Written by Varun Ramadhyani
I still remember Zoe presenting us with the first cut. We were in an unoccupied classroom, the normal spot for 640’s weekly meetings back in early 2020.
“It’s 25 minutes.”
We all shut up and turned our heads. 25 minutes may not seem like much, but we had been working in the 8-12 minute timeframe for everything we had done up until that point (I think Par Avion and The Most Desirable both clock in at around 10 minutes or so.) This felt like new territory for 640, for me at least. Once Parker got the projector up and running, we sat down and watched the first cut of what I still consider to be 640’s best released film.
Varun had come by my apartment one afternoon a few weeks prior, saying he needed help with the mixing on some of the sound effects. The meeting boiled down to Varun and I sitting at my desk with Logic Pro open, as we listened through drones he had selected for the film. He needed something for the end, and felt like what he had was good, but wasn’t packing enough of a punch.
“Yeah, just a little bit.”
We sat there as I cranked the compression on the drone higher, and higher. Multiple types of distortions were tried out before we found something we were happy with. I couldn’t quite picture what Varun was planning on doing as we tested the limits of Logic’s guitar pedals, but I knew it was gonna be, at the very least, fucking crazy.
Aside from the sound work, I had read the script and been on set for one of the days of production for the film, so you’d think I would have some idea of what to expect. However, when we watched the first cut, I was totally taken aback. A Shadow Breathes is a remarkably focused and decisive film. For anyone who knows Varun though, I don’t know why I expected any less. A Shadow Breathes constructs a vivid world with very little. Excluding the final shot, there is no diegetic sound at all. The camerawork is simple for the most part too; the vast majority of the film is locked on a tripod. But that’s the thing, A Shadow Breathes doesn’t need dialogue or flashy camerawork to achieve its goal. The horror in A Shadow Breathes is found in the hypnotic ambience Varun builds throughout the piece. Alek’s bone-chilling voiceover as Pratik, coupled with the drones Varun selected, lay the bed for something that begins unsettling, and ends, well, frankly upsetting.
The film begins with a slow pedestal up (one of the few camera moves in the film) to Pratik in a classroom. Pratik describes (in V.O.) an incessant buzzing in his head. A buzzing that only continues to grow louder. As his journey begins, he drives to a spot in the forest to go through mementos left in a discreet box. These mementos are, presumably, tokens from past murders.
He fingers through jewelry, teeth, and shards of broken glass as Pratik drops cryptic lines of voiceover. The number of dissolves here would be overkill for almost any other film, but here, it creates an atmosphere that’s almost dream-like. It forces the viewer to never become too grounded in what’s happening in the film at the moment, and to remain lost in the atmospheric dread. From here, he begins to do what I can only describe as hunting for his next prey. He finds a college student who’s had one too many, and begins stalking him like a Hyena. Pratik is slow and methodical, yet entirely devoid of any sort of lust for what is about to transpire. Much more Anton Chigurh than Hannibal Lector.
As Pratik’s soon-to-be victim is chaperoned home by a friend, the drones cut to dead silence. Pratik, appropriately, says “There is nothing here… only noise.” right as the drones are replaced by what might as well be a banshee’s shriek processed through a guitar amp. This is where the hypnosis of A Shadow Breathes begins to, much by design, overload. The formerly deliberate editing pace begins to pick up in a montage-like fashion. We see Pratik, smoking a cigarette as his target passes, and brief moments of the scene we’ve all been both waiting for and dreading.
One thing I would like to stress, as I think it gets lost in all the talk of terror and murder, is that this film is beautiful. My favorite sequence will always be the driving sequence that occurs in the first half of the film. As Pratik drives,unfocused blobs of light (bokeh for the film nerds) enter and leave the frame as if you are being transported to another dimension. And Varun holds on this sequence just long enough for you to truly get lost in it. The thing that I still have a tough time wrapping my head around is that the beauty A Shadow Breathes finds doesn’t detract from the horror, it ADDS to the sense of tension. It’s a constant back and forth of “Oh wow, this is a beautiful shot. Oh wow, I’m sick to my stomach.” The dread that builds throughout the film is just as visually stunning as it is, well, dreadful.
When the murder, at last, takes place, the weapon of choice being a pot of dead flowers on a nearby table, there is no satisfaction. The drones are gone, there’s no voiceover. The ambience is replaced with an uncomfortable sense of presence in the scene. You feel every creek, every movement, as Pratik inches towards his victim. When the grisly deed is done, the dramatic release is akin to watching a lion slaughter it’s prey on the Discovery Channel. Only difference being that once the lion finally gets the gazelle, it turns human again. We sit with Pratik, uncomfortably, as he grapples with what he’s just done. He lets out a blood-curdling scream, maybe in agony, maybe in terror. This isn’t something that anybody, Pratik especially, wanted to happen; this is something that had to happen.