Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo became instant cause celebres of the New French Extreme back in 2007, with their incredible debut, Inside. An incredibly tense, claustrophobic and brutal experience, in which a vengeful woman attempts to rip a baby from its mother’s womb, it has remained a touchstone of that brief movement, held in the same gory regard as Clare Denis‘ Trouble Every Day, Alexandre Aja‘s High Tension, and Pascal Laugier‘s Martyrs. That infamous work has also proved as much millstone for the pair as touchstone, with subsequent films failing to leave quite the same mark, not least the ill-advised and superfluous origin story Leatherface. Their latest effort Kandisha also fails to hit their early heights, but is a satisfying modern slasher in its own right, if more than a little indebted to one particular modern classic.
Three friends, Amélie (Mathilde Lamusse), Bintou (Suzy Bemba), and Morjana (Samarcande Saadi) spend their time hanging out with friends, and graffitiing a condemned tenement block. Inside the building they find a reference to the jinn ‘Aicha Kandisha’. Morjana, of Moroccan descent, explains that she takes the form of a beautiful woman with hooves, who rises to take vengeance against men. That evening Amélie is attacked by an ex-boyfriend. She unthinkingly summons the demon by drawing a pentagram in her blood and calling the jinn’s name five times. The next morning the boy is reported dead. To Amélie’s horror, the demon is not content, and begins to carve an indiscriminate swathe through all the men in the girls’ lives.
If the idea of a legendary killer who can be summoned from the dead by calling their name sounds familiar, then you would be right. Kandisha harks back to Bernard Rose‘s Candyman, not merely in terms of its vengeful undead villain, but in its foregrounding of mythology interacting with a specific, distinctly working-class environment. Aicha Kandisha may not be omnipresent in the minds of the residents of Amélie’s neighbourhood as Candyman is for the inhabitants of Calibri-Green, but is still hauled into our realm through a modern version of the oral storytelling that spreads such legends. Maury and Bustillo’s take on such things is more visceral, and less humanistic than Rose’s. Kandisha nods at the #MeToo movement, but the duo are gore fiends first and foremost, and by the second act the film is a barrelling boulder of escalating bloodshed. Hugely impressive bloodshed, albeit lacking in tension and genuine scares, as Kandisha hurls her victims from windows, crushing skulls with her hooves, and generally tears the luckless men asunder. It is also left slightly methodical and familiar in its storytelling mechanics, given its structural, as well as spiritual debt to that pesky Candyman. It is, however, gratifying to see another culture represented in a horror film. Aicha Kandisha here a parallel spirit to La Llarona, Yuki-onna, or any number of European ‘White Lady’ legends. However, therein lies another potential problem.
One could easily take issue with the material as presented by two white men. It is, of course, not unusual for the horror genre to be evaluated through a progressive lens, which should be of no impediment to making challenging and provocative films. If you’re being generous to Maury and Bustillo, you could even argue that Aicha Kandisha represents a reversal of the male gaze in the slasher genre, with us left guessing which luckless male will be next to be butchered. But, as with Sam Raimi‘s depiction of Roma characters and legends in Drag Me to Hell, there is something retrograde in the way that it depicts a non-white ‘other’ as monstrous. That said, the mythology of the jinn hasn’t been used often, and Maury and Bustillo offer a compelling and memorable antagonist, particularly in her guise of a bare-breasted temptress with goats’ hooves.
The duo certainly deserve credit for their evocative world building. The depiction of the girls’ environment feels grounded and authentic. You could almost believe it was all taking place at the next banlieue to the heroines of Girlhood. Their relationship with each other is a cultural melting pot, with mixed-race relationships seemingly the norm, and racial epithets tossed freely between the trio. Interestingly, it’s only when the notion of class is mentioned that there is any friction. Bintou bristles when she’s mockingly called bourgeois because her family have moved from a high-rise to a little house. All three actresses are thoroughly believable as long-standing friends, and engaging as protagonists; flawed, but fierce, resourceful, and loyal to a fault.
For all that Kandisha has some stumbling blocks that mean it falls someway short of their formidable debut, Maury and Bustillo have made a thoroughly decent contemporary slasher film that attempts a sideways glance at society, even if there is a whiff of orientalism in its DNA. Very much in its favour is the foregrounding of female stories. How often do we see final girls tackling a female killer, albeit one whose tragic origin story isn’t afforded a whole lot of empathy, told as it is purely as exposition? Very flawed, yet very entertaining, even when not firing on all cylinders, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo can be relied on to provide a well-crafted short, sharp, and nasty shock.
Available on Shudder from Thu 22 Jul 2021