Pulp fiction has had a long and prosperous history in Arabic. In 1993, the Modern Arab Association publishing company started several series of genre novels for teenagers, one of which – a supernatural horror series entitled Ma Waraa Al Tabiaa (Paranormal) – was written by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, a Tanta-based physician whose prolific commercial fiction career has been having a revival since he died at the age of 55 in 2018.
Paranormal (1993-2014) is often credited with keeping young people reading in the age of audiovisual media.
This month, coproduced by Mohamed Hefzy and Waleed Al-Sabbagh, Amr Salama’s eponymous drama series inspired by the novels was launched on Netflix. Created by Salama and cowritten by him (with Mahmoud Ezzat, Omar Khaled and Dina Maher), the series is executive-produced by Salama with many of the episodes also directed by him (and others by Maged Al-Ansary).
Little or no supernatural horror had appeared on Egyptian television since the first broadcast in 1960 when the 2009 series Abwab Al-Khof (The Doors of Fear) aired on MBC, with only thrillers and crime dramas incorporating a horror dimension. Directed by Ahmed Khaled, it focused on the investigative reporter Adam (Amr Waked) who follows the paranormal, with each issue having its own story.
Paranormal has similar structure, with the drama revolving around Dr Refaat Ismail (Ahmed Amin), a hematologist who doesn’t believe in the supernatural though when his life is threatened by the unknown he becomes an active expert helping others with their experiences.
The first episode seemed very promising as Salama presented the atmosphere surrounding the main character, giving the audience a detailed description of his personality, family members and his worries. He is a man who has just turned 40, unlike the Refaat Ismail of the novels who is in his mid-60s, but he too is a heavy smoker who cannot easily express what’s on his mind.
The script manages to use that point to introduce the female figure Magi (Razan Gamal), who used to be his colleague when he was earning his PhD in Scotland. Magi is not only his former colleague but also his crush, but he remained unable to develop the relationship into a real love story until he was back in Egypt and she was married. Now, divorced, she suddenly appears in Egypt on an academic mission eager to regain his love while his elder sister is trying to marry him to his relative Howaida (Aya Samaha), and so a romantic dimension is introduced.
The episode opens with a narration by Dr Refaat telling the audience about his beliefs and his worries, especially Murphy’s Law which states: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” But there are also Refaat’s Laws, which explain his miserable and mysterious life.
The supernatural incident in the episode is what happened to Refaat and the whole family when they were young in 1940 in their village near Al-Mansoura. The children would play near a seemingly haunted palace owned by Al-Khadrawy family, and the little girl called Shiraz who plays with them is actually a vicious ghost eager to kill Refaat, eventually becoming a lifelong hallucination.
But the unconvincing twist in the sixth episode is how Shiraz turns out to be a spiritual ally helping Refaat avoid the traps of Lucifer, who manifests as his colleague Leo (Karim Al-Hakim).
Salama and the scriptwriters made a very risky choice when they decided to create a single solid story, which wasn’t the case when Tawfik started to create his series 27 years ago. As he created a different adventure in each book, only the protagonist remains the same, accompanied by a few other secondary heroes.
The script alters Tawfik’s novels, combining more than one adventure in one episode and changing the details of some secondary characters, and the result is that the second and the third episodes are not as coherent as the first. It seems Salama made that strategic change in the structure because he felt that the tempo of the drama should be faster than the novels, more similar to American horror, which requires more events in each episode.
By looking at the visual art behind some of the scenes, what is more, it is that Tawfik’s novels are not the only source. The creators might be inspired by the visual effects of the horror film Constantine directed by Francis Lawrence in 2005. The film starred Keanu Reeves in the role of John Constantine, a supernatural investigator and demon slayer.
The similarities between the TV series and the film are that the main characters are heavy smokers who might have nihilist thoughts. In the fifth episode, Refaat’s cat is killed by Al-Gathoum, a demon that appears in Refaat’s dreams. While John uses a cat to enter hell in search of evidence for a strange suicide, in his dreams, Refaat also enters a hell-like space where he meets with his brother Reda.The visual similarities are very clear.
However, on the professional level, the creator and the acting crew worked very hard to create a convincing character. The role of Refaat will definitely make a big difference in Ahmed Amin’s career now that he has gone past his status as a comedian and satirist known for YouTube and TV comedy shows like El Break and El Plauteau before starring in full fledged dramas.
Paranormal could be a turning point for other actors like Karim Al-Hakim (Leo), a director of photography who hadn’t acted much, Razan Gamal (Magi) who is a British-Lebanese actress who sounded convincingly Scottish, Sama Ibrahim (Raifa, Refaat’s sister), a theatre director and a set designer.
Despite glitches like the desert monster El-Assass in the third episode, Paranormal also shows a high level of professionalism regarding interior design, accessories and cinematography on the whole.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly