Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Djinn (2013)

Djinn (finished in 2011, released in 2013)
Dir. Tobe Hooper
Written by David Tully
Starring Khalid Laith, Razane Jammal, Aiysha Hart,

OK, so I had this idea, that we’d watch DJINN (2013) and JINN (2014) back-to-back, while drinking gin. As soon as I said it aloud, I knew I’d have to do it, puns and alcoholism being what they are. But actually I had a rather more lofty goal for this particular pairing, which was Peace in the Middle East. Didn’t pull that one off, as it turns out, but I maintain that my method was sound. See, if you’re like me --and if you read 5,500 words on TRICK OR TREAT, I can’t help but assume you’re at least a little like me-- you’re concerned with the rising tide of Islamophobia which is sweeping America and Europe. Solidarity is what we need. So I decided to stake out some common ground with the Muslim world on one topic which is universally beloved by everyone, everywhere. The only thing that came to mind was The Kardashians, but unfortunately after four or five seconds of watching their TV show I felt my soul retreat into a fortified bunker and begin to stockpile automatic weapon and meth, so I resolved to tackle the next most universally beloved institution: horror movies.

The horror genre is kind of interesting in a global sense. While virtually every culture --indeed, I cannot think of an exception-- has at least some tradition of home-grown action, romance, and dramatic films, horror is a somewhat less ubiquitous genre. Obviously horror has been a staple of Western cinema since the beginning (following on a strain of horror literature, storytelling and, ultimately, folktales which date back even further), but there has also been a long tradition of horror cinema in East Asia --notably Japan--, Bollywood, South and Central America, and even Nollywood. Not so much in the middle East, though, despite a long and venerable history of home-grown cinema in Iran, Turkey, Israel, and Egypt (as well as small but notable industries in Morocco, Liberia, Lebanon, and Palestine, to name a few others). 

Israeli cinema seems to have made the leap into horror filmmaking in recent years (the earliest I could easily find is 2010’s RABIES; at least one article claims it is the very first , but since then there have been at least a half-dozen more), but fairly exhaustive searches for comparable Islamic horror films offers few results indeed (there is a 2008 Turkish horror movie unfortunately called SEMUM; that is the earliest and only example I can find, though Hollywood-based Muslim producers like Mustapha Akkad have been turning out secular horror films in America for quite awhile). In fact, google searches for “Muslim Horror Movies” result in fretful message board queries about whether or not horror movies are haram before any actual IMBD results (don’t worry, the highest upvoted response assures us that it’s ok: “Islam is not a religion full of harams,” it admonishes. Just don’t get ridiculous about it).*

So what does that leave for us to build our peace initiative on? Only two movies that I could find, and both with a curiously similar --yet distinct-- pedigree, a mixture of both Americans and Islamic artists. First, there’s DJINN (2013), a movie financed and shot in the United Arab Emirates. It features substantial local input and control and a nearly all-Arab cast, but was written and directed by American white guys. And then there’s JINN (2014), a 100% American production (shot in Ann Arbor, Michigan!) but directed by a Muslim-American and featuring a Muslim protagonist. I don’t know if either film fully meets my criteria of “Islamic Horror Film,” (maybe that’s why World Peace didn’t follow?), and in all honesty neither film could realistically be called “good,” but as experiments into the intersection of Western exploitation genres and Islamic folk tradition, they’re at least mildly interesting artifacts. If we can’t have World Peace, at least that’s something.

The first object of our curiosity is also chronologically first; indeed, shooting wrapped back in 2011, although inexplicably it took two more years to finally premier. I can find no specific reason as to why, but that has rarely if ever been a good sign. DJINN is not the first film --nor even the first horror film-- to center around the Islamic Djinn (or “genie,” as it has been Anglicized in popular culture). The first (or at least, the first I can find) cinematic appearance seems to have been 1940’s THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD which features a classic genie-in-a-bottle setup which has more or less defined the norm in Western depictions. Western iterations of Djinn mythos tend to be more or less benevolent plot devices, but it’s worth noting that the first thing the genie in THIEF OF BAGHDAD does it attempt to kill the protagonist, before being subdued and forced to take on the traditional role of wish-granter. It’s a bit closer to the traditional Arab depiction of Djinn as powerful, potentially malevolent creatures than the lighthearted versions followed -- Burl Ives plays a genie in the 1964 comedy THE BRASS BOTTLE, the 1965 sit-com I Dream of Jeannie ran five seasons-- and it would not be until the little-seen 1987 horror film THE OUTING that a Djinn would again be portrayed as a source of danger. That would be followed a decade later by perhaps the most well-known sinister cinematic interpretation of Djinn; the WISHMASTER series, currently boasting a healthy three DTV sequels (it has a DVD combo pack with both LEPRECHAUN and PUMPKINHEAD II, so I guess you could say things are getting pretty serious).

Since then, there has been a smattering of other horror films to play with the concept (the 2002 UK horror film LONG TIME DEAD, the 2009 American film RED SANDS). All of these depictions, though, treat the Djinn as a more-or-less generic demonic figure, mostly unbound by any particular cultural or religious tradition. But despite their popular portrayal, Djinn are a specifically Islamic concept -- there’s even a chapter in the Quran which is explicitly about them: sura 72, Al-Jinn (not to be confused with The Simpsons writer and showrunner Al Jean). Apparently belief in Djinn is fairly commonplace throughout the Muslims world, and you don't have to look very far at all online to find hundreds of earnest first-person accounts comparable to American tradition of "true ghost stories." The belief in Djinn is apparently so strong that the filmmakers in this case (shooting in The UAE state of Ras al-Khaimah) had to cover the film's name on the director’s chair to appease the concerned locals. DJINN, therefore, is not unique in its depiction of the Djinn as a horror movie antagonist, but it is unique in its depiction of the Djinn in a specifically Muslim context, with Muslim protagonists living in a Muslim country.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the only unique thing about the movie. Which is not to say it’s a complete disaster, exactly. Considering the profoundly depressing latter-day work of director Tobe Hooper (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and POLTERGEIST, but also THE MANGLER and CROCODILE 2000), it’s a surprisingly competent riff on ROSEMARY’S BABY and any number of Generic Ghost movies, with a Muslim twist. Maybe comparable to the similarly Jewish-themed EXORCIST ripoff POSSESSION but way more low rent and shot on shittier cameras. And not with enough of a Muslim twist. The unusual locale and protagonists do bring a touch of color to the proceedings, but unfortunately nearly everything else is as generic and boilerplate as horror movies come. Not entirely incompetent, but very, very short on anything remotely original or noteworthy.

The plot is agreeably simple. It begins --as does JINN-- with a little bit of backstory for us barbaric crusaders who may not know a lot about the subject. Djinn, it seems, are one of three sentient species created at the beginning of time by God, using different materials. Mankind was crafted out of clay; Angels out of light, and finally Djinn, out of fire (you can see why God would leave the fire one for last, after he’d really gotten the hang of it). So good, that brings us up to speed with the backstory. Our heroes for this particular caper are Khalid (Khalid Laith, THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE) and Salama (Razane Jammal, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES), UAE expats who have lived in the United States for long enough to have built a successful life here. But since the recent tragic death of their baby, Salama’s been depressed, and Khalid decides that a return to their homeland might help her. She’s a bit more reticent, but lets herself get talked into it. And who wouldn’t be cheered up by the first sight of their new digs? Have a look:

Surprisingly, the film conjures a pretty strong ambiance, right off the bat, thanks in a large part to the weird, creepy location, a giant nearly-deserted luxury apartment perpetually shrouded in impenetrable --mist? Smoke? Sandstorm? Hard to say, but as you can see the movie commits to it pretty heroically, and the result is an off-kilter sense of surreal displacement and isolation. That we later learn the tower was built upon the Islamic equivalent of an ancient Indian burial ground should surprise no one, but honestly the setting itself goes a long way towards actually giving the whole enterprise a bleak, nightmarish vibe much more potent than the standard-issue ghouls which inhabit it warrant.

Unfortunately, it’s slow going once we get there. Mostly Khalid works while Salama frets at home and starts to notice subtle and not-so-subtle signs that things aren’t quite right here. The Djinn itself looks pretty good as far as these things go; it’s nothing you haven't seen before if you’re even passingly acquainted with horror movies, but its skittering-crawling movements on the wall and floor still have a pleasing creep factor. But slightly more impactful is one of the building’s few apparently human inhabitants (Aiysha Hart, 2014’s HONOUR), a worrisomely friendly interloper who seems a little too interested in her new neighbors, and also sports some truly aggressive Dark Jedi eyes. Kind of a anti-Ruth-Gordon Ruth Gordon. Hart’s pretty good, actually, generating the exact right balance superficial friendliness and and uneasy pushiness.

Everything works, as these things go, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s also pretty unforgivably staid, considering the functional-but-bedrock-standard tools it’s wielding. One of the best scenes involves a surreal party next door with a appetizer of maggots (leave it to the director of TCM to know the value of a vivid horror meal). The film could use a little more of that kind of weirdness, because its ghostly shenanigans are as low-effort as these things come. And these problems are not helped by a thoroughly dull performance by Jammal, a pretty actress who almost comically under-reacts to the total craziness which quickly envelopes her. Jammal is more or less on her own for most of the movie, and unfortunately her inability to thoroughly sell us on the drama undercuts what little bite it might have ever had (Laith, for his part, is better, but in a much smaller role). Without much sense of fun or compelling fear, the whole enterprise quickly loses any buoyancy and sinks. Sometimes it doesn’t take a leak to down a ship, just a consistently waterlogged cargo.

Still, at this stage having Hooper get across the finish line with dignity still wholly intact is something of a miracle, and at least this isn’t too much of an embarrassment. It’s got a fairly strong control of tone, but not the imagination to do much with it. That’s especially disappointing considering the subject matter here; despite the exotic location and culturally distinct spook, the material here is as by-the-book as it comes. Nothing strikes me as distinctly Islamic about the approach to the horror, or even the character’s response to it (though the couple's’ conflicting ties to America and the UAE do provide at least a veneer or uniqueness to paper over the general blandness.) I take this as a legitimately well-intentioned attempt to broaden the usual pool of horror movie protagonists and narratives --an early aside even cheekily has an corny “ugly American” poo-pooing Middle Eastern superstition, to his fairly quick comeuppance-- but there’s no getting around it, there’s just not a lot of meat of any kind on this particular bone.

*Of course, Indonesia has been making horror movies since at least 1972’s Beranak Dalam Kubur (BIRTH IN THE TOMB) --which writer Pete Tombs claims in his book Mondo Macabro is “generally considered the first Western-style horror film produced in Indonesia,” though I can find no other confirmation of this (nor any other English-language commentary on the topic). There have been tons of Indonesian horror films since that time, and any one of them would probably have fit my purpose better than either Jinn movie, but like most Americans I routinely forget that more Muslims live in Indonesia than the entire Middle East put together and, if I remember Indonesia at all, it’s mostly due to THE ACT OF KILLING and THE RAID and the faint memory that it has something to do with Obama being a secret Muslim. So Indonesia, my apologies for sleeping on your decades of horror cinema. They’re in the queue now.

Play it Again, Samhain

Evil Wants An Heir
Tobe Hooper, of course!
Almost none
Haunted… high-rise?

Quite high, dumped after sitting on the shelves for years.
Middle East Peace is even more complicated than one would assume.
There is a Djinn

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