In 2004, Tobe Hooper returned to cinema after wasting nearly a decade relegated to the thankless job of craftsman in television series and two features that had similar productions, where he exercised little control over the material. Although they should not be totally ignored, neither showed any sort of significant progress in his career, and even when the requirements of the script resembled his own interests, as in The Apartment Complex (1998), the result did not exceed redundancy if placed alongside the masterpieces created in the nineties, such as Spontaneous Combustion (1990) and The Mangler (1995), formally anomalous films which further explicitated the retrograde character of Hooper’s project and its deliberate lack of communication with all contemporary cinema. Not adjusting well to the creative impositions of the medium, to the increasing adherence to all sort of trends forced by marketing necessities, it is only logical that this period of stagnation would take the director to Toolbox Murders (2004), the consequence of profound self-reflection, and Mortuary (2005), which inevitably dragged him to the realm of self-parody, overwhelmed by the ontological obscenity of the genre pictures of its time (despite having several merits).
Toolbox Murders, nominally the remake of a 1978 slasher, restored the director’s power over his work in this opportune period. It is an inversion of the fundamental structure of The Funhouse (1981): the superficial universe, where the characters abide, is no longer dominated by vulgarized representations of horror and (in that case) the central problems of teen movies (which were, in the end, balanced – the discovery of horror and death followed the discovery of sexuality and perversion), and those conventions or fantasies conceived to dissimulate horror vanish as memories in the ruins of that space, a decadent hotel in Hollywood (obviously), which is mainly inhabited by unemployed actors. An accentuated distinction between the damned environment contained in the bilocation and the one where the protagonist lives still exists, but its turning point is the opposite: the protagonist does not enter the place where the monster lives to confront the evil lying behind the disguises (in the funhouse, the assassin hid his deformed face with a mask of Frankenstein’s monster), because it is this alternate universe, as well as home or the amusement park in The Funhouse, that is subjugated to the genre’s formulas, to clichés, it is what restricts the film to the standard procedures of slasher movies and their most despicable properties, like the inordinate graphic violence Hooper always resisted filming (and, when he did, took the proper distance, emphasizing its gratuity).
Toolbox Murders is, overall, a clash between its subjection to an efficient exercise of vulgar cinema and the possibility to formulate, at least partially, a resolution to thematic and formal precepts that were outlined decades before, and in this respect the script proves to be ideal: the artificiality of the building allows the director to devote a major portion of the film to people walking through corridors, to empty rooms, building tension only in its suggestion of offscreen space, along with his usually exquisite work in sound, always revealing new edges by exploring the limitations of the frame, in short, Hooper’s mastery, the more an environment is studied, the more mysterious and enigmatic it seems, thus demonstrating he is Jacques Tourneur’s greatest heir.
Finally we get to Djinn (2014), which again marks the director’s return after a long (involuntary) hiatus of eight years, after another brief passage through television with two films for the Masters of Horror series (where, at least, he had creative freedom). For better or for worse, just like Tourneur, the filmmaker assumes his position as a metteur en scène commissioned to meet the requirements of someone else’s project, at last accepting to develop his personal discourse within the demands of the producers or the screenplay, in a sense, it is a counterpoint to Toolbox Murders, his approach no longer makes the distinction between what is determined by trivial populist exigencies (the clichés) and a particular insight. So, when it gets a proper distribution, due to the widespread intellectual slothfulness of contemporary critics, it is probable that Djinn will be promptly dismissed (perhaps ravaged or ridiculed would be better terms), as has been the reception so far with screenings in a few festivals. It is an easy target and it is clear that such critics made no effort to look beyond its categorization as a generic by-product, the bareness of its premise, the troubled production, et cetera. Hooper is completely conscious of these restrictions and makes the most of them, after all it is one of the rare films I have seen in the last few years where there is genuine effort in experimentation with form and that simultaneously attempts to get rid of every excess, taking the B movie mold as a long process of denudation of his own cinema, of revitalization through the discovery of what is essential to it (similar to the work done by other great auteurs in 2014, such as Abel Ferrara and Kiyoshi Kurosawa).
Hooper understands the mediocrity of the script, knows that all its ideas end up underdeveloped, but it is exactly the absence of depth and simplicity of the story that enables the director’s achievements through staging, interpreting the scenario as a general concept to be reformulated according to the diverse nuances he finds, hence the necessity of structural minimalism, the persistence in repetitions, although not extending it to the internal movement of scenes, always meticulously detailed. It is not difficult to relate what Hooper does here with Lucio Fulci’s approach to horror, especially from the eighties onwards, beginning with very close premises, which verged on inanity, abstracting its issues to the maximum, trying to transcend the narrative and going straight to the basic codes of the genre, depurating it to the point where only its primary elements are exposed. Everything that was description, every concept that could not be transfigured in form, should disappear.
As with Fulci, horror is overly physical, and I am not talking about dismemberments, but rather about putting everything in evidence, something that is directly linked to what Hooper realized at least since the nineties, with spatial containment that emphasized a theatrical aspect of his staging, based on reconfigurations of positioning, on rigid and repetitive movement confined to small areas, thus delimiting the characters’ whole existence. The effect used to be anti-psychologizing, more interested in the course of actions than their motivations, but in Djinn our attention is oriented almost entirely to the reactions of its characters, to gestures, subtle details in the performances, following up what was done in the first half of Salem’s Lot (1979), with its fragmentation into multiple narrative blocks that discreetly revealed the city’s corruption by the evil presence through estrangement of the inhabitants’ behavior, horror emerged from the quotidian before being embodied by the vampire, it was covered by a surface of normality. The family drama at the center of Djinn would fit quite well as one of the digressions of that miniseries’ storyline.
Djinn also is, consequently, Hooper’s most humane film. The fact that it consists almost exclusively in “people walking through corridors”, like Toolbox Murders, makes the divergence in its treatment even more perceptible: he abandons his calculated, sober, functional, structurally rigid style, with perfectly punctuated ruptures, the artificiality of some representations, intentionally caricatural, and his tendency to intellectualism (just notice the difference regarding the editing to The Funhouse or Poltergeist), here the camera is constantly immersed in the perspective of the characters, he denies the conflict between what the frame informs us and what expresses the actor’s performance, which before was abundant, the focus is solely on elucidating what they sense, any distance from the material would be inconsistent with its proposal, which now displays a more affective side, going far beyond his typical pseudo-expressionistic ambitions that brought brief moments of emotional exposure, in Djinn the form must become abstract, raw, primitive, since the rule is frontality when complex emotions are adressed.
Therefore, the extreme adherence to confinement (almost the entire film takes place inside an apartment, in a building where all floors look the same and nothing can be seen on the outside) turns it into the best example of Hooper’s proficiency in temporal and spatial manipulation, because of the text’s debility, all characterization, all meaning is drawn from that. The instant this gets more explicit comes with the sudden change of protagonists, already in the final half, abruptly charging the film with stark contrasts, transforming our whole perception of that reduced universe depending on the adopted perspective, of the wife or the husband. Initially, the most remarkable characteristic of the first part, led by the wife, was certainly the steep imbalance of his compositions, only highlighted in the way it fractures the typically cautious and patient progress of his shots, a way of withholding the development of interactions, of rough dialogues, gradually accumulating tension that is never released. The montage immediately resembles what he had already drafted in the Masters of Horror series, particularly in the most successful episode, Dance of the Dead (2005), but contrary to what was done in that small movie, the resourse here is not employed to be objectively uncomfortable, the disruptions are synthetic and not a nearly complete departure from the extraordinary elegance in Hooper’s command of the mise-en-scène, he takes a step forward, combines the unsettling tension that results from the compressed cuts and constant juxtaposition of dissonant shots with a scenic construction closer to his previous films, far from obvious and direct, but heavily dependent on the power of suggestion. In this part, very little is made explicit, and as the movie advances, the rupture of the established pattern is inevitable, but instead of bringing one instant of respite, stresses even further unrest and suffering.
Almost an uninterrupted sequence, the first vision begins when the couple arrives at the hotel, and all the area wherein the action will occur is integrally presented by the husband. Gradually, when revisited, or when the shot is extended for a few seconds longer, the space is estranged. What follows are intrusive sounds, oblique framings, offbeat movements and modulations of light and color in the voids his compositions enhance, always insinuating the presence of something that does not reveal itself, that does not act. With the isolation of the protagonist, the abrupt cuts give way to careful temporal dilation, culminating in the moment that divides the film and its rigorous fragmentation is abandoned, a sequence-shot of her desperate reaction, praying to get rid of the spirit, in the dramatically most elaborate shot of the whole film, proceeding with its single forthright dialogue, right after the character crumbles emotionally, a simple shot-countershot filled by the oppressive hollowness of the apartment that still manages to retain all the expressivity of the actress, even with the body attenuated by the frame, in a confrontation with the past, a process of “denudation”, also formal, as mentioned before.
From this point on, the brief indications of the damned locus to which we have never access disappear (for example, when the woman is seen through an unknown space, indicated by the moldings in wall decorations), Hooper denies his traditional materialization of the bilocation, of the clear divisions that restricted the manifestation of evil by the necessity of an intersection (even in Poltergeist, with which it shares similarities). In Djinn, evil ultimately invades the entire space, and its victims are condemned, from the outset, to reside in it. In the second half we see the denouement of this clash, decomposing the previously established logic, making time elliptical, the repetitions more constant (of situations, of recurring voices and images which determine the actions), the ubiquitous white and light of the apartment are replaced by warm colors and profuse shadows, the voids become chasms, it is the complete disintegration of the place’s definitions, recalling the best days of Dario Argento.
This section alone should already ensure that Djinn would placed among the few really necessary entries in contemporary horror, bringing to mind the golden era of the genre, yet still capable of exposing new aesthetic propositions, taking risks, exceeding cheap effects and artifices. In fact, one sequence consisting only of this (with an explanatory narration for the origin of the curse followed by a predictable chase scene, inspired by the most banal slashers, the single one with an American tourist, of course) just denotes its rejection of easy mechanisms for immediate sensations in the remainder of the film, such as the scene where the ghost of a relative returns to the apartment, a typical device for creating suspense is utilized, showing the audience something the character does not know, yet its usual objective is thwarted, it is not a means to forge a scare, its unfolding makes the spectator conscious of the tragedy beyond what can be synthesized by expository narration or flashbacks, vague descriptions, even false, of the horror that is later witnessed (the aforementioned sequence concludes in a close of Razane Jammal bidding farewell to her family, nothing could be further from a generic and dishonest trick).
In sum, an anomaly, the result of an unsophisticated project, with modest ambitions, and with all the reported problems of its post-production evident in the final cut (the excessive graphism of the last scene does not help to disguise the studio interference), but Hooper’s rigorous and precise direction, like I had not seen since Eggshells (1969) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), turns it into one his finest works, and the slight irregularity just gives greater prominence to its multiple moments of greatness.