DVD: Djinn (2013)

November 17, 2018 | By

Film: Poor

Transfer:  Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  Screen Media

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  November 17, 2015

Genre:  Horror / Supernatural

Synopsis: After the sudden death of their infant in NYC, an Emerati couple return to the UAE and are haunted by a vengeful supernatural force.

Special Features:  (none)

 


 

Review:

Filmed in 2011, sneaked to a London test audience in 2012, and premiering at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2013, Tobe Hooper’s swan song is a sad illustration of the lousy projects the Poltergiest (1982) director had to settle for at the tail-end of his career. Like The Mangler (1995), Crocodile (2000), and The Toolbox Murders (2004) remake, Djinn feels like a directing opportunity that went sour when the script was never finished, the budget was cut down at the start of production, and Hooper was tasked with making a compelling shocker with few resources.

As realized on film – or rather, bad 24p video – David Tully’s script about a demonic spirit tormenting a couple on the day they return to the UAE is an amateurish, sometimes incoherent thriller with a shock finale that’s more abrupt and ridiculous than George Romero’s little seen stinker Bruiser (2000). An EPK short on YouTube (see review end) suggests the concept of a villainous spirit as culled from Arabic lore originated with producer Daniela Tully, inspired by the eerie abandoned fishing village in Ras Al Khaimah.

Whether pitched as a low-budget, mood-over-gore thriller to Emirati funding entity Image Nation or a digital video quickie, Hooper seemed to realize there was little he could do to enliven dull characters and abrupt plot leaps in what appears to occur over a 24 hour period.

The unhappiness of couple Salama (Razane Jammal) and Khalid (Khalid Laith) is present in their opening scene with a psychiatrist in which they agree to mend a fractured marriage and return to the UAE, but before the flight to Dubai they must bury their child in NYC – itself a bizarre decision, since most grieving parents would want to have the remains of their deceased children close to home, which is clearly going to be the UAE.

A dark robed figure (the eponymous djinn) hovers at the edge of the cemetery, and upon arriving in Dubai, three similarly robed women appear in a quickly-edited airport montage, perhaps a deliberate evocation of the three white-robed vampires in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The couple are picked up by Salama’s parents and sister, and driven to a far off hotel from which Khalid must travel to work.

There’s a sense an early draft may have contained more details on Khalid’s metier, and allowed for more dialogue exchanges, but the post-production process whittled scenes down to their bare essentials, perhaps forcing the time span from a few days to less than 24 hours, during which Salama’s family is killed, Khalid is sent immediately to work (whatever that is), and Salama meets a ‘bitchy’ neighbour Sarah (Aiysha Hart) on the sixth floor of a palatial but largely empty hotel / apartment complex.

Not unlike the crumbling hotel with hidden passages in Toolbox Murders, the fog-drenched tower where the bulk of Djinn’s action occurs offers plenty of opportunities to exploit the location as a tertiary character, but neither the cheap script nor the budget seemed to allow for some artistic indulgences, forcing Hooper to rely on shock sound and visual effects to build the gradual invasion of the djinn that’s come to torment the new couple for reasons initially unknown.

A few jumps work, while others fall flat because the effects may have been finalized long after Hooper had left the project. A long take as Salama prays for strength during a nervous breakdown goes on for a long while until the ceiling-crawling spirit pops into the background and approaches; and what should’ve been a great moment of weirdness in which birds slam into an apartment’s windows and leave bloody splats seemed to have been reconfigured to suit the budget: the windows are inexplicably frosted, perhaps to avoid having to animate a wave of suicidal birds, and imply horror through sounds and red streaks.

How the bird attack scene ends is indicative of the scripts amateurishness: Khalid is shocked by the avian commandos, steps back into the hallway, and closes the door slowly and quietly, like a father trying not to awaken a sleeping child. Whatever trauma may exist in Khalid is gone in the door closing scene, and there’s a hint reshoots were done, as Laith’s stubble and dense hair changes in some takes, especially the finale.

Shock cuts of the djinn’s rotting teeth and any detail of the fetid spirit are reduced to flashes, and her appearances vary in effectiveness: blurring and surreal rustling sounds work in one sequence, while the spider-like back crawls look silly in other shots.

As seen by investigating police, the building is soon implied to be a derelict, incomplete structure, but to Khalid and Salama it’s gleaming with marble in the alternate world in which the grieving couple are trapped. The back & forth cuts as Khalid bangs on glass and the police see just a plastic tarp do work, but there’s a sloppy inclusion of Khalid ‘banging’ on the plastic, unable to catch the attention of the retreating police.

Perhaps the biggest scriptorial error is the location of the building. An opening montage shows an American tourist racing against two Emirates with all-terrain trucks in the remains of an abandoned fishing village believed to be packed with unhappy spirits. The group settle down for the night, explain to their American friend the basics of a djinn, and by morning they’re dead. The poorly written scenes almost prevent Hooper from building a slow-burning sequence, and it suffers from the producers’ haste to trim scenes to bare essentials.

More than likely, inert dramatic material was excised, but the timeline and timespan of events becomes a jumble. When a chauffeur arrives to take Khalid to his never detailed new job, he tells Salama it won’t be long until he returns, yet as the chauffeur tells his passenger, it’s a 4 hour journey both ways to his new gig (the location being a tight shot of Khalid at a little desk). In the YouTube EPK, co-producer Tully explains the apartment tower resides on the grounds of the abandoned village and is steeped with unhappiness – much like the new subdivision in Poltergiest is literally built atop cadavers buried under the house foundations – but that nugget is never detailed in the film.

The finale sort of ties together this mush: Salama killed her child because it was evil – details revealed in increasingly longer flashbacks of her standing above the child’s crib as it gazes with dead black eyes – but why it was evil isn’t clarified; the assumption is the djinn is a succubus who penetrated Khalid and Salama during the child’s conception, and when it was killed, the couple was lured back to the UAE out of revenge… but if the djinn was already in NYC and attended the child’s funeral, why wait until they fly halfway across the globe to exact revenge?

The writers of Poltergeist borrowed material from other films (The Amityville Horror in particular), but its story is simple: a family is terrorized by spirits whose cadavers weren’t moved to consecrated ground with the headstones. Djinn is a mess of doodled scenes that don’t give the actors much to work with, making the three attractive leads wooden, and the couple itself clueless dimwits.

Joel Ransom’s cinematography appears soft and lacks atmosphere, and the DVD transfer uses heavy compression which robs dimly lit and foggy shots of detail. BC Smith’s score is generic save for a great lullaby which the djinn hums, and is heard in full over the long End Credits (which pad the film’s running time to 90 mins.).

The sound mix is also uneven, lacking spatial depth. Much of the dialogue is hard mono, and the score rarely mixed to evoke any mystique. Some of the dialogue in the NYC psychiatrist scene is badly miked, and the looping is rather sterile, which may stem from reshoots in Los Angeles, as detailed by Jammal in a 2013 online Q&A and YouTube interview (see end) with The National.

The characters’ alternating exchanges in English and Arabic are erratic and illogical, and feel like a half-baked ploy to fulfill a 50/50 ratio for the intended middle east and western markets. Lastly, the desk clerk – the building’s only employee – whom Salama relies upon for security, vanishes from the narrative in the last act, leaving us to wonder if he was the djinn, a ghost, a projection of the prior site’s ‘unhappiness,’ or a minor character played by an actor unavailable for those reshoots.

After making Mortuary (2005), Hooper returned to TV, directing a pair of Masters of Horror episodes which show him in better form. He penned a novel titled Midnight Movie, and there’s a curious entry in his filmography for Destiny Express Redux (2009), which may be an unfinished or unreleased project tied to the novel.

In an interview with Wired, conducted near the end of Djinn’s 2011 principal photography, Hooper said:

 

“What drew me to Djinn was a great script. It’s a completely different kind of story from Poltergeist – the one common thread I see between them is they are both movies about discovery. Djinn is a psychological thriller and very dark – as I come close to the end of principal photography, it’s revealing itself to be even darker than I expected when I started shooting. Someone who says there are only so many horror movie plots would have to say the same about every other genre. The fact is that narratives are always evolving with the times, or at least they should.”

 

Regardless of whether Hooper felt the script was solid or he had merely convinced himself it was “great,” his quotes read as positive spin for a film he may well have enjoyed making but ultimately proved frustrating, given its aborted theatrical release.  Its quiet emergence on DVD & Blu-ray by Screen Media in 2015 marked an end to the film’s long journey. The DVD lacks any extras, nor contains details of its unique place as a supernatural thriller drawing from the Arabic djinn mythology. Like Jennifer Lynch’s ill-fated Bollywood horror mash-up Hisss (2010), Djinn is an awkward attempt by producers expecting a hit by snagging a western director. Horror has no cultural boundaries, but Djinn exemplifies the uneven results when expectations and the reality of an inept script birth a mess.

 

 

© 2018 Mark R. Hasan

 


 


 


 


 

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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