Vincent was a rarity in Indian cinema, a film-maker that took the horror genre seriously. The stories he made were culturally rooted and given the sensibility of a Gothic melodrama, not reliant on jump scares or sleaze quotient to garner attention. In 1964 Vincent made his directorial debut with Bhargavi Nilayam (Bhargavi's House), in which a tenant encounters the spirit of a woman in the house he is occupying, and learns of how she was killed. In 1978 he helmed Vayanadan Thamban, an ambitious romantic horror. In that one the warlock Thamban (played by Kamalahaasan) turns to devil worship for eternal youth, in return for which he must periodically provide his master with virgin sacrifice. The narrative spans several generations, visually indicated by the changes in social and cultural milieu. Thamban is both a vampiric predator that honey-traps women for sacrifice while repeatedly escaping capture, and a man that battles with his own conscience over his actions.*
SKP is a sort of spiritual successor to Vayanadan Thamban, in that it is also a culturally rooted story in which the horror elements are tied in with the protagonist's moral compass. After Kumaran accepts the uncle's teaching he transforms into an austere, celibate priest with the power to heal the needy. He is powerful enough to tackle the menace of vengeful spirits like Lakshmikutty, who bears a deadly grudge against him, and the insidious attacks of a competing black magician who wishes to destroy the influence of the Garuda clan. Kumaran's powers hold sway so long as he is able to control his baser instincts.
Alas, that state of affirs does not remain. He starts to desire a young woman Bhanumathi, and when unable to contain his lust, visits the local prostitute. This marks the beginning of Kumaran's fall from grace. Over time, his righteousness is replaced by ego. Even after having failed to keep the mandatory celibacy, he refuses to relinquish the position of priest to any successor. The forces invoked by the white magic practiced in his clan become diminished, and to counter his failings, he turns to the practice of a darker sorcery with the worship of the boar-headed goddess Varthali/Varahi. While it initially serves his purpose, aiding him to do his miracles and protect the family from rivals, this has its own set of consequences. The film does not explicitly pit the various schools of magic as one-note good and evil (Varahi is a female offshoot of one of Vishnu's avatars) - but they represent different schools of thought with conflicting philosophies that cannot coexist. There is a strong grounding of polytheist mythology here, a refreshing contrast from the more simplistic God vs The Devil narrative of western horror films.
Kumaran's shaky moral core continues to blindside him, leading to both personal tragedy as well as the destruction of his entire clan. At the end there is a moment of redemption when Kumaran, burned in a fire after trying to make away with the sacred texts from the family shrine, expends his dying breaths initiating his innocent nephew into the original clan tradition.
SKP is trademark Vincent in both its virtues and its flaws. Its biggest triumph is the serious exploration of a specific folklore. Thanks to a combination of effective writing and a young Mohanlal's thespian talent, the grey shades of the protagonist are superbly layered, rendering him a credible character than a good/evil archetype. Vincent's creative eye is also able to give a distinct identity to his deities, demons and spirits, wholly away from the hackneyed spooks of hack horror-makers. But there are the issues of pacing and visual continuity as in his other films. Those expecting the spit and polish of Western horror ventures will find these flaws jarring (anyone familiar with low-budget genre Indian films will not).
But with all its flaws, SKP is a compelling moral fable that provides rich rewards to those seeking a genuine horror experience in a unique cultural setting. While I wish I could recommend it unreservedly to serious horror fans across the world, one barrier is that the film does not so far appear to be available in subtitled form, and while you can get a cursory idea from the visuals alone, viewers really need to have a working knowledge of Malayalam to grasp the intricacies of the plot. I was lucky in having a Malayalee friend who generously spared his time, and we paused the film multiple times to discuss both the dialog as well as the context of the cultural practices depicted, making it a truly enlightening experience for me. I do hope others get as lucky, because these films have too niche an audience to entertain the idea of any international label presenting them in translated form. That said, the full feature in the original language is available on Youtube, so you can try your luck:
* While Vincent's original version of Vayanadan Thamban is a classy Gothic, it was however heavily mutilated for its Hindi dubbed version titled Pyaasa Shaitan (Thirsty Devil) by camp icon Joginder Shelly, who has been described as India's answer to Ed Wood. After bagging the rights to Vincent's film Shelly randomly rammed in inserts of himself as the devil, making faces at the camera, and tasteless sleaze material that only made for an incomprehensible experience.