Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (2013)

20. Djinn

“Djinn,” when filming was just beginning, was greatly hyped by the company backing it. The producers trumpeted it as a proud co-production between American and Middle Eastern cinema. A quote-unquote major director like Tobe Hooper making a movie in Dubai was treated like a big deal. It was sold as the first horror film in both English and Arabic languages. Horror films are generally rare in the Middle East, making “Djinn” an anomaly in that sense as well. Whatever hopes the producers had for the film were undermined by its protracted post-production. Though filmed in 2011, the film wouldn’t see a state-side release until 2015. It is, as of now, the last film Hooper has directed.

Following the death of their infant child, Arabic couple Sarah and Khalid are convinced to move back to the United Arab Emirates. While Khalid is happy to be back near his family and has a new job waiting for him, Sarah hates the idea. She misses America. The two move into a towering apartment complex, built along the coast. Deserted in the foggy winter time, both Sarah and Khalid find the building unnerving. Local legends claim the area is haunted by djinn, the mystical beings of fire of Islamic beliefs. While Khalid is away at work, Sarah has an up close encounter with the djinn, who seek to punish her for past crimes.

Being a co-production between two separate countries, “Djinn” is rightfully a culture clash stories of sorts. This is clear in the way the film often leaps between English and Arabic. It’s not uncommon for characters to speak two different languages in the same scene. Beyond the language barrier, the film is clearly about the Westernization of the Middle East. The cutting edge apartment is built on traditional land, full of legends of its own. An early scene shows a white millionaire, riding around in a big ass truck, falling victim to the djinn. Sarah is thoroughly westernized, spending the entire movie wishing she was back in America. American ideas meeting traditional ones is fertile ground to tell a horror story.

Disappointing, “Djinn” has an unsightly conservative streak running through it. One of the things Sarah misses about being in America is working. In Dubai, she’s expected to stay at home all day. Moreover, she’s expected to have another child, to become a traditional mother. As the story progresses, the djinni haunts Sarah with images of her dead child. Near the end, it’s revealed Sarah actually murdered her infant son. While the story reasons for this is because the child was half-human, half-djinni, the results come off as hopelessly puritanical. In other words: She never wanted to be a mother and, the film suggests, that’s bad. Another dispiriting element has the female villain being shown as sexually forward. The horror genre is often reactive and “Djinn” falls into this traditional in the worst way.

At least “Djinn” has a decent idea at its root. As screenwriter David Tully pointed out, there aren’t many horror films about djinn, despite them being a notable component in a major world religion. Using an underutilized mythological figure from another culture is always a good basis for a horror flick. Early on in “Djinn,” a minor character tells a ghost story of sorts. He presents the legends behind the film’s central villain. That of a baby-snatching female djinni with a history of seducing human men. That’s a mythological archetype with a long history, stretching through the Hebrew Lilith, the Greek Lamia, and the Slavic Lady Midday. “Djinn,” too often, plays like a typical ghost story but at least it has an interesting set-up.

Being a Tobe Hooper movie, “Djinn” naturally features a memorable location. The apartment building rises out of the fog, looking alien and unusual among the landscape. Once inside, the architecture is clearly modern in design. Yet there are small symbol towards the location’s traditional history. Stone pillars points towards Arabic temples. The air vents are decorated with stars. The room where the djinn hang out feature the same black and white checkered floor that have shown up in other Hooper films. The director even manages to make a relatively normal looking building seem sinister, when his camera peers around the hallways and doors of the apartment.

As a horror film, “Djinn” is goreless. There’s maybe a little bit of blood in one or two scenes. Instead, the film seeks to get chills out of atmosphere and ghostly effects. Occasionally, these moments are effective. When Sarah is attacked by the djinni, alone in the apartment, there’s a handful of spooky elements. She watches on a monitor, as a ghostly images moves through the hallways. While praying in the foreground, a blurry image in a black veil creeps across the ceiling after her. Lastly, the movie makes the most of its foggy setting. The image of a truck suddenly emerging from the fog is one of the film’s genuinely effective jump scares.

Too often, though, “Djinn’s” attempts to be scary totally lack bite. The film utilizes close-up zooms on the ghastly faces of the djinn. When the camera is snapping back and forth between shots of eyes or teeth, the audience is just irritated, not frightened. An increasingly goofy gag the film returns to repeatedly is someone’s eyes turning black, as a sign that the djinn has taken control of them. Ghostly sounds are utilized too often. The first time Sarah hears a baby crying down the hall, it’s mildly effective. Every time afterwards is much less interesting. Sadly, before the movie’s over, it even relies on the kind of shaky-cam, rock video edits that I thought Hooper was above.

Once credits are subtracted, “Djinn” runs under eighty minutes long. Despite that brief run time, the screenplay for “Djinn” still fruitlessly spins its wheels for extended periods of time. The entire middle section of the film is built around Sarah being alone in the apartment. Khalid totally exits the story, being stuck at world. This classic horror troupe – of a woman alone and in peril – seems to be the only idea the script had. After that sequence ends, “Djinn” searches hopelessly for more story. The exact nature of the haunting varies from scene to scene, different characters being associated with the titular spirits. There’s a long scene devoted to the female djinni inviting Khalid and Sarah to a party, attempting to poison both with contaminated food. A long scene is devoted to Khalid having flashbacks while in the bathroom. These scenes bumble around hopelessly before “Djinn” finally lurches towards its underwhelming conclusion.

The acting in “Djinn” is uneven. The cast is actually fairly small, which seems to point towards the film’s low budget. Aiysha Hart plays Sarah. Most of the film revolves around her, a tall order that Hart is relatively prepared to handled. She panics nicely, rooting the character’s reaction to the supernatural events in something realistic. As Khalid, Khalid Laith is less consistent. When playing off Hart, Laith does okay. However, when the script calls on him to react to the spooky events of the story, Laith is totally unconvincing. Considering the actors are best when together, the script separating them for long times is a problem. A bigger problem is when the story reveals both of them to be assholes by the end. Hart’s Sarah is a child killer. Laith’s Khalid is an adulterer.

Despite the small cast, there’s still one or two notable supporting role. A number of actresses play the main female djinni, with Kristina Coker, with her piercing eyes, being the most memorable. As Sarah’s mother, Razane Jammal is okay, especially once she becomes possessed by the spirit. I like May Calamawy as Aisha, the younger sister. Her part is much too small. Saoud Al Kaabi shows some boisterous energy as the father, Mubarak. In the brief role as the American asshole in the first scene, Paul Luebke is very entertaining in a ridiculous way.

Like everything else in “Djinn,” the special effects vary in quality. CGI is utilized too often. Sometimes, like when one of the djinni is moving in the distance, this isn’t too distracting. Obscure figures in black veils, jittery in the background, even borders on creepy at times. However, when the creeping djinn are in the foreground of a shot, how fake they are becomes apparent. Too often, shoddy CGI is used to enhance an actor. Where the real person ends and the computer generated images begin is too obvious. The most awkward special effect in “Djinn” is actually one of its most simple. At the end, a character dangles from the edge of the towering building. This is clearly shot on a sound stage, the characters never once appearing to be in actual danger.

There’s a reason “Djinn” took nearly five years to reach theaters. The film was re-edited and re-cut multiple times during pre-production. As a co-production between Americans and the Middle East, perhaps the film faced extra scrutiny. Extensive care was taken not to offend local sensibilities. This is probably the reason why “Djinn” feels so disjointed. There are definitely tell-tale signs of too many cooks in the kitchen. And it’s a shame too. The chance to fuse American and Eastern sensibilities could have resulted in something really interesting. The resulting film is too often uneven and forgettable. [Grade: C]

Hooper worked steadily throughout the nineties and two-thousands. However, he's slowed down a lot this decade. "Djinn" is, thus far, the only film he's made in the new tens. In 2011, he co-wrote a meta horror novel called "Midnight Movie." His IMDb profile lists a film from 2009 called "Destiny Express Redux" but the film apparently isn't real and exists only as a plot device in the pages of the book. I assume some prankster added the listing to IMDb.

I went into this Director Report Card with low expectations, knowing Hooper has directed many forgettable and out right bad films. While this is true, I've come away from this project with a new appreciation for Hooper. With the exception of "Crocodile," even his worst films aren't all that bad. There's even some interesting reoccurring quirks throughout his career. He's not responsible for as many outright masterpieces as his seventies horror brethren. But this has still been pretty fun.  

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