Vishal (Ajay Devgan) is a young businessman looking for an apartment for him and his wife. He knows what he wants and he hasn't seen it yet, but while visiting one place he asks the estate agent as they sit in his car waiting for the rain to stop about the apartment block he seems to have been avoiding. There is indeed a home for sale there, and when Vishal surveys it he is extremely happy with what he sees, but the estate agent feels he must point out that the last tenant took a fall from the balcony while holding her child. So what? thinks Vishal, I'm not superstitious - but his wife Swati (Urmila Matondkar) might not be so blasé...
Amusingly, Bhoot (meaning, simply, "ghost") begins with a caption informing the audience that pregnant women and those with weak hearts are best to avoid this film. While it might not be as scary as all that, it does work up a neat atmosphere of dread and contains at least a couple of decent jumps, coming across like an Indian version of a Japanese or Hong Kong horror with its unquiet sprits. Unlike most Bollywood movies, there were no songs, a brave move and one that paid off in its home country where it was a respectable hit.
Director Ram Gopal Varma (who, superbly, began his career running a video store - who says it's no way into the industry?) uses the script by Lalit Marathe and Sameer Sharma to work within a framework recognisable to most chiller fans, while still managing to wrongfoot those who think they've seen it all before with some cliché-bending setpieces. Yes, when the couple move into the apartment there's the creepy watchman, the creepy maid and the creepy landlord (not to mention a creepy old lady in a daze in the apartment across the hall), but their presence doesn't play out quite as you would expect.
It's not a real shock to find out that the dead woman, Manjeet (Barkha Madan) is haunting the place, but the manner in which she manifests herself gives rise to some nicely weird scenes. Sure, you might have her hoving into frame at unexpected moments, or using the old "you can see her in the mirror but not when you turn around" trick, but there are also more original twists, such as when the couple go to see Spider-Man and Swati suddenly notices everyone in the cinema is craning their necks to stare at her, leading to a Night of the Living Dead-style menace when they advance on her causing the panicking woman to flee.
A welcome development is that while Vishal is presented as a strict, no-nonsense kind of guy in his personal and professional life, he doesn't start ordering Swati to pull herself together once she falls under Manjeet's spell and remains sympathetic towards her in her breakdown, doing his best to rationalise and find someone who will help her. However, when the watchman turns up dead with his head on backwards after a sleepwalking session by Swati, it's clear something has to be done, especially as detective Qureshi (Nana Patekar) is hanging about looking for clues. Bhoot resolves itself as a variation on The Exorcist after while, but with added murder mystery element for spice, and while it may not be as strong stuff as the horror hits of other countries, its lack of pretentiousness wins you over. Music by Salim Merchant and Suleman Merchant.