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In Flames

  • Film
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
In Flames
Photograph: Blue Finch Releasing

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

A Karachi beach house becomes a portal to past trauma in this Lynchian psychological horror

If Pakistani horror is not a field you’re expert in – and you wouldn’t be alone there – this chilling, socially-charged ghost story from writer-director Zarrar Kahn makes an intriguing starting point. 

First-time actress Ramesha Nawal is modern-minded Karachi twentysomething Mariam. Her father dies in mysterious circumstances in the opening scene as she watches on. Even as she and her mum (Bakhtawar Mazhar) host the wake in their small city apartment, their new reality begins to bite. Life is suddenly precarious – especially with creepy Uncle Nasir circling like one of the local vultures, covetous of his late brother’s apartment. 

Sudden shards of male-instigated violence keep things off-balance. An attempted car-jacking shakes Mariam up and introduces her to the useless (male) police, who only take her seriously when she namechecks her influential grandpa. The incident indirectly leads to a fateful encounter with Asad (Omar Javaid), a soft-hearted student returning from Canada with a more enlightened view of gender dynamics. His shy crush has him haunting the library as she studies and suggesting a trip to a beach house on his motorbike.

The film’s horror elements seep in slowly. A probing, voyeuristic camera teases the idea that some malign force is watching Mariam, and there’s the whisper of a curse to lay waste to everything she holds dear. That beach trip ends in disastrous, but frustratingly elliptical fashion. Generously, you could call it a deliberate dip into Lynchian ambiguity.

It’s an intriguing starting point into Pakistani horror

Khan’s use of genre tropes land a touch formlessly at times. Amorphous black shapes inch across Mariam’s shower and bugs crawl through bags of rice. The beach house suddenly becomes a harrowing gateway to buried trauma.

Much sharper are storytelling beats that translate Pakistan’s patriarchy into blunt shocks – not all of them supernatural. Mariam clocks a man masturbating outside her window, and has her hand licked, lasciviously, by a faith healer. Locking us into her fraying headspace, Khan reshapes the film’s reality in unsettling ways.

But as a supernatural chiller, In Flames finds itself undermined by its own everyday horrors. There’s nothing more upsetting here than the scene in which Mariam’s mum, without two rupees to rub together, offers herself to a lawyer to try to save her home. Destitution and indignity are horrifying enough on their own. 

In UK cinemas May 24.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Zarrar Kahn
  • Screenwriter:Zarrar Kahn
  • Cast:
    • Ramesha Nawal
    • Omar Javaid
    • Bakhtawar Mazhar
    • Mohammad Ali Hashmi
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