Thursday, October 15, 2015

HubrisWeen 2015, Day 10: Jinn (2014)

As a Western horror fan, it's rather inevitable that you end up being exposed to a lot of the same mythologies over and over. Vampires. Werewolves. Demons. You've seen it all before, and in a lot of cases they're stories with a very Judeo-Christian bent.

So I couldn't help being at least a bit intrigued when I heard about a horror movie about djinn or, per the title's spelling, jinn. Jinn are a far more common variety of mythological creature in Muslim and Arab cultures. Usually when they show up in Western stories at all they're rendered as evil genies, aside from their rather odd appearance in the Clash of the Titans remake as wooden wookies, but that's not entirely accurate.

To give an entirely brief history lesson on a mythology even I barely understand, jinn are of the third race of creatures created by Allah--the other two being humans and angels. Jinn are beings of fire and they have free will like humans and unlike angels. Jinn who turn to evil are "shaytan" (or, in a spelling familiar to readers of the original Dune books, "shaitan"), which are equivalent to demons in Christianity. Which you probably guessed, since it's a couple letters off from "Satan."

Clearly, there is a lot of potential in this concept and so few movies have exploited it. The only other horror movie that I've heard of involving a jinn is Born of Fire, a rather obscure Muslim horror film that I would really like to see one of these days. So a movie like Jinn has a pretty rare opportunity to shape the conversation about its subject matter.

Of course, that doesn't mean much if uses that opportunity to shape it like a giant turd, does it?

After text showing us a passage in Arabic, a passage in Hebrew, and lastly Psalm 23:4 in English (you know, the one Coolio quotes in "Gangster's Paradise"), we see a badass CGI sword with glowing crescent moon, star of David, and cross in the handle. This sword is used to roll open a CGI scroll, which seems like a waste of a badass sword. A portentous narrator explains the basic back story that I earlier pulled from Wikipedia for you. You know, three races: man made of clay, angels made of light, and jinn made of fire; free will; blah, blah, blah.

The scroll shows us an inkblot recreation of how the jinn ruled the Earth for thousands of years before man was given dominion, and that bit is accompanied by a figure that is unmistakably the Witch-King of Angmar from The Return of The King. According to the narrator, the sect of jinn called shaytan--or, as he says it, "shai-uh-teen" because he apparently thought he was narrating The Visitor--objected to this. I can't say I blame them, given it sounds like Allah made the three races, gave jinn control of the Earth and then said, "Hey, I want Adam to rule the world now. Hand it over to him." Well, the shaytan hold a grudge like a motherfucker and have lain in wait planning their revenge, but luckily there are bloodlines of magical guardians--I'm guessing human, but the movie is mum on the subject at this point--sworn to protect the world.

Cut to "India, 1901." A handsome man with beard and long hair we will later come to know as Jehangir Amin (Dominic Rains) washes his face in the sea, says goodbye to his horse, and strides into the forest. Night falls and Jehangir makes his way through the misty woods past dead rabbits hung from a tree, to a cabin that looks like Bruce Campbell ought to be cowering inside it. Inside the cabin, he finds a dark figure with stringy black hair seated cross-legged, with its head bowed and smoke seemingly drifting from its flesh. After a prayer (in a language I can't place, but I think is Urdu) to God to protect him from Satan, Jehangir advances shakily. Whilst reciting a prayer for protection, he tosses small boxes with protective emblems into the four corners of the room. He has come to demand the "Devil Worshiper" return the girl it has taken, though he politely tells it that it may keep "the body" since its soul has departed.

"I can get you some better hair, though, if you like."
The creature responds to this by floating into the air and basically asking Jehangir who the fuck does he think he is? It will be keeping the body, the girl, and Jehangir. A fierce windstorm kicks up, while Jehangir frantically chants a prayer or a spell. When the wind dies down, the body of the creature lies inert as his feet. He pulls out a white sheet to cover it--but the fiend was playing possum. It taunts him in English about his God deserting him before dragging him into the grave it conveniently had set up just for this purpose. Jehangir drops a small blue flask as he is dragged into the trap.

After a brief silence, Jehangir pulls himself out of the grave and successfully smashes the small blue flash on the forehead of his attacker. The reaction is dramatic to say the least as it bounces around the walls and ceiling. However, it does not kill the creature and it faces Jehangir to deliver the ol' "I'm going to hunt down all your descendants and kill them" threat before Jehangir draws his badass dagger and the two dive at each other...

Cue dramatic title card!

We return to the film in "Ann Arbor, Michigan  Present Day." We cut back and forth between establishing shots of what looks like a university campus and the interior of an apartment. (Dig the huge framed photo of a woman that looks like it was lifted from a computer game in the 1990s) In the apartment a man surrounded by comic book art draws a car in his office, while Jasmine Walker (Serinda Swan) cooks in the kitchen, and a third man walks up to their door carrying a wrapped gift. Jasmine answers the door and the mysterious man asks if he has the Amin residence. She corrects him that this is the Walker residence, but he still leaves the gift.

The cartoonist walks over to meet her and we see that the man, while clean-shaven and short-haired is also played by Dominic Rains--this is Shawn Walker. It's Shawn's birthday, so it's not that odd that he'd get a gift, even if the delivery of it was weird. Weirder still is that the box only contains a note reading "Happy Birthday Shan [sic]" and a VHS tape. Shawn jokes that it might be a dirty video, while Jasmine wonders how they'll even watch it. Shawn has a VCR in his office, though, but Jasmine has to go deal with their burning dinner.

Shawn suggests they go out to dinner--and then is distracted by the strange outline of a person in the window across from their apartment that appears to be staring at them. Jasmine observes it's been there for days and wonders if it might be a cardboard cut-out. Shawn, meanwhile, has a flashback to himself as a child (Armin Pirzada) seeing an inhuman face staring into his window...and then his mother being dragged into a terrible CGI fire by an invisible force. Shawn wakes up in fright from the dream while Jasmine comforts him.

Cut to an asylum as Ali Amin (Faran Tahir, a definite "hey, it's that guy!") mumbles to himself while scrawling over notepads in a ridiculously open room, where he is chained to the floor. (I don't think this is the accepted practice...) He hears something and then is joined by a man he addresses as Gabriel (Ray Park!), who appeared from nowhere. Gabriel assures him the package has been delivered. The two exchange standard "chosen one" dialogue about how important Shawn is and how they hope he believes the tape.

Shawn is meanwhile bragging to Jasmine as he washes his face and she folds clothes that he not only gets to design a car called "The Firebreather II" (which I'm sure fails to live up to its name), but he might be looking at a raise. Shawn brings up a prior conversation about having children, since they might have the resources now. So, naturally Jasmine reveals that she can't have kids, which she apparently never brought up before because she was afraid he'd no longer want to be with her. Considering his response is to mope like a little punk, she might have a point.

Shawn drives off to park and sulk by himself near some woods. He starts to call Jasmine and then decides against it...but then looks at the package. Cut to the video tape, as Shawn watches it in a screening room at his actual office. Note that it's a widescreen TV he's watching and the attempt to make it look like VHS footage is hilariously bad and the weird sound distortion just makes it even worse. The video is Shawn's father, Zaheer Amin (Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad, the film's writer/director) addressing him. You know the drill: sorry you had to grow up fatherless like I did, there are mysterious forces out there, seek out friends, I'm dead now, I love you, blah blah blah. Shawn then notices an action figure he used to play with is in the box.

As Shawn sits in his car trying to call Jasmine back, he hears something in the woods as a heavy mist rolls in...and then a jinn forms out of cinders in his backseat to just whisper, "Jasmine," and vanish. After something smacks his car, Shawn takes the hint and burns rubber the hell out of there. He gets home and finds Jasmine is missing and his apartment has been rearranged all sinister-like. He calls the cops, but it turns out to be a false alarm when Jasmine comes home--she didn't asnwer his calls because she went for a walk.

Later, after they've put their apartment back to normal, Jasmine tells Shawn, hey, it's okay if he wants to have a family more than he wants to be with her. Shawn, not being a total prat, tells her that's ridiculous because he loves her. They kiss and go to bed, but when Shawn goes to get orange juice after she's gone to sleep, he finds the apartment rearranged again. Worse, Jasmine walks in and points out that the "cardboard cut-out" across the way has just slowly lowered its hand--and then it tilts its head, and walks out of view. Boom! Lights explode in their house and they run down to the car just as Shawn gets a call from Gabriel telling him only to get to a nearby cathedral at once. The couple doesn't need to be told twice.

In the brightly lit sanctuary, Gabriel meets them and introduces himself. He explains that "it" can't get them in here. And then Father Westhoff (William Atherton!) joins them. Jasmine and Shawn want answers, of course. Gabriel starts by moving a pen to his hand with telekinesis and asks them how they would explain that. Gabriel explains that ghosts, demons, and poltergeists don't exist and then reiterates the origin story of the jinn because everything blamed on those mythical beings is actually the work of jinn. When Shawn scoffs that nobody has ever even heard of them, Westhoff points out a mention of them in the Old Testament. Westhoff then explains the jinn are jealous of humans and our imaginations, before laying on the expected, "There was a prophecy among the Jinn..."

Yep, Shawn is a chosen one, as you already knew. Jasmine and Shawn are about to leave when Westhoff hands Shawn the dagger from earlier in the film, which looks for all the world like a knock-off of Sting, complete with blue glowing blade, Stang, if you will, He tells Shawn to use it if he needs it and to remember that he is safe in any house of God. Oh, and he should ask the Walkers about "Father Westhoff. Me." So Shawn goes to see his adoptive parents, Owen (Dennis North) and Milla Walker (Milica Govich), in the middle of the night. He explains the evening they've been having and then gets to the part about "jinn." Owen says all he knows is that the priest who delivered Shawn to them told them to never let him not wear his necklace and it had something to do with jinn. And Milla confirms the priest was Father Westhoff.

This convinces Shawn he has to go meet his "friends" as Jasmine begs him not to go. He assures her that he will never leave her--and then an invisible force yanks her into the woods. Shawn gives chase, but falls into a drainage ditch and is knocked out. Meanwhile, Gabriel and Westhoff exchange dialogue about how something should have happened when Shawn was a baby and if he doesn't start to believe he's gonna die. Shawn then wakes up and is sucked into a culvert by a bad CGI sand storm. A jinn appears in the culvert and chases Shawn, before turning into the smoke monster from Lost to chase him through the woods. An invisible force grabs Shawn and hoists him up a tree so the jinn can float up to him and taunt him face-to-face.

This, naturally, is a mistake on the jinn's part as Shawn slices its face open with Stang and then plunges from the tree. He flees back to the church to regroup with Gabriel and Westhoff in a montage that is bizarrely rendered via a slow heartbeat sound effect accompanied by quick flashes of images. Westhoff explains that the jinn don't technically fear Shawn, as was earlier implied, but fear what he may become--the Kwisatz Haderach! Er, I mean, a being more powerful than jinn or man who would usher the world into a golden age.

Shawn flashes back to his childhood, seeing his father carry him to safety from the bad CGI fire and the shadowy jinn staring at him from the flames. Then Gabriel wakes him up because it's time to go visit the man who can give them answers. On the way, Gabriel explains that the shaytan are the big bads he'll have to fight and the last human capable of fighting them was Jehangir Amin, Shawn's great grandfather. He also comments that Shawn's car, a Firebreather, is really sweet and might be able to outrun even a jinn. They arrive at the asylum to visit Ali--and there's an admittedly amusing non sequitur as they pass through security where Gabriel reveals he actually made the pen move with a magnet earlier.

Ali is babbling when Shawn enters, but then immediately observes "he looks just like his father." Which is hilariously false. When Ali touches Shawn, the young man sees flashes of shaytan doing various wicked things--including one that looks like the Faun and the Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth got merged. Montages follow, showing us Shawn's father's funeral, him meeting Jasmine, and asking her to marry him. Oh, and Ali now reveals that the jinn have come for him because Jasmine is pregnant--as impossibly as it seems. Apparently, the jinn always kill the father to test to see if the son that is born will be the chosen one and only a few bloodlines have the ability to become this chosen one.

So, wait, why do they kill the father? Why not kill the child? Why not wipe out those few bloodlines before they can breed another generation? Man, jinn are totally wasting that free will by being idiots.

Oh, and Ali then hollers that Shawn must pass the test (no, not putting his hand in a box of pain) or the "chilla" and uses the Vulcan mind-meld to transport Shawn into Jehangir's memory of facing the jinn in 1901. Shawn stupidly walks right up to the floating jinn, which helpfully just terrifies him rather than killing him. Ali reveals here that he is in an asylum because he failed his test and the jinn were able to enter his mind--oh and he's Shawn's uncle. The film then cuts to Shawn outside the cell asking Gabriel why no one ever told him his uncle was alive.

At any rate, it's hugely important that Shawn pass the chilla. Presumably this is why the jinn suddenly choose right then to begin possessing the other patients in the asylum. Ali hollers for Gabriel and Shawn to run, which gives Ray Park an excuse to start kicking some folks in the face, while Shawn flees. Outside, it's time for Gabriel to tell Shawn to run to the car and not to turn back no matter what, as Gabriel waits behind to distract the possessed patients--and his eyes glow. Gabriel then summons a glowing ball of energy that he slams into the ground and this releases a lot of lens flares and causes the patients to freeze in place. While a really inappropriate melancholy guitar plays over the scene, Gabriel pulls his own version of Stang anf goes twirling through the forzen inmates, punching the jinn out of them and slicing the CGI smoke with his dagger.

Ray Park does his best to sell this but holy crap does it look silly and the music does not help.

"The spice must flow."
Oh, and Shawn can't leave because his car keys are still back in the asylum office. So Gabriel closes his eyes to glowing magic the keys to Shawn--and gets himself Obi Wan'ed by the remaining jinn. Which is of course the only time the music makes any sense in the sequence.

Shawn drives away and finds Westhoff outside by a huge candlelit altar. He asks Westhoff what Gabriel was and, unsurprisingly, the answer is "Gabriel is a jinn." Well, it was that or an angel. Keep up, Shawn! Westhoff then tells Shawn he can hide, safely, in the walls of the church or he can end all this.

Shawn opts for chosen one training, so Westhoff takes him into a room and explains that passing the chilla allows him a window into the jinn's world. Westhoff explains that Stang's blade is metal forged in jinn fire (as is Shawn's necklace) that can cut through to the jinn world. First, he must pass the chilla which is a test of, you guessed it, fear. In this case, the personal fears of the sort you encounter in the Galaxy of Terror. First, Shawn will need holy water from Mecca; then a verse to trap the jinn. Then it is time for Shawn to find an isolated place to commence the chilla, where the jinn will come to him and test his mind.

The lead-up to this is the expected arming up montage, which the hilarious touch of revealing that Father Westhoff hides a sword in the cross on the wall of his rectory.Shawn sets up in an abandoned warehouse--though you'd think he'd want a place to test his fear that is not already creepy. The first test is a doppelganger of himself...whom Shawn promptly runs away from as it taunts him. He creates a circle of holy water around himself that deflects the jinn's attack, however. After the CGI smoke dissipates, he begins chanting the words to trap a jinn. The jinn respond by sending a doppelganger of Jasmine to torture in front of him, but he manages not to fall for it,

"Do you have any idea how badly this stains?!"
A ring of fire summoned by the jinn then segues into Shawn back in the cabin from 1901, only now the jinn he faces is a doppelganger of himself, Shawn wraps his necklace around his fist before asking the jinn what it wants. It naturally offers him the, "You could be a king," speech to tempt him to the jinn's side. When Shawn refuses, the ol' "there's a war coming" is trotted out. But Shawn does not leave his circle and the jinn is defeated when it charges at him. Passing his chilla somehow allows Ali to pass his, and Ali tears out of his straitjacket and rip the chain out of the floor, vowing to destroy the jinn that night.

As Shawn leaves the warehouse he is confronted by a jinn forming out of smoke. He dives into his car--which has Arabic writing all along the inside--and side-swipes the jinn. He then drives away as fast as he can, somehow outpacing the jinn. If you think this seems like a commercial for the car, you're basically right! Westhoff, meanwhile, prays at that outdoor altar in a black hooded robe while leaning on his sword. An unseen jinn arrives and Westhoff taunts that he's used his sword against many jinn over the years and goes on the attack. Shawn arrives at his apartment, now festooned with Arabic writings, and drops Stang when the jinn pursuing him slams into the door--but Ali is waiting in the apartment to pick up Stang and offer the obligatory "let's finish this."

In a rather clever touch, Shawn puts his phone on his iPod dock and plays a recording of himself repeating the anti-jinn verse, even as the invisible jinn toss his furniture around the room...and then one jinn forms out of CGI smoke, This creature, an apparition with fiery glowing eyes and crackling skin appears to be the one that killed Shawn's parents. Ali grapples with the jinn to distract it as Shawn fills bucket after bucket with water and splashes it on the jinn. He's using tap water, but I guess it's somehow being blessed because it does hurt the jinn a little.

I still don't think Star Trek: Deep Space Nine needed a "gritty" reboot, but I do like the new direction they took with Odo.
Of course it's not enough and Ali is mortally wounded. Shawn faces the jinn with Stang and--is backed into a corner and disarmed. He then gets choked unconscious and, again, faces the jinn in the cabin from 1901. Only now the jinn is woman holding a crying fetus. The fetus vanishes into smoke and he charges at the fiend with Stang drawn...and gets his ass handed to him, telekinetically, Look, I realize your chosen one has to earn his victory, but he's beginning to feel worthless,

Except, suddenly Shawn realizes the power was in him all along and uses the Force to call Stang to him and stab the jinn in the gut. He tackles the jinn and beats the crap out of it, calls a vial of holy water to himself and smashes it in the jinn's face...

...and he comes to in the present and grabs the jinn strangling him by the throat. He then dives out the window with the jinn into a...pool? Hot tub? Fountain? The little vial of holy water causes the pool water to burn the jinn as Shawn keeps it from climbing out.  It eventually dissolves and Shawn sinks to the bottom of the pool so his life with Jasmine can flash before his eyes. He then meets his father--before Gabriel pulls him out of the water.

Wow, way to undercut the character's earlier heroic sacrifice.

Gabriel force punches the water out of Shawn's lungs...and then holes begin burning through reality around them as jinn fly out of these holes. Most of them look like CGI skeletons with tentacles for legs and I will excuse the por CGI here because that's awesome. Suddenly Shawn's shirt has vanished (?!) so he can be extra sexy action hero-y as he grabs Stang and confronts the leader of the jinn, who looks like Marvel's Loki and Lord Zedd got glued together and set on fire.

"It's in my contract that I have to have at least one major shirtless scene."
Lord Zeddki warns Shawn not to take on all the jinn because he cannot win--so Shawn gets surrounded by glowing spheres and murders the fuck out of Lord Zeddki, The other jinn choose to respond to Shawn's "where's my wife" by fleeing back to their world. So Shawn turns to Gabriel to ask the same thing.

Why, she's back with Westhoff. See, Gabriel kidnapped her and they had been hiding her safely this whole time without telling him so that the jinn wouldn't know, either. What scamps, kidnapping his wife to make him risk his life and sanity to face down an ancient evil!

Flash forward to Jasmine and Shawn sitting at the kitchen table with their infant son and, hey, Ali isn't dead, either! The baby drops his pacifier and as Ali and and Shawn reach to grab it, the baby uses the force to pull it back to his mouth. Everyone looks at each other in stunned silence, baby laughs. Roll credits!

Oh, wait, there's a mid-credits scene where Gabriel and Westhoff talk about faith and then Westhoff hands Gabriel a pin of that earlier moon/star/cross symbol and tells him he's earned it. Sadly, the scene of them eating shawarma was deemed too relevant.

Oh, but there is an end credit cookie with the jinn in the cabin staring over its shoulder at the camera, muttering something unintelligible, laughing, and then leaning its head back down before the camera slowly leaves the cabin and the door closes. Well. Okay, then.

When I referred to Jinn as a turd in the beginning, I was overstating a tad. This isn't something so horrible as all that. No, this is like a new hamburger at McDonald's: it advertises something new with the flavors or condiments, but underneath that it's the same over-processed junk we've been scarfing down for decades--and somehow, biting into it and realizing that makes it taste worse than it otherwise might.

Don't misunderstand me, this is a bad movie. However, what makes it so bad is that it's so utterly generic. This is not really any different from the likes of I, Frankenstein in that it's an entirely forgettable supernatural adventure flick full of bad CGI with the same reheated chosen one plot we've seen before. What hurts is that it takes a concept so rarely explored in Western cinema and introduces it to us via a plot we've seen a thousand times before and a thousand times better.

For starters, you can already see one thing this movie does wrong right off the bat: we have two characters perform a heroic sacrifice so the hero might defeat the jinn. Both times, it turns out the characters we last saw choking on their own blood are perfectly fine! Actually, make that three if you consider that Westhoff going all, "I kick jinn ass for The Lord!" seems to be set up as a last stand before the movie forgets about it. I get that both Gabriel and Ali are more dynamic and interesting characters than Shawn, though that's not saying a lot, but the whole point of a sacrifice like that is that we don't want to see the characters die.

That's not the only story beat this film gets wrong. I mean, the nature of the shaytan sect of jinn means that we don't even get an actual central villain! The closest we get is maybe the jinn that killed Shawn's parents, but the film requires the audience to assume that that's the jinn he's facing in his apartment at the climax. Because the jinn possess human bodies and all speak in roughly the same voice, it's impossible to tell one jinn from another and the film is frustratingly vague on whether the heroes are even actually killing the jinn during their battles. It could all be the same jinn they're fighting or fifty. This renders the jinn almost utterly faceless and removes a lot of the potential interest they could have generated.

The acting in the film is rarely less than servicable. Obviously, William Atherton and Fara Tahir stand out as great performances because they're old pros, but nobody stands out as awful. I mean, as an actor Ray Park makes a great martial artist, but he's never stiff or awkward in delivering lines. In a way the lack of any bad performances kind of hurts the movie because just one blatantly awful performance like the Police Chief from Spawn of the Slithis could at least make this movie more than "mediocre."

And it's truly a shame, because this was an opportunity to introduce genre fans to the jinn. It's also probably the only Western films I can name where the hero is a bland Persian guy instead of a bland white guy. There are definitely things to like about this film...but whether due to a lack of experience on the part of the writer/director or meddling from the film's backers, it ends up falling back on the most tired of tropes. It's a real shame, and ends up making me actually like the movie less than if it was just another damn vampire or demon movie.

Although, you gotta love the reviewer for Variety who is quoted on the film's Wikipedia page as disparaging its "bogus mythos." First off, isn't that kind of redundant? Second, I wonder if he would criticize films like The Exorcist or The Exorcism of Emily Rose for their bogus mythos. Just because it's not based on Judeo-Christian mythology doesn't make it bogus. Sure, I'm certain the prophecy is made up for the film, but there are made up prophecies in Christian horror films, too.

Now I'm annoyed that I felt compelled to defend this lousy film.

Today's review brought to you by the Letter J! Click the banner to see what the other Celluloid Zeroes reviewed!

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