Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Haunted House (Egypt, 1951)

Let me share with you something that I know about comedy. The sight of people being terrified is never funny. But people with the heebie jeebies? HI-larious. It is perhaps for this reason that the haunted house comedy is such an enduring sub-genre. And, as The Haunted House -- yet another vehicle for beloved Egyptian screen comic Ismail Yassin -- shows us, that is true not just for Hollywood, but throughout the world's many film cultures, as well.

Of course, many Egyptian films from the pre-Nasser era give the impression that their makers would be more than happy to have them mistaken for Hollywood product. We've already seen that Egypt's Cairo-based film industry was capable of making just as good as it's American counterpart. Unfortunately, it should also follow that they were equally equipped to churn out half-hearted mediocrity -- a fact which I'm afraid The Haunted House is something of a testament to.

That The Haunted House is, to put it charitably, a bit loosely plotted and nonsensical could be explained by the fact that it is, unlike the comparatively sure-handed Ismail Yassin's Phantom and Ismail Yassin's Tarzan, one of the rare Ismail Yassin joints not scripted by the comedian's friend and mentor, Abo El Seoud El Ebiary, who was a respected playwright and journalist in addition to being a prolific screenwriter. Fatin Abdel Wahab instead handles the screen writing duties here, in addition to directing, and is, given those double duties, I'm afraid incapable of escaping receipt of at least some of the blame for the fact that the end product is something of a mess. The worst crime here is that Yassin, one of the rare screen comedians of his era capable of not being annoying when used correctly, is not used correctly. Thus it follows, I'm sad to say, that he ends up being kind of annoying.

The movie begins in classic fashion, with a group of extremely disagreeable people showing up at an isolated old mansion for the reading of a will. As the decedent's executor helpfully informs us, this mansion is not only remote and creepy, but also situated on the border with Sudan, and thus susceptible not only to the depredations of supernatural beasties, but also to those of more natural beasties. And it is indeed not too long before the guests are being threatened by what is billed in the credits as "Gu-Gu The Gorilla", but which in reality is a man in an absolutely ridiculous gorilla costume (though, remarkably, still not as ridiculous as the one in Ismail Yassin's Tarzan). Fortunately for them, one of the prospective heirs slated to arrive at the gathering is a world famous big game hunter by the name Mr. Lionheart.

Lionheart turns out to be Ismail Yassin, playing a broad lampoon of the pith helmeted jungle adventurer, who makes his entrance on a grass palanquin carried by a procession of scarringly stereotypical B movie African natives. Of course, the audience quickly learns that Lionheart -- real name Morsi -- is a complete, cowardly fraud, and that the whole big game hunter bit is just an act. Even Morsi's "African chief" companion, who he refers to as "Ka-Ka", is merely a friend of his, Borai, to whom he is in financial debt, and who has agreed to take part in this masquerade in the belief that it will somehow put Morsi in a more favorable position vis a vis the inheritance. How this might be, however, is never explained, and it is one of The Haunted House's greatest flaws that this absurdly elaborate deception that is so central to its action is never demonstrated to have any real or perceived utility.

In any case, as the reading of the will reveals, it is the desire of the recently departed to unite his feuding descendants by forcing them to live together in his eerie old ruin of a home for a month in order to receive their share of his loot. Acting as somewhat of a disincentive to this is the fact that -- in addition to the other obvious disadvantages -- there is now a rampaging gorilla making his presence felt on the grounds. This is especially problematic for the decedent's high-strung niece, Lady Mourad, who, in one of the film's few truly funny bits, follows every encounter with the beast with an exclamation of, "The gorilla ate me!" However, since Lady Mourad's conventionally handsome son, Sherif, has struck up an instantaneous and potentially incestuous romance with his comely young cousin Aziza (requisite eye candy Thuraya Hilmi) her leaving is the last thing that either of these newly minted lovers wants to see happen. Thus Aziza, unaware that he is really a yellow bellied huckster, beseeches Morsi/Lionheart to use his hunterly skills to fell the animal.

And it is thus, through all the proceeding hijinks surrounding Morsi's bumbling pursuit of the Gorilla, that The Haunted House seems to give the lie to its title. That is, until the film's final third, when someone involved finally remembered that a film called The Haunted House should probably have a few ghosts in it. And these -- including a Falstaffian sultan who carries his head in his hands, a couple of sheet-covered Caspers, and a ceiling walking apparition -- are enough to distract us momentarily from how little sense or purpose everything else in the movie seems to have. Until, that is, The Haunted House goes all Scooby Doo on us, introducing a baffling subplot involving a counterfeiting ring that in turn leads to a cops-and-robbers style finale that is as uncalled for as it was unforeseeable.

Granted, while The Haunted House goes about its business of being an apparently off-the-cuff mess, it also makes a sincere attempt at entertaining us. There are songs, fanciful dream sequences, a couple of sexy belly dancing numbers (the film indeed has almost as much belly dancing as Flying Saucers Over Istanbul), and what must have been, for the time, a fairly racy striptease by Thuraya Hilmi. And while this compensates for a lot, none of it makes up for the apparent fact that nobody involved had a clue what to do with Ismail Yassin. As in films like Ismail Yassin's Tarzan, he is surrounded by an assortment of pompous upper class ninnies who are ripe for the take-down. But rather than using him as a playing-field-leveling anarchic force -- something that Abo El Seoud El Ebiary proved adept at doing -- Fatin Abdel Wahab merely chooses to use him as a standard issue, bumbling comic relief stooge.

This is truly a waste, because in the best of Yassin's films, the casting of him in the role of hero, despite his homely looks and coarseness of bearing, has an enormously appealing quality of subversion to it. Fatin Abdel Wahab scuttles any chance of this happening by instead casting a traditionally handsome leading man in the role of Sherif, who not only ends up with the girl, Aziza, but also manages to take part in the two-fisted derring-do of the film's finale while Yassin, meanwhile, is sidelined in a locked dungeon.

Still it must be said that, if you just want to luxuriate in the old school mystique that classic Egyptian cinema so often provides, The Haunted House has got you covered. The film shows the slickness typical of Egyptian productions of its era, and both Fatin Abdel Wahab and cinematographer Robert Tamia really know how to shoot in that dramatic, shadow strewn Universal horror movie style. If that's enough for you, I completely understand. Normally, it would be enough for me, too. It's just that, having watched a few of Yassin's films now, I know that, in addition to a cozily nostalgic visual style, they can also be possessed of a modicum of satirical intelligence.


Prof. Grewbeard said...

BELLY-DANCING!!! oh, i'm sorry, did you say this house is haunted?...

Todd said...

Yes, it's haunted by belly dancers.

Unknown said...

Are you planning on reviewing the Turkish Flash Gordon movie for 4DK?

Todd said...

Yes, even though that rascal Tars Tarkas has already beaten me to it.

Gialloman and DontIgnoreMe said...

Is this on DVD?