Do you recognise that smell in the air? Yes, that’s the stink of horror-comedy fatigue. It’s a consequence of this genre being so abused in so many unimaginative ways over the years. As the protagonist in Fight Club says, “Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.” To the credit of Annabelle Sethupathi, it shows self-awareness and seems to realise that it’s hardly novel. Perhaps this is why it drops the names of several horror films, including, as you may have guessed, Annabelle, and Conjuring and Chandramukhi and for some strange reason, a lesser-known Tamil film called Sangili Bungili Kadhava Thorae (perhaps because that film too was about a joint family haunting a mansion?).
Yogi Babu himself recognises the repetitive nature of these stories when he says, almost in defence of Annabelle Sethupathi, “Ippolaam yaarunga pudhusaa kadhai solraa? Elaam pazhaya kadhaya dhaan ulta panraanga.” This film’s attempt at ‘ultaa-ing’, or as it’s called in English, subversion, is mainly in its attempts to poke fun at the genre itself. Right at the beginning, someone warns against looking for logic in the film. For a brief while, there’s some entertainment when the film focusses not just on the victims of the mansion, as we have been used to, but on the ghosts who are unleashing mayhem.
It is also reasonably interesting that early deaths in the film happen without much ado. The film runs out of steam shockingly soon though, and while the premise itself is interesting, the writing simply lacks the imagination needed to draw humour or pathos, despite the film being armed with dozens of familiar faces including Radikaa, Devadarshini, Chetan and Subbu Panchu, who Yogi Babu calls, “Manobala moonji”.
As you can imagine, Yogi Babu himself is the target of such insulting descriptions. The usual “panni moonji vaayaa” makes a comeback, and from Taapsee Pannu, no less. Someone else gets more creative and calls him, “Piththala sombu mela thengaa naaru.” If your idea of humour is having humans likened to unusual combinations of objects, perhaps you might have more fun than I did. This film does offer quite a bit of screentime to Yogi Babu and I liked him, especially in the film’s rather long flashback sequence, featuring the love story between Sethupathi (Vijay Sethupathi) and Annabelle (Taapsee).
It’s really only during this time—when this horror-comedy is neither about horror nor comedy and is instead about a relationship— that the film sparkles a bit. While Annabelle’s British English is irksome in its strange chirpiness, Vijay Sethupathi’s Tamil makes no attempts at belonging to a period setting. Nevertheless, the brief exchanges—on the nature of language and knowledge, on the utility of martial arts beyond self-defence—are, well, interesting. There’s also a likeable attempt to desist from showing Annabelle as a damsel in distress, as horror film flashbacks so often do. But then again, it’s the same film that makes the character pregnant so the loss can feel more affecting. Well, so much for ‘ultaa’.
Large swathes of this film comprise sequences in which characters are scampering about, shot with the aesthetics and craft of a television serial. If Annabelle Sethupathi were a better film, I’d ask why the whole thief angle of Rudra’s (Taapsee) family makes no real contribution to the film. However, this film has more fundamental problems. It’s a horror-comedy, but I laughed very little. As for the horror, the real scare comes at the end when they hint at a sequel.
Director: Deepak Sundarrajan
Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Taapsee Pannu, Yogi Babu
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar