Well, I watched Pizza! Which had a high standard to live up to, because the only other horror movie I have seen is The innocents. Oh wait, also Ezra. Which is a lot easier to beat than The Innocents. I think I would say this one landed closer to The Innocents side of the scale than Ezra. Oh! I forgot The Fog! Which hardly qualifies to be called a movie, let alone a horror film. But is fun if you ever want to see Irrfan Khan in the worst film of his career.
So, Pizza! A really well-written film. Everything fits together just so, until at the end you are just sitting there going “wow!” And also “wait, that’s the end?” The biggest flaw, I think, is the ending. It’s clever, sure, but it doesn’t have that height of clever and unexpected that the rest of the film reached.
And part of that is the title! “Pizza” seems like just a catchy thing to say. But really, our hero’s job as a pizza delivery driver informs every part of the film. The pizza parlor is what it all revolves around, the cook, the owner, and the owner’s nephew are our hero’s best friends, sounding boards, and sympathizers. And the little details of his job, the uniform, the delivery bag, the motorbike, they all are woven into the film. And most of all the idea of going out into the world seemingly free, but tied to the responsibility of delivery on time and returning to the restaurant immediately.
Mostly this is an interesting horror film because, after going all the way around and about, the “twist ending” is that other people are the real horror. Which is a surprisingly deep message for a horror film. That what you should fear is selfishness, inhumanity, and all the other sins of humanity.
Oh, and of course this is also Vijay Sethupathi’s break out role. Honestly, I don’t know if I would have noticed him from this performance? Which is kind of the highest compliment? This entire film was centered on his character, and he faded into the background in order to let the film shine. A worse actor would have been showy, made us fully aware the whole time that he was “acting!”. But instead, he just felt normal, like one of the ensemble. Even though he was the only person on screen for the whole film, guiding the audience through it.
Well, and it’s also a great cast top to bottom. Remya Nambeesan plays the heroine, I know I’d seen her in other stuff and she did great, but I didn’t realize until I looked her up just now, she was also a child star! So she was coming in with 12 years of experience. Aadukalam Naren, our older character actor, was coming off of 15 years of experience. And yet Vijay, in his first lead role carrying the whole film on his back, seemed just as casual and light about it as they were, playing roles they had done over and over again for years.
It’s interesting seeing this movie second, after Vikram-Vedha. It makes me aware of how Vijay can adjust his performance as needed. A common error for young actors is to go too big in their performances, try too hard to make an impression, and end up ruining the film. And a common problem for established actors is to get lazy. To just show up and do their job and not really care any more. And Vijay reversed that! His first film had him holding back, staying low and unnoticed. And Vikram-Vedha, his established top of his career role (like I said, he got the whistles, not Madhavan!), he was working super hard to keep me interested, aware of what he was doing, entertained any time he was on screen.
Okay, that’s all I can say without getting into SPOILERS! Because this is a really good plot and the SPOILERS add a whole new level to it. So, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILER SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The opening seems like a kind of clever reference to all those meta-horror movies like Scream (I’m not a horror person, but even I know that Scream opens with someone watching a horror movie on TV). We start with the new kind of horror that is everywhere, those low budget experiential horror show type things with the night vision cameras. And then in a really clever jump, it fastforwards and goes to the end credits and we realize we are just watching a TV show within a movie, not the actual movie. Instead, we switch to a couple watching it together, Vijay and Remya. Vijay makes fun of the show, Remya tries to scare him by her own story of how ghosts are real, but it isn’t filmed in a “scary” way, we are able to laugh it off like Vijay instead of taking it seriously like Remya.
Again, all of this is standard. We have to see the non-scary version, so the scary version is scarier. Plus, horror is such an accepted genre now, we need to know that the characters aren’t stupid, they are aware of the tropes and pitfalls. And of course the doubter will always be punished later by learning how real these things are.
Also standard is the way we get to learn and care about our characters before the “bad stuff” starts. We need to have stakes for us to really connect with them. And so Vijay and Remya are an adorable young couple, she finds out she is pregnant, they panic about money, and finally they have a little marriage ceremony, just the two of them in their little house. And it’s right after that that Vijay gets the call to deliver a pizza to a mysterious house.
(By the way, my Dad was a pizza delivery guy when my parents were first married, so this kind of makes me go “aw!”)
And then we jump ahead several hours, his boss Aadukalam has been looking for him, so have his co-workers. And now he is back, sitting in the middle of the pizza parlor, looking terrified. And telling them his story.
And now we get the ghost story! Which is really good just on it’s own. The best horror/tragedy/love, really anything that evokes emotion, is when it is set in a “normal” kind of place. In a strange way, this low budget horror film is related to Chashme Baddoor (the original good one, obviously) or Anjali. We need the boring everyday life to make the unusual really stand out, to make it magical. And so Vijay arrives at a normal looking house, a normal looking woman invites him in, tells him she doesn’t have enough cash on her, asks him to wait while she checks upstairs. It’s all very mundane.
And it stays mundane, in a way. The horror comes from a door that locks from the inside, a cell phone with a cheesy ringtone, a landline phone that somehow picks up cell phone signals. There is no fancy special effects, no big scary monsters. It’s all like regular life, but somehow wrong.
And the growing horror isn’t from anything actually happening inside the house, it’s from the fear of what might be happening outside. Vijay finds the woman dead first, then a man shows up outside the house, the woman’s husband, and seems jealous and suspicious of Vijay. And then suddenly disappears from outside the house. And when he goes upstairs, he finds a small child named Nithya who stares at him. Slowly we come to figure out that all the rules of time and space are gone, he can get cell phone calls on the landline, no one seems to hear him when he calls out for help, and finally the police show up. Only, in the background as they arrive, we see that the house is different again. There is crime scene tape up. And they slowly reveal that there was a murder here a week ago, a husband and wife and their daughter. And also a young woman, a student at a nearby college “Anu”. Which is Remya’s character’s name. By this point, the audience and Vijay have already gotten used to the ways time and space don’t follow any rules. For one thing, his boss and Anu are saying he has been gone for hours, but he has only been in the house a few minutes. And so when the police say that Anu was found a week ago dead outside the house, we don’t bother looking for an explanation, and nor does Vijay. We just assume that somehow the house is caught in a future time, but he can maybe still reach Anu in the past and tell her not to come and save her. And then the peak confusion, he makes a run for it to get away from these practical reasonable cops who want to arrest him, and suddenly they are grabbing at his leg, begging him to save them! Somehow they are trapped not just in time, but in behaviors, just as the other ghosts are play acting the woman who ordered a pizza and so on.
We don’t really worry about an explanation for any of it, Aadukalam’s daughter is possessed, he has hired an exorcist for her, Vijay sees glimpses of this through the window when he makes a delivery to their house. And somehow the name his daughter is saying “Nithya Nithya” is the same name as the dead little girl at the house Vijay goes to. Maybe he angered her spirit in someway, so she confused him, brought him to the wrong address when he was making a delivery, and trapped him in a nightmare. That’s good enough to answer everything.
And we don’t really need an answer for anything else either. Vijay has a scar on his back, feels like it is bleeding all the time, has trouble breathing, gets visions, he’s just plain messed up. And not only is Anu not at their house, all her things are gone as though she was never there. The police are informed and asked to look for her, but have a hard time tracking down evidence of her existence, she and Vijay were both raised in an orphanage and came to the city together, no one else around their house ever really saw her, and she put in her leave from college two months ago. Did Vijay kill her? Was she a ghost too? We (the audience) wonder, but don’t really want or need an explanation, it’s just spooky is all.
And his friends/co-workers don’t really need an explanation either. They are sympathetic and supportive and help him get out of his house and stay with them. To an almost extreme degree, it’s not really believable that just because he works for them, they are helping him get asthma medication and everything. But our hero seems to be going along with it, and he is our entrance to this film world, so the audience goes along with it too. Until, suddenly, TWIST!
After months of being taken care of and watched over by his co-workers, he goes out on a delivery, stops his bike, pulls out his phone and swaps sim cards, and then calls Anu! Who is living in luxury somewhere overseas!
See, this is what I meant about the real horror. The real horror is discovering your boss is using you to help hide illicit diamonds. To discover that your girlfriend is ready and willing to steal those diamonds. And to discover that you yourself are capable of great deceit to hide the crime.
Although that confusing time and space stuff, that was to provide the perfect alibi. The foreshadowing with the daughter being possessed, that was to let them know Aadukalam was susceptible to this kind of story. And the opening, where we saw our young couple in love and pregnant and worried about the future, that was to provide motivation, not backstory.
What makes this really brilliant, is this is how “ghost stories” often start in real life. Ghost stories, alien abductions, anything supernatural. It is impossible to untangle if you are presented with the mysterious result. But if you start with the idea of a practical answer that must be hidden, it’s different. For instance, there is the mystery of the Mary Celeste. A ship found in the middle of the ocean, with no one on board, but all the ships logs in order, nothing disturbed, everything perfectly in tact. Ooooo, mysterious! But, if you back up a second, it was found by another ship, brought in as salvage by that crew, who were awarded the smallest possible reward because of lingering suspicions. Could be mystery disappearance thing. Could be that the crew of the other ship killed everyone and agreed to jointly lie about it.
Here, the mystery of him going to the wrong address and thinking it is the right one, getting his cell phone calls on the landline, time moving at a different pace for him than for his boss and co-workers, Anu being gone with no evidence she was ever there, if you removed the supernatural part of it, there is an obvious practical conclusion. He left with a fortune in diamonds. He was gone several hours without responding to calls. And his girlfriend left town with everything she owned. Obviously, he stole the diamonds.
And that’s what his boss thinks. That’s what is making Vijay so nervous for the second half of the film. Not fear over Anu or ghosts, but fear that his story will be found out. He isn’t being protected from ghosts by everyone watching him, he is in danger from them all and the ghosts (or rather, ghost story) is what is protecting him.
All of this is just so so brilliant. Including a possibly open ending when at the end of his phone call with Anu, she stands up and walks off which makes me wonder if maybe she is leaving him too? The final “horror”?
And then there is the last sequence which, eh. Vijay goes to deliver a pizza, a woman opens the door, invites him in, asks him to wait while she gets money. And suddenly he feels scared, a little girl comes in and is called “Nithya” and the door blows shut.
So, I guess, his story is becoming true? He has angered the little girl Nithya spirit by lying about her and now he has to pay? Something like that. But I would have liked it better if they had left it with the true horror being people.