With the recent naming and surge of folk horror in the movies, we’ve gotten many examples from all over the world. I eat this stuff up with a big ol’ spoon. There’s a reason these movies feels so viscerally creepy. They show us fears that have lasted centuries. Bengali filmmaker Nuhash Humayun has taken this one step further by crowd sourcing Bangladesh’s most prevalent and scary superstitions and fables. The result is Pett Kata Shaw, a four-story anthology of modernized dramatizations of them. I saw it at Fantasia International Film Festival 2023, and it absolutely blew me away. This anthology is a creepy, darkly funny, and profoundly disturbing look at tales passed down in the oral tradition.
What makes these stories work so well is that Humayun depicts each as realistically as possible while still making the otherworldly thing suitably unnerving. The key to any good horror anthology is the pacing and the order. Pett Kata Shaw provides an ebb and flow of styles and stories for maximum effect. And even though the stories come from a culture I knew nothing about, they remain exceedingly relatable and engaging.
The first story relays the fable that jinn, or demons, visit sweet shops late at night. So we find a forgetful sweet shop owner who comes across such a creature—shown mainly as a bearded older man. The poor shop owner’s terror and confusion becomes something entirely else when the jinn grants him a wish. He wants to remember things. But, as jinn are not the most trustworthy, he begins to remember everything. Everything he’s ever seen, read, or lived. Knowing everything isn’t much good if you can’t stop it. This is a wicked little tale with a really upsetting ending.
Second is a very fun and macabre story concerning the legend of the fish-hag, a grotesque creature which resembles a human woman with backwards feet and sharp fangs. She has followed a lonely young man back to his apartment after he catches a big fish. Through his inner monologue we follow his tense struggle with what amounts to a wild animal locked in a room with him. He can’t take his eyes off of the fish-hag, not even to cook her the fish. Supremely enjoyable.
The third story is perhaps the most ambitious. We find a young couple with relationship issues stemming from rumors backpacking in a remote village where an elderly couple relay various local superstitions and how they came to be. For example, if you don’t take two helpings of food, you’ll drown in the river. Or not to wear your hair down at night. We see each of their mini-stories as marionette plays, both gorgeous and disturbing. Each of the superstitions begins to coagulate into a greater meta fable about the grain of truth in each.
And finally we have the saddest of the stories. A young man still reels after his girlfriend’s death by suicide a year before. At the same time, displaced children begin disappearing after visiting the sea. This leads our central character to learn about the myth of the Call of the Night. Some sea spirit calls to people, beckoning them to join it. As we quickly learn, this spirit—if it exists—has a way to exploit its victim’s guilt.
I absolutely adored Pett Kata Shaw, and I’m thrilled Humayun will soon make a feature film (once the strikes are over, of course) with producer Jordan Peele. He has an eye for what maximizes scariness without ever relying on a jump-scare or leading musical cue. I cannot wait for this to inevitably make it to wide release because every horror fan should see it.