With Egypt at the center of the news lately, CNN.com has gone so far as to publish a sidebar article about the country’s prominent role as a producer of pop culture in the Arab world. However, nowhere in that article was Haram Alek mentioned, nor was its star, beloved screen comedian Ismail Yassin. Fortunately, I’m here to fill the hole in the internet that CNN’s glaring omission left.
Movies from Egyptian cinema’s golden age take a lot of cues from Hollywood, but Haram Alek (in English: Shame On You) is the first I’ve seen to take a Hollywood film and actually remake it, that film being Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The fondness with which that 1948 Universal monster mash is regarded has made Haram Alek something of a novelty item among English speaking cult movie enthusiasts, as such giving it the odd status of being one of the few Egyptian popular films that such folks are most likely to have seen. Not only does this serve to present a somewhat skewed picture of what Egyptian pop cinema from the 1950s is actually like for those viewers, but it also on occasion makes Haram Alek –- unfairly, I think -- victim to the eager readiness of American fanboys to Jeer at any foreign appropriation of their nation’s pop culture as a laughably inferior copy.
Given the above, let me first say that Haram Alek is not quite the inept mess you may have heard, or assumed, it is; in fact, it’s typical of mainstream Egyptian films of its day in the slickness and stylishness of its technical execution –- although that style does fall pretty much in lockstep with the template set by black and white American movies from the 30s, 40s and 50s. It is also not, as some sources suggest, a “shot-for-shot” remake of A&CMF, although there are certainly a few gags and entire sequences that are lifted of-a-piece from the original. Really, Haram Alek is not so much trying to copy its inspiration as it is trying to adapt it both to the culture of its audience and to the screen personas of a pair of already established stars.
At the time of making Haram Alek, Ismail Yassin was in his third decade as a screen performer, and was popular enough that he had already fronted a number of tailor made comic vehicles (the previously reviewed Haunted House among them –- not to mention Ismail Yassin’s Phantom, which was released the same year as Haram Alek). His co-star, Abdel Fattah El Kasri, had also established himself as an actor and comedian, and, while not commanding Yassin’s level of adulation, had become a familiar presence in comic sidekick roles, many of them alongside Yassin. The fact that neither of these stars fit into the traditional “straight man” role (El Kasri’s tubby build and wonky eyes, as well as Yassin’s famously rubbery visage, saw to that) meant that a straightforward emulation of the Abbott and Costello dynamic was out of the question. Instead what we get is something a bit more schizoid, with both actors at times playing the lily livered, comic bumbler, and El Kasri occasionally, when the script requires it, stepping into Bud Abbott’s thankless role as the easily peeved, stern talking killjoy. As for Yassin, this is certainly not one of my favorite performances of his, as his essentially filling the Lou Costello role plays to some of the least appealing aspects of his screen persona –- gibbering, exaggerated and shrill –- with less of the slyness that offsets them in other films.
In the film, Yassin and El Kasri play “Ismail” and “Abdel”, a couple of -- well, I already said “bumbling”, but to consult the thesaurus would sacrifice clarity –- antique shop employees charged with delivering a mysterious crate to a mysterious Professor Assem. Interestingly, the film takes it upon itself to deliver to its audience all of the iconic monsters that were a main draw of the original –- in that case, Dracula, as played by Bela Lugosi, The Wolfman, as played by Lon Chaney, Jr., and Frankenstein’s monster –- while at the same time winkingly trying to place them within a specifically Arabic context. The crate that the men are delivering, of course, turns out to contain the Frankenstein monster. However, in the dialog, that monster is referred to as being the mummy of an ancient Egyptian scientist whom Professor Assem wants to revive in order to obtain some great “secret”. Assem, for his part, stalks about in a black cape and sleeps by day in a sarcophagus, and is even said to be capable of turning into a bat, but is nonetheless characterized as also being some kind of preternaturally long lived denizen of ancient Egypt. Of course, given the look of these two, the movie has no choice but to cheerfully acknowledge that no one could possibly be fooled as to who they’re really supposed to be. (Ismail, while miming Lugosi’s classic cape over the face move, at one point describes Assem as looking like “the guy in the movies”.)
Overall, Haram Alek keeps good pace with its inspiration in providing a cozy mix of slapstick caterwauling and good natured, boardwalk haunted house level chills. It should even be given credit for tightening up A&CMF’s story in some significant ways, especially in how it folds Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot/Wolfman character into that of Dracula/Assem’s conscientious assistant, Dr. Morad (a part played by Charles Bradstreet in the original). In this version, that character’s lycanthropy comes about as the result of a spell that Assem casts upon him in order to keep him from blowing the whistle on him. As with the other monsters on display, the make-up work on this wolfman is perhaps not up to par with that of the more well-funded and experienced hands at Universal, but is nonetheless worlds better than some attempts at recreating these same classic creatures that I’ve seen coming from other countries. (I’m looking at you, Mexico. Yes, you heard me.) In the case of Frankenstein’s monster, the look seems to be less the result of ineptitude than it is of it being intentionally stylized, with the end product having a charmingly caricatured appearance.
I could take up several posts cataloguing all of the telling ways in which Haram Alek departs from it’s source material –- just as I could the instances in which it is slavishly faithful to it. But, for now, I’ll just tick off a few that struck me as being particularly significant for one reason or another. One was the conspicuous use of French greetings –- “bonjour”, “au revoir” -- on the part of Professor Assem and his female accomplice, a “Europeanized” affectation that I’ve seen crop up as a telltale sign of villainy in other old Egyptian films. (Is this equivalent to those often frowned upon ‘Westernized” Indians in old Hindi films?) Another was the fact that the Assem/Dracula character’s house, imposingly gothic and decrepit in the original, was impeccably modern in this version -- which could be a reflection of Egypt’s forward thinking aspirations at the time, or simply the fact that, for a country with such a long history, a home that we in the States might consider unfathomably old and creepy would seem barely lived in, and thus not imbued with that much creepiness at all.
Of course, if I were asked to name the one thing above all that most marked Haram Alek as being unmistakably a product of the Middle East, I would have to say that it was all the belly dancing:
In the end, Haram Alek certainly wasn’t one of my favorite Ismail Yassin films. As a straightforward crowd pleaser, it lacked the satirical edge of some of his better efforts. Nonetheless, as others have noted, it is not without its charms. Most notably, it seems to regard the original Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with much the same warmth and affection as that film’s fans do, and treats its monsters with much the same mix of reverence and fond familiarity. This makes it something that’s hard to hate, despite Yassin’s somewhat hysterically pitched performance sometimes seeming dedicated toward making it so. As I may have noted before, there’s something about this type of old school monster romp that is redolent of rainy Saturday afternoons spent rapt in front of the TV, and that translates just as strongly in Arabic as it does in English.