10/27/2018 – United Arab Emirates: Djinn (2013)
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Our second Middle Eastern country of the year is one with a far less extensive history. The first film, Aber Sabeel, wasn’t made until 1988 and it was never released in a commercial theater. It would take until 2005 Al-Hilm (The Dream) for the country’s first film to be distributed nationally. None of their films have gone on to achieve any notable acclaim with Ali F. Mostafa being perhaps the most prominent director with his well-received 2009 drama City of Life, 2014 comedy-drama From A to B, and the locally popular action-thriller from last year, The Worthy. The 2008 short Bint Mariam, 2011’s Sea Shadow, the 2015 thriller Zinzana, and the animated film Bilal: A New Breed of Hero which received an international release and was the first animated film released from the Middle East are also worth spotlighting.
The horror films aren’t exactly numerous, but there have been a few. 2009’s The Return of Umm Al Duwais is the earliest one, a made for TV effort whose subject is also told in the film more widely accepted as the first film, 2013’s Djinn. The horror comedies Grandmother’s Farm and its sequel would follow in 2014 and 2015 and achieve some success in the country while I can find no information whatsoever on 2016’s A Drop of Blood.
I try to whenever possible use native directors for films in the country not just for added difficulty, but because I feel it gives a better look at both the culture and the cinema from the area. And yet, there’s something appropriate feeling about using a film made by a foreign writer and director for the United Arab Emirates, a country best known for its largest city, Dubai. Only 15% of the nation’s population are actually considered nationals and the city of Dubai is known for its excess and willingness to spend whatever money to make itself more notable. Hence hiring a name director, even if Hooper (who sadly passed away last year) is someone who hadn’t had a hit since Poltergeist and had never been able to escape the shadow of the directing doubts about that film or the shadow cast by his superlative first film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Djinn is filmed in English and Arabic, and although Arabic is generally listed first elsewhere, English feels more prominent in the film. As an intro screen (and later bit of exposition for those who showed up late) details, God created the djinn from fire who drove all the people out. Also, the djinns are invisible, can shapeshift, and be incredibly passive aggressive. The djinn here is Umm Al Duwais who has born a half djinn, half human child, the humans were able suppress the djinn nature, hiding his identity and him from her to this day.
At the center of the film is a couple whose infant has died from SIDS. A couple’s counselor (I think it was one, the film never says and for all I know could have been a random financial advisor considering the office they met her in) advises that they move back to the UAE to be closer to the husband’s family, but there is something suspicious about her behavior. Well there was something suspicious before the film unsubtly drops her voice an octave or two and makes it more apparent. This movie couldn’t be more blunt with its foreshadowing if it tried. It’s a film made for people who have to know what is coming in a movie before it happens.
The husbands work takes him to a new building built on a djinn village enshrouded in fog and to quote Tom Servo, “Even the movie The Fog didn’t have this much fog”. It doesn’t so much create atmosphere as make everything look like shit. At times it looks like they left up the green screen without actually projecting anything on to it the fog is so thick. In their nice hotel room where they are living, the wife starts hearing crying and the film takes on psychological horror elements on top of its supernatural elements as it eyes Rosemary’s Baby enviously.
I enjoyed the brief scenes where the djinn would travel about (in plain sight) moving its body almost like a liquid or one brief effect where they made the djinn appear to walk on the ceiling by footprints alone (both quickly defused) or SPOILERS1. Neither of those first two are all that original or even that well executed, but I still liked them as a distraction from the rest of the film. The acting is abysmal especially the lead actress, Razane Jammal, who made sure to thoroughly overact. That’s not to say she had a lot to work with considering the terrible script which was unnatural and expository.
The “scares” alternate between pathetic attempts at jump scares and theoretically creepy things happening in plain sight and the film fails on both counts. The film does succeed at landing SPOILERS2 At least the movie moves fast enough along though which makes mocking it a doable effort (still not a recommendation).
Bonus Episode #37 – A – 1980s: The Entity (1982)
Directed by Sidney J. Furie
Originally intended to be released in 1981, The Entity wouldn’t be released until 1982 internationally and 1983 in the US. It’s not hard to see why it got delayed as even after taking out the incestuous bits, there’s still far more here than would be expected in a film of its size. Adapted from the book of the same name by Frank De Felitta (who also wrote the screenplay) which itself was based on the Doris Bither case, the film is a supernatural film starring Barbara Hershey.
One night, a single mother in typing school (Hershey) is violently sexually assaulted by poltergeists or some other invisible force. Thankfully we don’t see much of the attack, but the whole incident comes on so suddenly and is over so quickly, with the accompanying rush as her son searches for the attacker for her that it is just as hard to watch. Of course, they find nothing in the house and the torments only get worse. The house starts shaking and she freaks out, scaring her kids (her high school aged son and two younger daughters). That discretion is also not something we continue to get in the future as future assaults including ones where we just see her skin being pressed in by something as she lays there naked screaming helplessly.
I was surprised by how openly the film actually discussed the incidents as rape and while it makes sense to dismiss her assertions based on her claims of poltergeists, the rape dismissals as a whole carry a chilling modern context. The psychiatrist who’s quick to blame that her father was a minister, she suffered abuse as a child, and that she had a crappy first husband or his colleague who just says she’s masturbating and faking the whole thing even as she starts getting possessed outside the house too and getting bruises all over. In fact, no one will believe her for a long time as the film takes on a psychological element, with it taking actual witnesses before even her children or friends start to.
I appreciate the very scientific approach to isolating The Entity focused on facts, experimentation, and despite having theories, lack of blind conjecture. It was certainly better than the scenes featuring her psychiatrist played by Ron Silver who is determined to convince her she is just suffering from delusions. It’s as if they had to have one character constantly act like an idiot to make things that much more harder for her, a character who is consistently trying to white knight despite nobody actually wanting him around.
The pounding almost industrial soundtrack when the action heats up is repetitive and predictable, but it can also be effective especially during the tensest moments. And the film is tense with the bursts of horror played so ably by Hershey who makes her every bit of fear, resignation, and brief bits of relief shine through her face. It also looks remarkably good from the cinematography to the visual effects. I’d say that making an invisible attacker is easy, but I just saw The Brain yesterday which reminded me otherwise. It keeps the effects simple and that’s all the film needs. The Entity has its reputation and place for its content, but even beyond that it’s a very good horror film in its own right. If you don’t believe me, ask Martin Scorsese. Also, George Coe (Woodhouse on Archer) is in this playing a doctor so that’s always fun.
Bonus Episode #38 – S – Kei Fujiwara: Organ (1996)
Directed by Kei Fujiwara
Kei Fujiwara got her start in underground theater with her first credited role being a small role in the 1973 American sci-film, The Neptune Factor. She would start her most famous collaboration in 1986 with Shinya Tsukamoto on the horror short The Phantom of Regular Size as well as his short the following year, The Great Analog World. She would serve as one of two cinematographers and the lead actress on his debut feature Tetsuo: The Iron Man in 1989. Fujiwara would follow her work up on that by producing a play called Organ which was made into today’s film which she wrote, produced, directed, and co-starred in. Her final work (which she again directed, wrote, and played a supporting role) is the experimental horror film Ido from 2005 which went largely ignored.
Organ follows in the footsteps of Tetsuo being very much a body horror title filled with tons of gore. The gore starts before the titles even start and it delights throughout in showing the effects off. Set in 1996 Tokyo, Two undercover detectives, Numata and Tosaka (newcomer and partner) are investigating a group of human organ sellers. Numata gives a very ’90s style self-serious narration, complete with dime store philosophizing early on that I found adorable. Their cover is blown when one of them reacts badly to seeing a “patient” die on the operating table when his organs are being removed. Numata is injected with some liquid while Tosaka is taken away by the baddies who include a one-eyed woman (played by Fujiwara) and her brother Saeki. Saeki works as a biology teacher and harvests student’s blood and organs as well as generally creeping on them while maintaining a creepy submissive relationship with his sister.
Numata wakes up by train tracks and is fired from his job, stumbling about and hallucinating as he starts to try to track down his partner. Meanwhile, his partner has an identical twin who is helping the police and that’s about all I got out of the plot. It’s one giant mess of a plot that descends into showing off the practical effects which you would think be enough and yet, it isn’t. There’re great images including a woman hatching from a cocoon with “caterpillars” in her belly and what appear to be wings and unknowable things all over her skin, but unlike Tetsuo where there is a clear build, Organ establishes itself pretty well early with the badly burned and scarred bodies and returns to them repeatedly to diminishing returns.
I can’t say there’s no value in a film a man has a giant tumorous growth that started by oozing pus, growing bigger as it takes over a stomach, another grows into a plant, or one that goes for equality in whizzing scenes, but it’s an empty film. The movie never gets all that shocking nor hard to watch no matter what it throws at the screen and by the ending I was left feeling with left feeling only a sense of pointlessness.
Bonus Episode #39 – A – 1980s: The Hand (1981)
Directed by Oliver Stone
I’m well aware of Oliver Stone’s divisive reputation to say the least and I get it. Even discarding any personal statements of his and the questionable ethics of JFK (which is still a pretty good movie in spite of all that), his films vary greatly in quality, and even his best have major issues. I do have to give him credit thought for his pre-Bush era films being nothing if not interesting with a number of really good films in there and a couple great ones. Despite his reputation for political and social commentary heavy films, Stone made his feature debut on the horror title Seizure in 1974. After winning an Oscar for the controversial Midnight Express (not the first time he’d be criticized for getting loose with facts) in 1978, he’d go on to write and direct today’s horror title.
Based on Marc Brandell’s The Lizard’s Tail, Michael Caine is a… actually I’m not quite sure there. Wikipedia lists him as a “comic book illustrator” with the artwork done by Marvel illustrator Barry Windsor-Smith, but it makes far more sense for the character to be a syndicated comic strip considering that he manages to have an attractive wife, a house on a lake, a kid, and can afford a to rent an apartment in New York City for a few months a year. While on the road with an asshole driver on their tail, he gets into an argument with his wife who wants to move out for the winter. Idiotically, she decides to get into the left lane (I know it’s legal but who does this, and she does it without looking or even any real effort to pass) and with a car coming in the other direction, her attempts to merge back in wind up getting her husband’s drawing hand knocked off.
He’s unable to find the hand after the accident and is forced to reconsider his life unable to draw with his left hand or the prosthetic arm he gets. He starts working as a teacher and after eventually separates from his wife. He does find his ring though, that is until it disappears without a trace. The Hand on the other hand (I’m sorry), begins its own adventures, crawling under its own power. Caine’s illustrator starts having blackouts which first manifest as him drawing “obscene” (his word, not mine) illustrations while blacked out, and later hallucinations of the hand doing various deeds as it acts out his wishes.
The Hand plays it far more seriously than Evil Dead II or Idle Hands but it’s no less silly to see a disembodied hand (handled by Stan Winston and Carlo Rambaldi) attacking people. It also bears more than a small resemblance to the Peter Lorre movie The Beast with Five Fingers, a better movie. Stone’s attempts at drama have a decidedly mixed success though. There’s no real feel for the marital issues and his new relationship is awkwardly handled, but the frustration at the loss of his abilities and his publications taking over and changing his (silly) comic is a good one. Caine’s performance wavers from well-handled emotion and intensity to his not infrequent paycheck collecting mode or classic overblown Caine moments. Stone cameos as a drunken homeless man with one arm who becomes the first victim of the hand and Bruce McGill play his friend (speaking of ill-handled subplots). The film just doesn’t integrate all the elements together all that well nor with the b-movie that the killer hand wants to be a part of.
Next up: We head into the home stretch as we wrap up our journey through the ages with a look at the 2010s and Steven Soderbergh’s ridiculously titled Unsane.