Phoenix steers clear of the usual cliches that accompany a horror film, and this investment of both time and layered writing, pays off brilliantly
Phoenix story: Advocate John Williams and family hope to start over as they move to a new house. But within days, they start hearing and seeing things including receiving letters for someone named Freddy. As the frequency of these occurrences peak, John sets out to find who Freddy is and in the process unravels a haunting past that has plagued the people who have lived in the area.
Phoenix review: The love stories in Malayalam horror films have often only been used as flashbacks for justifying the carnage that a malevolent spirit unleashes on the living. Rarely, do we see a romance-filled backstory, explaining the paranormal activities, that is even more captivating and engaging as the horror that precludes it in a film. This is where debutant filmmaker Vishnu Bharathan Phoenix, which is brilliantly written by Midhun Manuel Thomas, turns the template on its head and succeeds magnificently.
Phoenix follows John Williams, his wife and his three children as they move into a new house and begin experiencing incidents that are out of the ordinary. As these eerie events increase with a letter arriving at John’s doorstep every day, he sets out to find out the whereabouts of Freddy, the person it is addressed to. The first half of the film is entirely focused on the family inside the house, which is a prison for the haunted out of fear and the one who does the haunting, out of love.
John’s quest to unravel the mystery takes him from priest to priest, almost teasing the excessively trope of exorcism – but instead the script uses them as a vessel for the film’s flashback, which is also where Midhun’s writing shines the strongest.
Replete with references to Love in The Time of Cholera and the pandemic not so long ago, these portions about Anna Rose and Freddy makes you almost forget the tense and atmospheric moments that made up the first half, and sucks you right into the 1970s where the characters fall in love and face hurdles. More importantly, Midhun makes you invest so much in Anna, Freddy and their world, and you are more worried about them than the family that is trapped in the haunted house.
The story steer clear of the usual cliches that accompany a horror film, and this investment of both time (as the past portions span most of the second half) and the layered writing, pays off brilliantly at the end. And by layers, there’s so many aspects to this genre-blender, which also uses the adage of ‘love transcending time’ to maximum effect. In fact, you wouldn’t be wrong if you did see a bit of Stranger Things and Stephen King in Phoenix; and all of that adds an extra dimension of this beautifully crafted, written and performed movie.
Sam CS’ score as well as the songs, especially when both Anna and Freddy are separated, moves you while also sending a shockwave of pain while revealing what transpired. Alby’s cinematography along with Nithish KTR’s editing make for a seamless theatrical experience. The horror portions, especially, keep you hooked and it’s an achievement that Vishnu doesn’t have to use the jump scares often to shock the audience.
In terms of dialogues though, there are few lines – especially from Anna in the past as well as the present – that feel forced and inauthentic. The use of a younger actor to channel Anna in the latter portions, is another aspect that works in the movie, which has a host of brilliant performances including Abhirami Bose, G Chandhunadh, Aju Varghese, Anoop Menon, Nilja K Baby and Bhagath Manuel.
Abhirami and Chandhunadh, who play Rose and Freddy respectively, are the soul of the second half of the film and deserve credit for keeping it engaging. Abhirami makes a confident debut, while Chandhunadh, with each film, shows there’s more to him than meets the eye. It’s solely due to the writing and performance of these characters that the audience leaves the theatres, haunted by how much they are tormented.
Aju Varghese once again proves that he’s an actor who has the skill to pull off meatier roles if given the part. The script uses silence to a great extent to tell the story, to create tension and to explain the feeling of being taken for granted. And the actors through their performances convey volumes, without uttering a word.
Phoenix verdict: Midhun Manuel Thomas’ writing and Vishnu Bharathan’s exceptional making keep the tension intact through the horror portions of the film, but where it truly soars is its love story, which is poignant and beautifully told. This makes it a must-watch film in theatres.