So, how’s your knowledge of Sanskrit mythology? Yeah, me neither. But don’t assume that’s a hindrance to enjoying the independently produced web series The Vetala, which frames its premise around the emergence of an ancient hostile spirit surfacing in modern times. Because to do so is a major disservice to an extremely well-made dramatic thriller, whose supernatural underpinnings only become evident later in the life of the series.
Vetala, another web series immigrant from Vancouver, British Columbia (which also recently gave us Riese and Hurtling Through Space), opens on Lily (Candace Chase) and Alex (Paul Mendel), two college students doubling as investigative journalists on the trail of a gun syndicate. (Why they’re only college journalists, not professional ones, is a detail that frankly doesn’t make much sense, but it’s a minor one in the grand scheme of things.) However, in Episode 1, a meet-up with a source goes badly for Lily, and an increasingly strange series of events results.
A big key to Vetala‘s success is an intriguing choice in the way Lily reacts to her situation — which is to say, she’s totally freaked out. But her reaction doesn’t make her any less strong as a character, and instead truly grounds the supernatural events of the series in the real world. Lily’s initial denial of what’s happening is reminiscent of the way a real person would react to the action that occurs, and gives her a level of believability similar narratives have failed to execute.
Vetala is also a triumph of low-budget production; writer/director Damon Vignale has a knack for faking locations and shooting around high-cost action that helps the series look much more expensive than it is — great score, sound design, and graphics adding a professional polish to the goings-on. Episode 5, Premonition, contains one of the best no-budget effects I’ve ever seen, using character reactions, sound effects, and one well-staged aftermath shot to effectively convey an event it can cost Hollywood hundreds of thousands of dollars to fake.
The first season, only seven episodes long, comes together as an intense and action-packed ride with intriguing cliffhangers to each episode’s conclusion — the only major misstep is that the finale of the show concludes with a grand reveal of the Vetala, who turns out to be a Gollum-esque CGI monster, decently rendered for this scale of production but clearly, tragically fake. Hopefully in the promised season 2, he’ll return to the shadows — where he was far, far scarier.