Friday, July 3, 2015

Al-qasr al-mal'oun (1962)

... aka: Accursed Mansion, The
... aka: Cursed Palace, The
... aka: Le château maudit (The Cursed Castle)

Directed by:
Hassan Reda

Lawyer Hasan Hashim (Salah Zulfikar) arrives via train to the city of Mansourah to both visit his his old college buddy Fathi (who's also a lawyer) and take care of a “transfer of possession” case his boss is too busy to deal with himself. Once his friend finds out that case involves the estate of Alsaeed Al Maghory, he immediately becomes scared. After all, if you looked up “haunted house” in your qamoos you'd likely see a photo of the foreboding and legendary Al Maghory mansion. Alas, Hasan doesn't have time for rumor and local superstitious and business is business after all. He takes a coach to the place and realizes neither the coachman nor his horse will go anywhere near the home. Upon entering and meeting sinister butler Morsi and unpleasant “auntie” Nagiah, Hasan starts to realize the place may have a bad reputation for a reason. That is until he meet the home's elderly, wheelchair-bound owner Fahmi (Mahmoud El-Meliguy), who is warm, friendly and hospitable. Fahmi's old and in bad health, so he wants to sign over his wealth to his orphaned niece / adopted daughter Yousriah (Mariam Fakhr Eddine), a young woman Hasan had briefly met and flirted with on his trip there without realizing who she was.

Fahmi and Yousriah both insist that Hasan spend the evening there. He reluctantly agrees and, later that night, he's woken by the sounds of footsteps and his door quickly opening and closing, seemingly all by itself. The next morning, Hasan and Yousriah go into town to get the contract in order to make her the power of attorney over the estate. It's something that neither Najia (Olwiyya Gamil), Fahmi's blood sister, nor Morsi, whose daughter had mysteriously died after falling from the palace roof two years earlier, appear to be too happy about. Hasan leaves and promises to be back soon to finalize all of the paperwork. While he's away, someone begins terrorizing poor Yousriah. That someone appears to be the ghost of her dead father, who shows up late at night knocking on the doors with his skeleton hands and calling out her name.

Since Yousriah's the only one to see it, nobody believes her. After the first sighting, a doctor shows up to examine her, claims she's suffering from nightmares and prescribes some pills for her nerves. After the second visit, she's driven to the brink of hysteria and passes out. Gee, it's almost as if someone is trying to - gasp! - drive her crazy. Now why on Earth would anyone try to drive a sweet innocent girl who's set to collect a fortune insane? Yeah, yeah... I know. By the time Hasan returns from Cairo to get the final signatures on the will, Yousriah is not quite in the right frame of mind to be signing important papers. Fahmi claims she's too “tired” to do so while her aunt and the butler are keeping a very watchful eye over her and don't seem to want her to leave her bedroom. Eventually, there are several murders as Hasan attempts to find out just what's going on and save the woman he's fallen in love with in the process.

Discounting all films (mainly mummy movies) only shot there, this is the first purely Egyptian horror film I've ever seen. While it suffers from an all-too-familiar set-up most of us have already seen done to death and the production year of 1962 might as well be 1932 considering how tame and hoary the whole plot is, this at least done with some style, is well-cast and boasts a twist at the end no one's going to see coming. It also manages to conjure up a wonderful Old Dark House / Gothic feel with all the expected trappings (thunderstorms, twisting doorknobs, curtains blowing in the wind, candlelit rooms, carriage rides, creaking doors, rattling shutters, etc.) Thanks to excellent high-contrast black-and-white photography, good art direction, inspired use of shadow and, most especially, some terrific lighting schemes that could give even the most renowned Italian Gothics from this same time some competition, this is also extremely atmospheric.

Another big plus is the strong cast. Unfortunately, the IMDb listing for this title is a barren wasteland and there's no cast listing for this film anywhere else online so it's difficult to find out just who these people are. I located a list of Egyptian actors busy during the 50s and 60s and then went Google Image crazy trying to match names with faces but was only able to provide a couple of the actors' names. The leads (who were big stars in Egypt at the time) are both very likable and have great chemistry together, but the two most impressive performances come from the two gentlemen who play the father and the butler.

Just the simple fact this is Egyptian helps it to maintain a modicum of interest because, let's face it, how many 1960s Egyptian horror flicks are there, anyway? While this one takes place primarily indoors on sets, there's also a bit of nice exterior footage. They even throw in a visit to a whorehouse where a woman entertains guests with belly dancing. Most of the familiar and very dramatic score seems to have been swiped from Golden Age Hollywood films. There's been no DVD or VHS release to my knowledge and this only pops up on Arabic TV from time to time.

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