Friday, November 6, 2015


Djinn (2013), filmed in 2011 but without any sort of release here in the States until 2015, arrives with a lot of hype and baggage. Touted as the first horror movie produced in the United Arab Emirates, the movie stars predominantly Arab actors, centers on characters who are Muslim, and focuses on a creature from Middle Eastern folklore. It's also directed by Tobe Hooper, the famed director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist.

The film generated some controversy between its completion and release. Rumor had it someone in the UAE royal family disapproved of the film for being subversive and tried to have it buried. I don't know if that's true, but the film was delayed and there were reports of re-shoots and other behind-the-scenes drama, such as a crew member quitting production because of a lack of local influence on the project. The film did get some play time at festivals, but the reviews weren't kind. Variety called it "execrable," and Indie Wire asked in its headline why Djinn was "such a terrible film."

Contrarily, I kind of liked it. Don't get me wrong. There's a lot to criticize, namely the stilted dialogue that over-explains everything in the clunkiest of manners and some weird pacing and editing issues, but once he gets to the horror elements, most notably the sustained climax, Hooper pulls out all the stops and demonstrates he still has some of the talent we thought he lost after the likes of Spontaneous Combustion, The Mangler, and Mortuary. With better focus on the writing and the performances, Djinn probably could have done better, but as it is, the film works best when Hooper jettisons the plot and focuses on just presenting nightmarish visuals and style.

Djinn is about a young couple, Salama (Razane Jammal) and Khalid (Khalid Laith), grieving the loss of their infant. When Khalid gets a job offer back in their home country of UAE, they leave New York and move into an apartment built on the site of an ancient fishing village which was said to be inhabited by Djinn, ancient creatures that can shapeshift and torment people. Before long (not even a day), Salama begins having strange experiences in their new home while Khalid discovers he has more of a connection to the legend of the land than he realized.

Hooper is a strange choice to handle this material. Hooper's films have covered Americana elements: rural, backwater, suburbs, small towns. He's very much an American filmmaker whose work normally draws on the zeitgeist and social norms of U.S. society while his style of horror is usually about turning normalcy upside down and tearing it asunder into chaos and anarchy. The sociological interest of Djinn feels like something Wes Craven would be drawn to, and the lurid, fantasy elements are more befitting the likes of a Dario Argento. Personally, I would have gone with a director from the UAE.

Still, there are elements of Djinn that will be familiar to followers of Hooper's filmography. The apartment building with its mysterious halls and spooky neighbors is reminiscent of the complex where Angela Bettis was terrorized by a masked killer in Toolbox Murders, and the M.O. of the Djinn are not that dissimilar from the unruly spirits of Poltergeist. These demon-like beings like to jump out and scare people, manipulate electrical devices, and lure people out with weird noises. Even the revelation of Khalid's lineage and the true fate of the couple's baby play on a theme Hooper has long dwelt on: family bloodlines and dysfunction creating monsters.

Most notably absent is Hooper's trademark black humor. I suppose it's for the best given the material and cultural considerations, although one moment of dozens of birds flying into windows and going splat is kind of funny (would have worked better with better CGI though). In recent years, that dark humor often led to irritating characters played by overacting performers. Here, the characters are pretty bland and kind of weird, and while most performances are weak, they didn't get on my nerves.

About that weirdness. I don't know how to describe it other than much of it seems to be a result of shoddy writing and acting than design. When they arrive in their new home, arriving by plane and then driving hours to the apartment, Khalid immediately gets in a car and goes two hours away to his job; that was cutting it kind of close. Was he going to do that every day? Why is Salama's mother giving the usual I-can't-wait-to-be-a-grandmother shtick when she knows her daughter just lost a baby? What was up with that marriage counselor in the beginning? She apparently gets possessed, but Khalid and Salama don't react much when she speaks weird and says odd things (like advising clients to move thousands of miles away when they clearly disagree with each other).

Horror movies generally begin with a sense of normalcy before gradually introducing macabre and supernatural elements, but Djinn's attempts at normalcy come off as phony, contrived, and weird, almost like the people making the movie didn't have a grasp of presenting it without it seeming fake. The dialogue is terrible, with characters saying things out of the blue without motivation only to convey exposition, exposition we usually didn't require (that scene with the counselor almost kills the movie right out of the gate) or that gives away a big surprise (once we hear the legend of Djinn, we know right away who Khalid's real mother is).

All that said, the horror elements, on their own and taken apart from the story and acting, are impressive or at least well done. The apartment building itself is an ominous creepy place, and Hooper's camera captures it nicely. The Djinn's appearances are more suggested than shown, and I thought her design was nice and creepy, especially the way she glides through the air like a ghost or crawls on the floor like a corpse, her hideous visage barely hidden by a veil. There's also some fun use of darkness and light (I'm a sucker for images in the dark that vanish when you shine a light on them).

The best sequence of the movie comes at the end when the Djinn really mess with Salama and Khalid, separating them and making it difficult for them to tell what's real and what isn't. The building is especially dark and claustrophobic, and the camera swoops and dives all over the place, giving a sense of being trapped and chased. It didn't make much sense; I couldn't really follow what was going, but while watching this portion of the film, I felt like I was watching a genuine nightmare, and in the moment, I didn't care about rationality.

Horror movies don't have to be realistic and don't have to play by the rules. The trend now is be gritty and believable, so when a movie comes along that doesn't try to be, it can be a pleasant surprise. At is best, Djinn is an involving experience because of this. It's just not always at its best.

No comments:

Post a Comment