Whether or not they have a dramatic-artistic justification, sequels always capitalise on the commercial prospects of the original movie.
Five years ago Al-Fil Al-Azraq (The Blue Elephant) grossed LE8 million in the first week of its release. Its sequel, released last Thursday, made over LE4 million on its first two days of screening. It is the fourth collaboration between filmmaker Marawan Hamed and novelist Ahmed Mourad, after The Blue Elephant (2014), Al-Asleyeen (The Originals, 2017) and Torab Al-Mas (Diamond Dust, 2018).
Hamed’s ninth long fiction film since his 2006 debut Emaret Yacoubian (Yacoubian Building), based on Alaa Al-Aswani’s novel and written by his father the celebrated screenwriter Wahid Hamed. It is clear that Marawan Hamed has been planning his career very carefully.
Though it appeared to be a new genre in Egyptian cinema, as a horror-thriller The Blue Elephant was in fact preceded by such films as Youssef Wahbi’s Safeer Gohannam (The Ambassador of Hell, 1945) and several 1980s films such as Mohamed Radi’s Al-Ens wal Jinn (Humans and Jinns, 1985) and Mohammed Shebl’s Al-Ta’awidha (The Talisman, 1987) that nonetheless suffered from weak visual effects and overacting.
The Blue Elephant 2 opens at the Abbasiya Mental Health Hospital in the homicide section, “8 West”. A new murderer named Farida (Hend Sabry) who killed her husband and her child is being held in that section. She won’t speak to anyone but Dr Yahia Rashed, who left the hospital five years ago. The second sequence in the film is exactly like the first Blue Elephant. The main character, psychiatrist Yahia Rashed (Karim Abdel-Aziz), is sleeping in a chair in a balcony in front of the Nile in daylight, then he wakes up.
The camera trails him as he enters the room, where we realise he had been drinking whisky when he passed out in his seat at the bar. This reminds the viewer of the protagonist’s personality: a careless heavy drinker and smoker who gives in to the temptation of evil.
These details were very important in building the characteristics of Yahia in the first film, paving the road to his use of a new drug called the Blue Elephant. A DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) pill, this is a hallucinogen much more powerful than LSD (as Maya, the girlfriend who gives it to him, explains) and it ushers him through the rabbit hole back in time to the era of the Mamelukes where he discovers the demon Nael, who is behind the murder his friend Sherif Al-Kordy (Khaled Al-Sawy) was framed for. In the new film Yahia is married to Lubna Al-Kordy (Nelly Karim), a relationship introduced in the first film.
After receiving a call from the hospital Yahia meets with the new director of 8 West, Akram (Eyad Nassar), who graduated in Europe and is trying to apply modern methods in the land of superstition and hallucination.
The plot in the first film was based on a smart game of questions between Sherif-Nael and Yahia, as the latter tries to help his old friend by solving the murder he is accused of committing while the demon Nael tries to manipulate him. Now we discover that Nael has returned in the body of Farida and is once again trying to take revenge on Yahia.
The structure of the drama here is very similar to the structure of the plot of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). In both films the protagonist has fewer and fewer days before losing his family one by one. In the British film, the Greek filmmaker didn’t care to explain the mysterious power of the young villain because he was more interested in the philosophical notion of choice, but inThe Blue Elephant 2 Hamed and Mourad find their explanation in the world of magic and demons.
The script in the first film was full of detail in characterisation and action, which is more than can be said for the present offering, which glosses over such elements as the tattoo artist Dega or Khadiga (Sherin Reda), who used a tattoo on a the leg of Sherif’s wife to summon a Jinn to make him desire her again and ended up with more than she had bargained for. The acting is moderate in both films, but Karim Abdel-Aziz is not as good in the second as he was in the first, perhaps due to the way the character is written.
Hend Sabry’s performance as the villain does not live up to those of Khaled Al-Sawy and Mohamed Mamdouh. Evidently inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1992), Hamed had created a dream circus for Yahia to be in after taking the pill. This time his attempts at visual play are not as successful.
All in all The Blue Elephant 2 is not a bad film but it is not on the same level as The Blue Elephant.
In both films, Hisham Nazih’s music — which mixes Sufi tradition and poetry with rock and Western melody — is among the most powerful elements.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Of demons and tattoos
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