They hire a mediator to solve the situation for them and what ensues in the next few hours reveals how our true nature rears it’s ugly head under the pressure of a life-threatening situation. Does the mediator help them choose “the one” or do they sell each other out? The questions will intrigue you much more than the answer.

The Bar (2017); Director: Álex de la Iglesia

This is a Spanish movie that I watched very recently, and to be completely honest, I have been hesitant to add it to this list. And I probably wouldn’t have except I found the concept interesting even if the execution was less than satisfactory. This movie centers around a group of people who one fine day find themselves trapped inside a bar when two of the customers are killed after stepping outside. The streets are evacuated and there seems to be an emergency, but customers inside the bar find no ways to communicate with the outside world. Are they being targeted for some unknown reason and will they find a way out of the bar? This movie is intended as a horror comedy and while there are some light moments, it is at best a half-baked dish with many interesting elements, none of which blend well to give the intended effect. The characters are merely caricatures with little or no depth; the plot holds promise but fizzles out with the forced attempt at comedy; and the moment the most attractive customer of the bar strips to under garments to slid through a tunnel, it becomes a tiring wait for the ludicrous drama to get over. But I have to admit that I might not have been able to catch some of the nuances of a foreign language that got lost in translation. As I said, the concept is interesting. There’s no harm in giving it a try. You may end up actually enjoying it.

So, that was my list! Given my love for chamber pieces, I’m pretty sure to follow this up with other blog posts. In the meantime, please leave your comments and recommendations about your favorite chamber movies.

Top Three Reasons (and More) Why You Should Make Peaky Blinders Your Next Netflix Binge-Watch

I have a syndrome and I don’t think there is a medical term for it, yet. I need to obsess over a drama series or else my life feels empty. If I’m lucky enough to stumble upon a story on Netflix that I can connect with instantly, I start obsessing, and binge watching, and obsessing some more, and soon enough the series is over. Then my life feels empty again because I can’t share my dizziness with anyone. So, i’m making a desperate attempt here to sell you one of my recent obsessions: Peaky Blinders, a British drama series that is not talked about as much as it should be. Here are the top three reasons, among many, that I think would be compelling enough to coax and cajole you into making it your next Netflix binge-watch:

The Story: Set in the post World War I’s dreary backdrop, the story builds on the life of an actual gangster clan of the same name run by the Shelby family in Birmingham. Steven Knight took the stories he heard as a child from his father, re-created a pack of powerhouse characters in all their three-dimensional glories, and gave us a dazzling epic that is more Dickensian than Scorsesian in essence. Curious now? Wait, next comes the best part.

The Hero: At the heart of the epic is the ever-enigmatic charismatic head of the Shelby clan, Thomas Shelby (writing that name itself made me skip a heartbeat! Yeah…he’s that good). Shakespeare was a master puppeteer who knew how to pull strings and when to turn the audience’s sympathy for a heavy-flawed hubris-crowned hero. Writers and directors in the world of cinema has made umpteen attempts since then to recreate the Shakespearean tragic hero in a modern setting, but none as successfully in recent times as Vince Gilligan with Walter White in Breaking Bad. Let’s just suffice by saying that Steven Knight has done with Thomas Shelby what Vince Gilligan did with Walter White. By now, you should at least want to Google the series. If not, it’s time to introduce the cast.

The Stellar Cast: The show features the best of the best, including two of Christopher Nolan’s “fetish actors”, Cillian (pronounced Killian) Murphy and Tom Hardy. If stares could kill, I would be dead by now staring at the Netflix screen with Cillian Murphy staring back at me smoking his half cigarette. But if Cillian Murphy as Tom Shelby is your ultimate fantasy Irish Coffee Cake, Tom Hardy as Alfie Solomons, the Jewish Gang Leader of Camden Town, is the out-of-the-world chocolate-coffee frosting on top of that cake. You better watch the show with a good appetite because both will leave you licking your fingers and wanting for more. Add to that the gutsy performance of Helen McCrory as Aunt Polly and Paul Anderson as Arthur Shelby. Their characters go through much transformation throughout the seasons. In fact, with each season, Aunt Polly and Arthur’s character development turns out to be more interesting in certain ways than Tom Shelby’s. So, one more reason to look forward to season five is to see what Knight plans to do with Tom Shelby in now that we have seen enough of his charismatic and manipulative sides.

Come on now! If you still need more reasons, there’s the award-winning photography and light effects and the groovy soundtrack. Steven Knight took a gamble using contemporary music with a period drama and it has played off brilliantly. There ends my knowledge on that subject (except I have listened to the title track “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave & Bad Seeds about million times by now). Each session promises and delivers surprises, both in terms of plot twist and casting, but perhaps you will need to wait for season four for the biggest surprise entry in the form of the Changretta family’s head, Luca Changretta. There’s also the possibility of the Chicago Mafia playing a pivotal role in season five. I won’t reveal and spoil it for you any further. If you need a sneak peak before taking the plunge, here goes the trailer. And, if you are a fan girl or boy of Peaky Blinders like me, don’t forget to share your thoughts, perspectives, gasps or sighs in the Comments section!

Five Lesser-Known Psychological Horror Movies That You Will Enjoy Even If You are NOT a Horror Flick Fan

If you are anything like me, you probably watch scary movies with a pillow or a cushion on your lap so that you can hide behind it during the jump-scare moments. But that doesn’t stop us from exploring scary movies once in a while, especially when there’s one that sounds like a good thriller material. The problem is, nowadays pretty much every talked-about horror movie is about a possessed subject and the subsequent exorcism. Last year, when I started thinking about it, I realized that the only movie that has really stayed with me is The Shining. Trust a master storyteller like Stanley Kubrick to do justice to a Stephen King classic horror. This movie tops my list of best psychological horror movies of all times, but at least it’s widely popular. So, I thought of exploring lesser-known movies that may often be overlooked because they are not publicized enough and they do not have the ratings in their favor. I have made here a list of a few such movies that I had a good time watching. I deliberately avoided those with zombies and gory creatures. One disclaimer though: if you enjoy scary movies and rate them based on scare factors, these recommendations are not for you. But if you are a movie buff like me who enjoys interesting stories regardless of the genre, go right ahead and check these movies out. They are streaming on Netflix (India) right now. Also, a 6/10 is by no means a bad rating. So, here’s the list:

The Ritual (2017); Director: David Bruckner

A group of friends set out on a hiking trip, end up in the woods, take a detour and things start going wrong. Sounds like a cliché story? Well, what sets this movie apart is the psychological crisis set at the very beginning when the murder of a close friend sends the protagonist off on a guilt trip. He must face his own fears and go through harrowing trials amidst the Scandinavian wilderness where a sinister presence as ancient as the woods looms large. Does he survive the trial and find his redemption?

Watch the Trailer

What I loved: The tense drama juxtaposes trauma and guilt with the supernatural setting, supported by a strong cast.

What could have been better: The ending feels abrupt and does not allow enough space for the cathartic effect to settle in.

My Rating: 6/10

Under the Shadow (2016); Director: Babak Anvari

The Iranian-born Babak Anvari has hit the nail on the head, in so far as psychological horror is concerned, with this directorial debut. The movie is set in the war-ravaged Tehran of late 1980s. The seemingly endless conflict between Iraq and Iran has deeply impacted people’s lives: tearing near and dear ones apart, dislocating them from their homes, and making them live under constant threat. Being a woman exposed to liberal views and lifestyle in conflict with a conservative society that has defined a much narrower role for women does not make life any easier. Shideh must protect her child from the evil shadow that the missile that hit her building has brought with it. But to overcome the shadow, she must first overcome the cloud of self-doubts that creeps up exactly at those moments when she is most vulnerable.

Watch the Trailer

What I loved: The metaphorical use of clothes for supernatural elements. What should a woman fear most: the society that will not let her be and wants to reduce her to a nobody, or the unseen evil forces?

What could have been better: The character of the protagonist does not go through much transformation except toward the end.

My Rating: 8/10

It Follows (2014); Director: David Robert Mitchell

This movie is a superb example of how a low budget movie can do wonders with a simple but unique story. After a sexual encounter with her boyfriend, a teenage girl learns that she has become a victim of a lethal curse, something that can take any form at any moment and at any place. No matter how much one runs, it follows and finds its victim. If she wishes to save herself, she must have sexual intercourse with a new person to transfer the curse. Will she put someone else’s life in danger to save herself or will she run out of hiding places and succumb to the evil?

Watch the Trailer

What I loved: The supernatural take on Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and the destructive chain that STDs initiate is interesting in itself.

What could have been better: There is nothing I can point out without a plot spoiler.

My Rating: 8/10

The Canal (2014); Director: Ivan Kavanagh

The psychological crisis at the core of this movie is jealousy. A film archivist, David, moves to a new house with his pregnant wife and everything is fine for a few years till he starts suspecting that his wife is having an affair. In the meantime, he discovers some disturbing footage linking the house with gruesome murders of the past inhabitants. On the way home after witnessing his wife cheating on him, a distraught David has a strange encounter in the subway bathroom adjacent to the Canal. Consequently, when his wife goes missing and her body is fished out of the canal, dots are connected and he becomes a prime suspect. But David is convinced that an outwardly force is involved and he needs to protect his son from it. Will David uncover the mysteries surrounding the house and prove himself innocent, or will he allow his fears to overtake his sanity?

Watch the Trailer

What I loved: A tense thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout

What could have been better: The ending is a bit of a let down and might make you think: “Oh, didn’t we know that already though?”

My Rating: 6/10

The Awakening (2011); Director: Nick Murphy

In 1921, England is recovering from the wounds of World War I, but it is infested with fraudsters who pray on people’s griefs and dupe them with psychic hoaxes. Florence Cathcart has a unique profession. She is a ghost and a hoax buster and has written a book on that subject, making her well-known among the public, though not always in a positive sense. Calm and confident as she may appear on the surface, Florence has a dark past buried deep within the recesses of her mind. When Florence accepts a case of a boarding school haunted by a child ghost, the past collides with the present and Florence struggles to keep her sanity. Is there really a ghost in the boarding school? Is the ghost story a well-contrived ploy by someone with a hidden agenda? Or is it something that neither Florence nor the audience see coming?

Watch the Trailer

What I loved: Rebecca Hall’s fascinating performance and the plot twist

What could have been better: One might say that the ending contradicts the very premise with which the movie starts off.

My Rating: 7/10

So, give these movies a try and let me know if you have some hidden gems in your bag that I may not have watched yet.