Jinn: Hell to Pay For

Jinn, a supernatural thriller coming to you courtesy of writer/director/editor//car-designer/voice-actor Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad ([who][ahmad]? exactly…), is probably not playing at a theater near you anymore. That’s okay. Consider that a reprieve. Take solace.

It’s tough to bag on a film with this much going on behind the scenes that is worthy of hearty cheers. A creative person with a love of cinema – an immigrant from a practically unseen minority – starts his own independent film studio (Exxodus Studios) in our country’s most beleaguered city, aiming to prove that sheer ambition and a desire to use the resources available to him in his community can launch a major motion picture that can open the same day in Los Angeles and Gainesville. I mean… yay! Right? That’s the dream!

I went into the film hopeful that, in spite of bad notices and subpar marketing, there might be a scruffy charm to Jinn, a spark of the personal, an impression of either Ahmad’s own experience as an Indian-American or as a resident and hopeful supporter of Detroit and Ann Arbor.

For about ten minutes I was convinced that this what was exactly what I was going to get. I don’t want to overpraise this film’s prologue, it’s not world-changing, but it had me convinced that we were looking at a man who could stretch a tight budget and make a competent and personal fantasy epic. That was before things like lead actors and plot and logic got in the way.

Let’s count off the ways in which this movie starts off promisingly:

A universal approach to religion: the film opens with the same verse of scripture, but filtered through the lenses of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religions. And the three symbols (the crescent, the star, and the cross) form one united symbol. It feels like any film studio on Earth would have told Ahmad “Pick one.” It’s easier to market a film to a Christian audience when its themes are explicitly Christian, so its likely the multi-religion angle would be the first thing a studio would jettison or downplay. So maybe Ahmad has something unique and uncompromised to say about the ways we share stories and similarities and underline our commonalities and the ways we miss those commonalities, with destructive results. Already, we’re cooking with some gas! (Caveat: This will have practically no bearing on the film whatsoever. Ahmad has absolutely nothing to say about the unity in world religions. It’s likely he thought the symbol looked cool. Which, yeah, it kind of does.)
A simple and effective setup. Fire demons have inhabited earth since time immemorial, coexisting with and resenting humans and angels. Smudges on ancient scrolls, the narration of Ray Park – all effective and straightforward. And it gets the exposition out of the way in a visually interesting way now, so we won’t have to waste time with it later! (Caveat: Ray Park – who you know as either Darth Maul or Toad from the first X-Men film, meaning this is probably the first time you’ve seen him without makeup/speaking in his real voice – will deliver this exact same speech to the film’s hero later on in the film. It might actually be the same audio sample…)
One of these demons curses a religious man’s family for clear reasons. It seems that for generations to come, these demons will haunt this man’s descendants. They will kill them without a second thought, we are led to believe. (Caveat: Our hero, Shan Walker, turns out to be the prophesied one, the man who can stop the Jinn from seizing our world. The Jinn don’t want to kill him, and bafflingly, won’t kill him until he has a child. In fact, they would prefer to woo him, offering him incentives, like they are some ad agency hoping Don Draper will work for them rather than against them. What about the curse? You’re guess is as good as mine, even if you didn’t see the film.)
Some creepy/cool monster design. Lank hair, herky jerky movement, suspenseful levitation: it’s all straight out of the post-Samara handbook of creature-work, but you can’t argue there’s not something alarming and disturbing about the jinn we meet. We’ll see a lot more of him right? (Caveat: Nope. The Jinn are shapechangers, and Ahmad takes advantage of this to come up with plenty of much lamer shapes for them to take. Their favored form is “smoke cloud” [maybe they are Lost fans], though they also will appear as black creatures with lava for veins, shadow knights, projections of friends and family [including a replica of Shan that’s supposed to… scare Shan?], and… oh yeah, I guess they can possess people too? By the time the Samara-inspired design comes back, it is during the climactic dream-fight where the monster’s ability to levitate is used to disorienting ends; you will never want more to know which way is up.)
A nice score. One thing a low-budget film can use to make-up for lacking the dough to pay for better effects or actors is to find a talented but unrecognized composer to crank out a melodic, evocative score. It’s just important not to let the score overtake the movie, or contradict the film’s tone. (Caveat: Boy howdy, does it! The score becomes incredibly overbearing, and veers wildly from sunny compositions to “horror movie” stuff. A visually stunning scene in which Ray Park’s Gabriel vanquishes Jinn using… ummm… light magic, is rendered ridiculous by the musical cue that accompanies it.)
The most promising thing of all: a new and fresh perspective on the horror genre. How many Indian-born Americans are making films about Indian-American characters and Indian subjects? Any? Yeah, the prologue, set in India, does not look like it is set in India (more like a pretty forest on the shore of Lake Michigan), but suspension of disbelief and optimism allows one to buy in to what appears to be, by all accounts, the beginnings of a multi-generational Indian epic. If, using a genre lens, Ahmad can tell us anything about his experience, his people, his religion, his… anything! Than this is probably going to be worth it. And in interviews, Ahmad talks at length about how excited he is to introduce the underutilized concept of jinn, which are prevalent in the cultures of Asia and Africa but practically unknown here, to an American audience. He grew up with stories of jinn, so maybe he will give us an indelible vision of a monster unique to his culture that will speak to that culture’s values or relationship to culture-at-large.
I’m going to just expand this caveat out to take up the rest of our review because it gets to the heart of what is really so heartbreaking about Jinn‘s almost complete lack of creative ambition. If the jinn, as an exciting new creature, is intended to introduce us to the scary stories – and in turn the fears – of another part of our world that we in America know less about, than it fails by all accounts. The jinn come across as a mix of so many demon and exorcism tropes we can see on the back of our eyelids when we blink that, when Gabriel explains the existence of jinn to Shan by telling him that ghosts, demons and poltergeists do not exist, that all these phenomena can be explained by the jinn, my response was: “And?” All those things might as well exist for how derivative the threat of the jinn is. They are ghosts and demons. You just gave them a different name.

Two things handicap the jinn irreparably. The first is the mythology that compounds like so much refuse atop what began as a simple trinity – angels, men, jinn. There are good jinn and bad. Gabriel, with his angelic name and light magic kung-fu sure seems like an angel, but is in fact a good jinn. Where are the angels in this world then? Do they have an issue with the bad jinn attempting to wipe out humanity out of jealousy over man’s capacity for creativity? They seem fine with it since they don’t show up.

To defeat the jinn, one must complete a test in which the jinn try to scare you and you… can’t be scared? If you fail, you go insane, like Shan’s uncle. Who, before the film’s climax, decides he’s going to unfail his test (ripping his shackles from the floor of an insane asylum), so apparently it’s not permanent. The jinn can be harmed by a magic dagger and by holy water, but not too much; it’ll just make them hiss. They also may not like a big sword the priest played by William Atherton pulls out of a cross, but we’ll never know because we never see Atherton do anything with the sword or know why he took it out – the film cuts from him as he threatens to use it and never returns. The jinns biggest weakness, bigger than holy water or pointy things, actually seems to be their willingness to negotiate with the family they cursed – with no caveats – only one hundred years prior. Their strategy for overcoming a prophecy that will see a chosen one from a certain bloodline defeat them is to wait until the potential chosen one has borne a child, rather than killing him outright – just in case. The jinn should have a meeting to get these things straight. They’ll never wipe out humanity with a plan full of this many holes.

The other thing that hobbles the jinn is their adversary, the chosen one, Shan, who, in his big hero moment, rips off what’s left of his shirt so he can stare down a jinn army. This jinn army slinks off when Shan destroys one of them and grimaces in all his shirtless glory. If I were the jinn army, I would have laughed at him, called forth all my jinn friends from their dark portals, and laughed some more.

Shan is played by Iranian-American actor Dominic Rains with floppy hair and eyes persistently widened in dopey surprise. He also plays Shan’s great-grandfather in the prologue, wearing makeup and a scraggly graying beard. In this get-up, he looks half as silly as he does as a “normal guy” from Ann Arbor thrown into extraordinary circumstances. The film starts with Shan and his wife suffering some marital grief over her admission that she cannot bear children. (Ironically, she is pregnant as she says this. Because magic.) The film refers to a fight the two have over this grievance, and one suspects we don’t see the emotional sparring because neither actor could convincingly handle it.

One might suspect from the “chosen one” plot and how much Shan is referred to as “the boy” that he might in fact be, if not a boy, at least a young man. Instead, Shan appears to be at least thirty, meaning it is ridiculous the way Shan is consistently carted around Ann Arbor in the manner of a fragile pre-teen in the mold of Harry being toured around Diagon Alley by Hagrid or Ender stepping into the zero-G room for the first time. Shan spends the whole movie asking the jinn to return his wife and his unborn child, and it turns out that she has been in the possession of Gabriel the good Jinn all along. Even Shan’s friends don’t trust Shan.

There is virtually nothing in the film identifying Shan as Indian-American other than his established lineage – his great-grandfather was Indian, and so are the father that appears to him via an old VHS (okay that was sort of touching) and his insane uncle. At the end of the film, Shan, his uncle, his newborn baby (who has psychic abilities, the last frame tells us, so come back for that sequel! Anyone?), and his American wife sit down for a classic Indian meal, and it is the first indication since the prologue that this family even knows what Indian culture is. And, in its own way, that’s fine. As a result of this, Shan exhibits no Indian stereotypes, no accent, no cultural identifiers. Plenty of immigrant families have assimilated to this point of being, in every sense, American. That’s genuine. The issue is that, in place of any distinguishingly Indian perspective, Shan has been given the perspective of just about every white male protagonist ever. Shan seems like a guy who opened a start-up company in Ann Arbor with his frat brothers, and it’s doing pretty well, and they go get a drink and ogle chicks on Fridays. In Harry Potter and Ender Wiggins, we see traces of messianic greatness emerging from their unformed, pre-teen shells as their stories progress. With the way the film treats Shan and his world, the only thing messianic about Shan, the only thing that might have designated him as one who should be chosen, is the car he designed, the Firebreather, which the camera ogles at low, car commercial angles, meaning, during action scenes (like the one in which the car outruns a jinn in smoke cloud form), you half-expect Jon Hamm to intone stentoriously that luxury can be yours with just one down payment. Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad created Exxodus Studios and directed Jinn with the stated goal of establishing a financially stable film community in Michigan; he also designed the Firebreather, and if he’s looking for financial stability, he could probably sell a whole lot more of those than he’ll sell in tickets to Jinn.