Just a year after the world discovered moving pictures, and audiences flung themselves out of the way of the Lumière brothers’ train, it discovered horror in George Melies’ The House of the Devil (1896). About 90 years later, the genre came to Indian audiences through the goregrinding work of the Ramsay Brothers. The death of Shyam Ramsay, who headlined the productions of the seven Ramsay brothers, brings down the curtain on that era, when audiences thrilled to horror that was anything but sophisticated and thought-provoking.
The Ramsays did cheap and wholly satisfying productions focused on gore, tears, adrenaline and other bodily fluids. They were following the great tradition of pulp horror, which was one of the mainstays of Hollywood from the time of Lon Chaney. Its thread leans towards Cthulhu, zombie apocalypse and House of Wax, and diverges from the rather more cerebral line of Nosferatu and Frankenstein. Pure entertainment, it does not tax the little grey cells and was the rage for decades in American cinema before the Ramsay Brothers got in on the act.
It is believed that horror flourishes in good times, when people enjoy being reminded of the dark side. But humanity’s appetite for the macabre is actually a reflection of reality. One of the pictures running to full houses in Delhi during the 1984 “riots” was James Cameron’s debut Piranha II: Flying Killers (tagline: “Now they can fly!”). Ramsay films like Do Gaz Zameen ke Neeche and Darwaza appeared in the Seventies, when India had its first brush with autocracy. American audiences during the Cold War had sublimated fears of invasion by embracing Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And now that reality everywhere is outstripping cinema for bizarre creativity, a new wave of horror may be imminent. The Ramsays, who started it all, will be missed.