Thursday, September 8, 2016

Jinn (2014)

Jinn (2014)
Dir. and written by Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad
Starring Dominic Rains, Serinda Swan, William Atherton, Ray Parks, Faran Tahir

Hey there folks. First off, sorry I’ve been writing so sporadically recently. I’ve had a ton of unexpected stuff come up in the ol’ personal life which has pretty much eaten a month and a half. But now we’re back, baby!

So! When last we spoke, we were discussing the Tobe-Hooper helmed snoozer DJINN, which opened after a long stay on the shelf in 2013, to widespread public disinterest. So why not another Jinn-themed film, just a year later?

JINN is a pretty good counterargument to the “why not?” question. But I kinda hate to dish on it too much, because it’s not just some lame Hollywood cash grab, it’s apparently this guy Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad’s dream project, something he’d been working on for years and attributes to his love of Jinn stories his Mother told him as a kid. Ahmad is Pakistani immigrant who worked in Hollywood for a spell doing commercials and music videos, and then struck out on his own, creating an Indie production company in his adoptive hometown of Detroit, Michigan (where he grew up), and producing and directing a Bollywood film in 2009 before making his American debut with JINN. I mean, you gotta like that backstory; an immigrant made good, bringing business and much-needed creative economy jobs to my poor beloved Detroit, and in the process making a genre movie which subverts the usual whitewashing which can plague these things, starring a racially and religiously diverse cast and forefronting Arab and Persian heroes in a very mainstream way. This was, by all available evidence, a labor of love on his part, and so I can’t bring myself to be too mean to it, even though though objectively it sucks.

Let’s back up for a moment, though, and recall why I’m doing this in the first place. As I mentioned last time when we were talking about DJINN, this is part 2 of my DJINN vs JINN vs Gin initiative, where, like many Americans, I embarked on noble but doomed-to-fail quest to establish Peace in the Middle East, in this case through the medium of trying to find Horror movies with Islamic themes. While drinking gin, which I grant is a little off-theme with the Islam, but come on, who could resist that pun?

Hey, it's Toad! That guy behind him, out of focus? That's the actual hero of the movie, and this is the only official promotional image I could find with him in it, because, racism.

While DJINN and JINN both center around the Islamic mythological (/totally real, whatever floats your boat) supernatural entities known as Jinn (or Djinn, or Genies), they present them pretty differently. DJINN is primarily a ROSEMARY’s BABY ripoff with a sort of skittering, ghost-like djinn haunting in a scary apartment building. JINN is more of a fantasy-thriller, with big exciting chase scenes featuring many monsters trying, basically, to eat our guys. They do both begin the same way, though, with a brief reminder for us non-Muslims what exactly we’re talking about here. In fact, they use almost the same words:

In the Beginning, Three were Created...
Man made of Clay.
Angels made of Light.
And a Third...made of Fire.
From the beginning, stories of angels and men have captured our imaginations and have been etched into our history crossing all boundaries of culture, religion, and time. These two races have dominated the landscape of modern mythology for countless centuries, almost washing away the evidence that a third ever existed. This third race, born of smokeless fire, was called the jinn. Similar to humans in many ways, the jinn lived invisibly among us and only under dire or unusual circumstances were our paths ever meant to cross.
As humans became the dominant force on Earth, contact between man and jinn steadily decreased.
Modern man has all but forgotten the jinn.

I’m not sure how helpful it is to us to get the whole friggin’ ingredients list for everyone, but point taken, Jinn are magical entities which live among us in secret. Though they don’t mention it up front, according to wikipedia, while Jinn can be similar to the Christian concept of demons, they’re not inherently evil, just powerful and potentially dangerous. Sometimes Jinn are portrayed as being helpful and benevolent, but judging from the online material I can find, it looks like they’re more commonly portrayed in Muslim culture as boogeymen. Ahmad, in fact, claims he was inspired to make the movie remembering how his mother used to warn him, “If you don’t eat your veggies, the Jinn is going to come out of the woods and get you.” He points out in a revealing interview that “Almost two billion people from India to China to Africa believe in the Jinn. Supposedly, they are very similar to man in that they have free will; however, they have powers that we would consider supernatural. To the rest of the world, most of the things that go “bump in the night” are attributed to the Jinn.” As you can see from this extensive curated blog featuring people’s submitted Jinn stories, Ahmad ain’t lying, this belief is pretty widespread.

I’m not as convinced the actual movie JINN has a whole lot to do with “real” Jinn, though, in that it involves a prophecy, something about the curse of a bloodline, and it starts in 1901, where a heroic man confronts a scary-looking Jinn sitting in a shack (and apparently causing no harm to anyone. Who’s the real villain here?). After an energetic battle, the man prevails, but apparently at the expense of the Jinn deciding to return and fuck with his bloodline, like HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE, except without the space marines (spoiler). 113 years later, we encounter that very bloodline in the form of Shawn (Dominic Rains, so much sleazy fun as the coke-addled gangster in GIRL WALKED HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, but a disappointingly bland handsome nice guy here) a successful professional living in what wikipedia claims is California, but is obviously actually the campus of the University of Michigan, which is pretty cool. When he starts experiencing signs of Jinn activity, it’s up to him to solve the mystery of what the deal is with his cursed bloodline with the help of a Catholic priest (William Atherton, GHOSTBUSTERS and DIE HARD, who had actually acted with Ahmad before in the 2013 indie drama THE CITIZEN), his mentally ill uncle (Faran Tahir, ELYSIUM, STAR TREK) and a mysterious badass (Ray Parks, Darth Maul himself!). Oh, and guess what, his wife (Serinda Swan, CREATURE, Smallville) is pregnant. Mama told me there’d be days like this.

That’s a perfectly serviceable setup for a horror movie about Jinn, as these things go, but unfortunately the problem here is that Ahmad’s Bollywood eagerness to please is something of a detriment to his success as a horror director. While Hooper’s film coasted on scuzzy, low-key menace, Ahmad wants bombast, and lots of it. He just can’t seem to help himself from pouring on the pretty Hollywood images, flashy camera moves and whiz-bang effects sequences. That in itself could work as a strategy, if perhaps not for a particularly terrifying movie, at least for a fun one (See the works of Harlin comma Renny). Here though, while the look of the film remains as shiny and gaudy as any Hollywood film, the whammy is far too meager and generally unimpressive when it arrives. It’s got a few patches of fun, but a lot of the filler feels just like what it is: standard fantasy-thriller claptrap exposition gradually unspooled by a dull pretty boy lead.

However, let’s not dwell on the dead zones which constitute an unfortunately large preponderance of the runtime. Instead, let’s point out the fun parts. First off, the Jinn themselves look pretty cool. First glimpsed in the movie’s opening as a menacing, emaciated faceless thing with long hair (in the movie’s only clearly iconic image), they later expand to all manner of different appearances, most of which seem to belong to the same charred-embers family of spooks who also appear in WE ARE STILL HERE, but sometimes with horns and spider legs and stuff. They don’t do much, but they look cool. Good hustle there. And because Ray Parks is in there, you know he’s gonna eventually kick some ass, which he does in a ludicrously protracted martial arts sequence that finds him literally (and visually!) punching the evil spirits out of his many opponents, and then beating down the offending spirits' disembodied asses a second time. As martial arts sequences go, it’s pretty middling, but the movie could obviously use more of that spirit instead of less, so I’m saluting it. Atherton, (visibly drunk for much of his role), is mostly wasted on the most absolutely leaden exposition they couldn’t fit into the distended opening narration (plus also he repeats a lot of it), but eventually the call to action comes and he responds in a pretty delightful way: Cracking open a giant crucifix to reveal a longsword. I don’t know if this is a standard thing for Catholic priests and it just doesn’t come up often or if this is just a matter of convenience for him, but obviously that shit’s money, I’m for it.

The best / worst sequence, depending on your tolerance of such things, involves our hero getting chased by a flying Jinn bent on eating him or whatever. But not so fast, supernatural being crafted by God from fire (not to question God or anything, but it seems like maybe not his most successful project in my opinion), Shawn doesn’t have to take your shit. See, I’m pretty sure he’s a car designer (which would also jive with the Ann Arbor, MI digs) and consequently he leaps into his custom Chevy Camaro Firebreather and races away at breakneck speed, sparking a high-speed car chase. He drives a souped-up muscle car to outrun a ghost! Not only is that exactly the sort of agreeably stupid horseshit that I’d want in a movie like this (which is to say, one which has already utterly failed as anything resembling an effective horror movie), but get this -- that Firebreather was designed by Ahmad himself and specially built for this movie! You can’t be mad at a guy so enthused about his stupid Jinn chase scene that he actually designed and built a car for it. You know in your heart it’s what Neil Young would do if he ever made a horror movie.

The movie's real star.

So yeah, JINN sucks and is mostly pretty boring, but it has its moments. I can’t really stay mad at it. I wish it was a little more explicitly Muslim, but maybe normalizing its modern Muslim characters into a standard genre story is a useful thing too, if a less interesting one.* And the fact (blessedly uncommented on in the dialogue) that we’ve got a Catholic, a Muslim, and even a friendly Jinn (!) teaming up to stop the baddies is an appreciated if profoundly dumb gesture towards a better world. I dunno man, I should probably be harder on this than I am, but even though it’s a pretty tough sit at times, I find it kind of charming. My buddy Dan P really loathed it, writing, “People slag on soulless blockbusters movies, but even worse are movies that try and fail to emulate them.” Well, it’s definitely trying to emulate soulless blockbusters, from its constant pandering silliness to its ultra-slick production. And yes, it’s certainly no better and frequently somewhat rinky-dink compared to its bloated corporate brethren. But soulless? No, I don’t see it. This may be a stupid movie, but it came by its stupidity honorably and through love. This is not a movie shaped out of clay or light, but out of fire. And just like the Jinn, maybe in retrospect it wasn’t the best idea to make it, but at least it has enough personality to be distinct. If it didn’t result in Peace in the Middle East, at least it gave us some nice shots of fiery monsters lurking around the U of M Library parking lot.

*Besides, now I can justify watching all those Indonesian horror movies I forgot about when planning this series!

Play it Again, Samhain

None apparent
If it’s an adaptation of that Al-Jinn chapter of the Quran, it’s probably a pretty loose one I’m guessing.
None, but give it time
None. Well, maybe Ray Parks? I mean, he was Darth Maul.
William Atherton?
No, PG-13.
Many monsterous Jinn
Well, the Jinn is a shape-shifter, so there’s that.
Eh, nah, not really.

Pretty obscure, but at least it’s streaming on netflix.
Ever wonder about all those crucifixes in Catholic churches? Every one of ‘em is a secret hidey-hole for anti-Jinn weaponry. Good thing Christ wasn’t hanged, huh?
There’s totally Jinn all up in this hizzy, though they probably ought to have mentioned something about the car. “Jinn” also seems to be the preferred romanization, so it’s arguably more accurate than “DJINN”

This is a pretty generous 3, more of a C-. But I couldn't find it in my heart to go lower.

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