Thursday, August 5, 2021

Al Ta'awitha (1987)

... aka: التعويذة
... aka: Al-ta'weeza
... aka: Altawiza
... aka: Curse, The
... aka: Spell, The
... aka: Talisman, The

Directed by:
Mohammed Shebl

Been meaning to check out another film from the director of the absolutely crazy (and kinda great) Rocky Horror-inspired FANGS (1981) for awhile now but his three other genre films are harder to find. None have been officially released on VHS or DVD here in America, nor have any of them been officially released with English subtitles. (Note: Just like with Fangs, English fan-subs are available for this one, though I'm not sure about the director's other two films.) The lack of any international distribution is pretty easy to explain. This has the same problem that a number of Asian films made around the same time have: It would be entangled in a copyright nightmare if anyone ever attempted to release it outside of its home country. No one cares so much about what ideas this may steal from other films, but I'm sure some people would still care that most of the soundtrack has been swiped from both other films (most of the score here is from Psycho II) and major recording artists (like Joan Jett) and no one bothered to ask for permission to use it.

Things center around the Abdrabou's: a stressed-out, financially-strapped extended family. Stay-at-home wife Rawya (Youssra) keeps busy looking after a young son while father Mahmoud (Mahmoud Yassine) works as a high school teacher to a bunch of rowdy, disobedient young men and is barely making enough money for them to scrape by. Mahmoud's two younger sisters live in the home, as well. Faten (Abla Kamel) is the smart, sarcastic, "plain-looking" one who works as a clerk at a radio station and annoys the rest of her family by constantly being negative and bringing up depressing topics like how bad Egyptian infrastructure is at the breakfast table. Everyone pretty much just assumes no man will ever have her and she's doomed to spinster status. The younger / prettier sister, Nadia (Marwah El Khatib), is a spoiled "princess" who's obsessed with discos and American culture, stays up all night listening to rock-n-roll cassettes instead of studying and is in the middle of her third attempt at passing her senior year of high school.

Mahmoud's widowed mother (Taheya Cariocca, who apparently was a famous belly dancer in her youth) tries to keep the family together but is in a constant state of worry over her kids, money and, most especially, the failing condition of their home. She wants to sell it to interested real estate agent Ourani (Adel Abu Al Ghait), while Mahmoud is dead-set on staying there because it's all his late father left him. With the water going on and off, the shoddy wiring causing the lights to flicker, and all kinds of bangs and creaks due to the structural problems already going on in the home, will they even notice when an evil spirit invades the place?

Because the home is located on a prime piece of real estate, developer Mr. Salem (Fouad Khalil) is interested in purchasing it so he can build luxury apartments there. He offers the family a decent chunk of money if they'll sell, plus offers to set them up in a fancy apartment that's right on the Nile River at an affordable price. Still, Mahmoud is resistant. Salem and Ourani then turn to black magic, unleash a demon and send it into the families home in an effort to scare them into selling. The wife's bed is invaded by the spirit, which initially has her thinking they've just had an earthquake. The next horror is in the form of a fireball that flies around setting various pieces of furniture on fire, which is even more difficult to explain. Then their entire kitchen gets destroyed. Twice.

Mahmoud and Aatif (Tarek Al Desouki), a police officer who wants to marry Nadia, are almost killed by a falling pane of glass at a construction site when a demon-possessed goat (!) shoots a star-shaped laser out of its head (??) Rawya keeps feeling cold air, sensations like fingers touching her body and the presence of another being lying in bed next to her even when her husband isn't there. She and her mother-in-law get desperate and seek other potential spiritual remedies, starting with visiting a husky-voiced, hookah-smoking old sorceress named Rawaieh (Naima Al Soghayar), who claims to be in control of a pond-dwelling djinn. However, the sorceress proves to be no match for the evil spirit when it makes her holy book explode into flames. The ladies then invite some voodoo practitioners over, who make Rawya do some ritual dance while priestesses cut the throat of a (real) chicken and dribble the blood all over her.

The director takes the proceedings completely seriously this time but the horror components on display are all pretty weak. Just about every haunted house cliché gets its moment in the sun, from gratuitous spirit POV shots prowling around the home, copious home destruction and lots of pots, pans, vases, furniture and a Garfield doll flying around. The wife gets caught in a blood shower and a Matchbox car is used to depict a vehicle crash. Another useless bit has a forensic scientist (Mahmoud El-Bezzawy) showing up to collect samples of a strange substance from the home to analyze in his lab. He's shocked by the results (which we never even learn!) but gets killed when the spirit knocks over a few jars of chemicals.

The first death doesn't occur until the last ten minutes and there's very little blood and gore. The only real special effects occur at the very end when a man pulls his face off and a red-painted devil with hooves that was clearly inspired by Tim Curry's "Darkness" in Legend shows up to impale some barely-seen bad guy in blackface (?!) with its horns. The script is filled with religious blabber; the usual stuff about how if your faith is strong it can move mountains and will protect you from everything (mmm hmmm) and how the practiced religion in the film is the only real, true religion. In fact, the voodoo people get arrested for being "scam artists" simply for having different beliefs!

Conversations between characters are rather fascinating at times though, most especially from a historical and cultural standpoint. People discuss having to sneak VCRs into the country from Kuwait, trying to get their hands on government-banned bootleg tapes of movies and Michael Jackson music videos, how the movies that do get imported into the country are "mutilated" by the censors before being shown and how homegrown Egyptian films and TV shows are all nationalistic, sanitized brain rot meant to "sedate" the masses. Apparently, when this was made all Egyptian TV stations ended programming in the early evening just so people wouldn't be tempted to (gasp!) stay up late at night.

Conversely, the old family matriarch and the miserable and uptight daughter Faten have their own observations about Western world influences. The granny makes a dig at the unnecessary violence in foreign films, while Faten calls disco patrons "a bunch of Americanized sissies." Nadia doesn't care either way and convinces her penny-pinching brother (who doesn't want to actually pay to do anything and claims to be content going "out in public places just to breath the air") and sister-in-law to accompany her and her new man to a disco. James Brown's "Living in America" is playing right as they walk in and the dance floor filler turns out to be (what else?) The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" (!) Excusing herself to the bathroom to freshen up, Rawya sees a flaming clown doll (!) in the mirror and then a 300-pound caped drag queen lip sync's Divine's "You Think You're a Man" directly to the camera (!!!)

So basically this is yet another film where the most interesting components have little, if anything, to do with its effectiveness as a genre film or its horror content, which is middling at best.

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