Hooper Dreams: Why I Wrote Cinemaphagy

Djinn (2013)

I was talking to critic Ben Sachs the other night about Tobe Hooper’s Night Terrors (1993), probably the most forgotten of all of his theatrically released movies, and one of his best. He said it was so rewarding not least because it reminded him of Edgar Ulmer. That in low budget maverick filmmaking there emerges a kind of netherworld of exoticism, something like Interzone from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. A place half dreamt from bowdlerizations of the 1001 Nights of Arabia. The truth is because Western authors almost never ask for the authentic version of these stories, the goodly sum of them that we wind up with are more in conversation with that Westernized storytelling tradition (Aladdin, The Thief of Baghdad, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad) then they are with anything resembling real storytelling from the Middle East. Hooper was cannier than most about how he approached the subject matter, using grammar so sweaty and hyped up that it could only create a sort of uncanny valley of inverted third hand orientalism. Moreover he punishes everyone in the movie who came here to either steal artifacts in the name of archaeology, or wear its legacy of carnal excess like a costume. It’s pretty shrewd for a movie where Robert England runs an S&M cult.

Night Terrors (1993)

That’s why I loved Hooper. He was always in conversation with the most disreputable arthouse cinema. He and Ulmer had a lot in common, but there’s an equal amount of Orson Welles, Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Andre De Toth, Fritz Lang, Josef Von Sternberg, Byron Haskin, and Max Ophuls. Guys who had to fight tooth and nail to keep their visions intact. Like Welles and Ulmer, he’s remembered for basically one movie (maybe two) while the rest of their incredible career goes unremarked upon. All that rich text just sitting there. That was why I wanted to write Cinemaphagy. Class and money are still such silent but heavy forces in cinema studies. You lose money and you’re off the cultural radar. Look at Michael Cimino. Everyone talks about Deer Hunter (1978), no one talks about Desperate Hours (1990). Just how it goes. You fuck with a producer’s bottom line and the critical establishment is only too happy to do the moneymen the favor of burying them. Hooper was hidden real good. Only his friends could see where they buried him, and they’d occasionally give him work but his reputation never grew past The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Even now it’s tough to get people to take him seriously. When I wrote the first draft of the book in 2015 and 2016 what little information about the music video for Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” all said he’d directed it in 1981, so I wrote that down. Now that it has an IMDB page it says 1983, someone gave the book a one star review because I “got it wrong.” There was no reliable information about the guy for the half a decade in which I wrote and rewrote the book. That’s all it takes to get people to tune out of a defense of his work. It isn’t even a biography, it’s an analysis, and now this fella won’t read the damn thing. Unreal.

I wrote the book to try and do something about what a sorry state of affairs the world of analytical film writing is in. Will I succeed in getting people to reconsider Hooper’s work? I have no idea, but I couldn’t do nothing. Below is an excerpt from my chapter on Djinn (2013), a tremendous movie I really wish people had given the time of day. It was barely released and received terrible reviews. Maybe the Edgar Ulmer of horror will have his day.

Horror directors flying to foreign countries to kick-start a filmmaking economy is nothing new. Another recent example would be Brian Yuzna, writer of Reanimator and director of Society, flying to Indonesia to make Amphibious, the country’s first 3D horror film (not that the project paid off). Hooper made Djinn for Image Nation, a production wing based out of Abu Dhabi, with dozens of international credits including Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land. Djinn was one of their first horror films, one of the first horror films made in the United Arab Emirates, and may well be the first horror film in both English and Arabic. Djinn was also the first film Hooper shot digitally, and he utilizes its capability for capturing murky dark grays and greens as well as more picturesque sun- kissed tableaux It’s an unusual work and not just for Hooper. It’s a horror film about motherhood and religion and it sides unequivocally with freedom of expression. It’s the indigenous cousin to the exoticism and othering of Night Terrors.

The film was released in a more polished state by the distributor but a director’s cut has since surfaced that preserves a little more of Hooper’s expressive colors and maintains a more traditionally effective shape. In the theatrical cut we are shown ancient Emirati ruins at sundown. The actress Ahd explains in voice-over that man was made from clay and a djinn is a demon made from fire. We join Salama and Khalid (Razane Jammal and Khalid Laith), an expat couple living in America. Joel Ransom, the director of photography, starts above the grave of Salama and Khalid’s child, then sinks down to the couple grieving in the rain, America a dull grey compared to the rich oranges of the UAE prologue. Before getting in a cab to leave, they spy a mourner, a woman in black. She vanishes before they can get a good look at her.

At couple’s counseling, their therapist (Soumaya Akaaboune) suggests reconnecting with their families in the old country. She’s so insistent, it starts to bother Salama, who keeps giving reasons why they can’t uproot.

Finally, the therapist, in Arabic, snaps and her voice turns supernaturally low. “You will not get in my way.”

When Salama questions the outburst, Khalid jumps in, gaslighting her into believing she imagined it. “My way, she meant my way.”

This film’s understanding of the insidious sexism of marriage is remarkable.

“How can you deny a request from the man you love?” asks the counselor.

As in I’m Dangerous Tonight, Hooper once more sides with the browbeaten woman stuck in the tangled web of male suggestion and assumption.

We cut from a Dutch tilt of the doctor’s office to a desert race. Hooper begins his director’s cut here, which frames the rest of the film as a kind of expansion of the ghost story told to scare our POV character. He’s a spoiled American (Paul Luebke) and his guides drive their big SUVs around villages abandoned thanks to the people’s belief in the djinn. Hooper cranes down when the race ends and alternates between medium close-ups of the men talking and spying far off POV shots from the brush surrounding their campfire. The guide tells a campfire tale (a Hooper motif) of a child that was half-djinn and half-man. A couple’s baby was replaced by a djinn child by a sorceress (it creeps into the baby’s window like the black vine from Mortuary) and so the couple had it exorcised. The mother of the demon child searches the earth to this day looking for its child but cannot find it because it has had its evil drained from it. In Hooper’s cut there’s a flashback to the village, captured in a glowing orange hue. The djinn climbs into a young mother’s second storey window aided by dark magic to replace a human child with its own half-demon child. A cleric is called to take the child away, and the djinn now waits to reclaim its grown changeling in the village.

The American scoffs at their tale and wanders off into the dark to relieve himself. But when he returns, his guides are missing. It seems they made a deal to feed the American to the djinn.

One of the guides warns him just before the spirit finds and disembowels the American, “She said they won’t hurt me. But you…they are gonna hurt you.”

The blood that covers the door of the American’s car has Hooper’s patented diagonal spray pattern. There’s a degree to which this film acts as a corrective to the othering exoticized view of the Middle East found in Night Terrors, the killing of its only white character a sort of blood sacrifice to start showing how other cultures experience horror absent a white perspective, though the outlines are similar to a lot of Hooper’s American movies. The setting for most of the film is a high rise, which cannily contrasts the financial success of the indigenous populace, and also hints at the rotting capitalist core still present of society, as does the new developments in Poltergeist.

When Khalid and Salama arrive at the airport, they trade conspiratorial looks as they descend the escalator in front of his family, like they need the other’s permission to wave and smile. This scene is our introduction to them in Hooper’s cut, hinting that he felt dropping us into their family dynamic was the more efficient way to introduce us to them. The extent of their relationship problems is communicated without a word. Then we realize that Khalid’s uncle and Salama’s father are the same man, Nasser (Abdullah Al Junaibi), and their problems become compounded—by coming home, they’re reminded that this was some kind of arranged marriage. Salama’s younger sister Aisha (May Calamawy) is happy to have her back because her mother (Carol Abboud) has probably been asking her to have a child since her eldest moved to America.

Nasser drives them to Khalid’s firm’s new development (apparently they bought the village where the djinn legend originated and built over it) but stops when he nearly crushes a pedestrian in the fog. Khalid gets out to investigate, but only sees his firm’s newest building, the building where he and Salama will be living, standing erect in the fog like a beacon of hopelessness. When they arrive, they’re plainly among the only guests in the hotel. Hooper dollies and pans across the great empty hotel corridors and the married couple’s luxury suite—their new home. Salama is overwhelmed by the spaciousness, the regality, and most of all the height. It’s enough to give her a stress flashback to her child’s death. She starts investigating a vent in her room when a bird crashes into her window, lost in the fog. The grey green of the fog all around the property is one of Hooper’s methods of deglamorizing his portrayal of a foreign country. There is nothing othered about this place. It’s drab, menacing, and ugly. Hooper sees the empty hotel as symbolic of capitalist excesses, a testament only to the loneliness of the rich who think they deserve to live here. It’s the soulless, new modern equivalent of the Lusman arms from Hooper’s Toolbox Murders: a place destined to die surrounded by no one and nothing.

In Hooper’s cut, the dialogue and expository camera work are all given a little more room to breathe, the camera slowly dollying and panning around the apartment and the hallways of the hotel and around the conversations. The relationship between Salama and her family is more precisely drawn, and a scene where they give her gifts before leaving underscored by the gentle synth score leaves one with a kind of graceful high point from which the film can now more meaningfully fall. There’s a lovely scene when Salama and Khalid are finally alone and she tells him not to speak Arabic, that she was just doing it for her parents. The expectations heaped on her make her feel even more exhausted than she is. By jettisoning the funeral, Hooper ensures we learn about the death of their firstborn more subtly, a bold but rewarding gesture.

Cinemaphagy: Cinema of Flesh Eaten, Corrupted, and Entombed: On the Films and Form of Tobe Hooper can be purchased here (signed by the author) and here (not signed).

This Essay article was published in April 2021