By Thomas Puhr.
One suspects that Bustillo and Maury are going through the motions until they can get to the next death set piece…. And it’s a shame, because they clearly have what it takes to make a great horror film. They already have done so, as a matter of fact.”
Kandisha (2020) opens with a long – especially by slasher standards – drone shot. The camera glides between two apartment blocks and approaches a distant shopping center. Just as their destination – a restaurant, where we will meet some of the key players – becomes apparent, writer-directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury prematurely cut to the building’s interior. Why begin with such a showy camera movement (the sequence is clearly modeled after the extended opening to Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960) only to stop short of taking us straight into the restaurant? These establishing shots, banal as they may seem, encapsulate the film’s fundamental strength and weakness: Moments of ambition are consistently belied by a lack of follow through.
The narrative follows three close friends whose lives unravel after one of them summons the titular demon, which originates from Moroccan folklore. There’s Morjana (Samarcande Saadi), who lives with her brother and is grieving the recent loss of her parents; Bintou (Suzy Bemba), the “rich one,” who has moved into a modest house with her beloved father; and Amélie (Mathilde Lamusse), the rebel of the group with a soft spot for her adolescent brother. The friends share not only a love for graffiti art (in one early scene, they collaborate on a memorial to Morjana’s parents) but also – as you may have noticed – a common closeness to male family members: a significant detail when we learn that Aicha Kandisha is typically depicted as a man-eating jinn.
After her ex-boyfriend, Farid (Brahim Hadrami), assaults and then attempts to rape her (she bites off a piece of his lip and escapes), Amélie calls upon the evil spirit for vengeance. The next day, the trio learn he has died after running into oncoming traffic; it was “like he was being chased,” a friend tells them. Could it be more than mere coincidence? Is the mythical figure real? In any case, the friends are understandably not too broken up about it (“He deserved it,” Morjana reassures Amélie); that is, not until the spirit starts killing off their friends and family. It turns out Kandisha, once summoned, is not satisfied until she takes six male souls in total (I suppose Morjana, who first tells her friends of the legend, didn’t read the fine print). The rest of the film is essentially a race against time to stop the curse.
We’ve see this all before, of course, but one caveat that makes this exercise slightly more interesting is that the female characters are all essentially immune. In a clever inversion of the “final girl” framework, it’s now the male characters being picked off one by one and the female characters stepping in to protect them. The accompanying horror clichés are all the same (when oh when will these stock characters learn not to wander off alone if all of their friends keep mysteriously dying?), but at least Bustillo and Maury play around with them a little. It helps, too, that the central actresses exude a natural chemistry; we buy into their friendship – and root for them to save the day – instantly. And it’s always most welcome to see other cultures incorporated into supernatural horror (not all demons are Catholic, after all), but such inclusion has less of an impact if the genre beats remain unchanged.
Those still traumatized by the filmmaking duo’s debut, 2007’s Inside, may sigh in relief at Kandisha’s comparatively cartoonish mayhem…. If Inside was their Salò (1975), then Kandisha is their The Evil Dead (1981).”
After Amélie and company warn their male friends and relatives about the curse, the latter are skeptical; while doing online research, Erwan (Sandor Funtek) notes how “Even on North African illuminati websites, nobody says Kandisha kills the men who hang out with the one who called her.” Even if the curse is real, these guys aren’t concerned; after all, they didn’t do anything. With this implication – the group is being punished for one man’s crimes – in mind, it’s hard not to think of the glib rationalizations (“It’s just a few bad apples,” etc.) which inevitably accompany public cases of sexual misconduct. It’s a tricky subtext (are Farid’s friends guilty by association?) to say the least, but Bustillo and Maury are either unwilling or unable to grapple with it. My gut tells me it’s a case of the former, as they seem far more interested in staging increasingly gruesome kills than in exploring any of the social issues they name check. I’m all for a brainless slasher now and then, but if you’re going to embed these fraught topics into your story, then at least give them the time and thought they deserve.
On the other hand, those still traumatized by the filmmaking duo’s debut, 2007’s Inside, may sigh in relief at Kandisha’s comparatively cartoonish mayhem (the sight of a man being torn in half, though repulsive, is difficult to take all that seriously when the perpetrator is a ten-foot tall, cloven-hoofed monster). If Inside was their Salò (1975), then Kandisha is their The Evil Dead (1981). Things they didn’t have to eschew in their transition to less extreme fare, though, were the suspense and style that sustained their earlier work and raised it well above the so-called “torture porn” sub-subgenre. Here, one suspects that Bustillo and Maury are going through the motions until they can get to the next death set piece (for what it’s worth, the practical effects are exceptional). And it’s a shame, because they clearly have what it takes to make a great horror film. They already have done so, as a matter of fact. Hopefully one day they will escape its shadow.
Kandisha was released on Shudder on July 22.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.