Once upon a time, Eid season – be it Eid Al-Fitr or Eid Al-Adha – was something to look forward to for movie goers. Stars like Adel Imam on one side and Nadia Al-Gendi or Nabila Ebeid on the other would generate real competition, and people would look forward to that time of year. From the late 1980s to the 2000s Imam – often collaborating with screenwriter Wahid Hamed and filmmaker Sherif Arafa – was the iconic comedy megastar whose new work not only Egyptians but Arabs everywhere awaited.
His films would tell a typically simple story while tackling a serious social issue. Nader Galal’s Salam Ya Sahby (Goodbye My Friend, 1987), starring Said Saleh, Sawsan Badr and Mustafa Metwalli alongside Imam, was a huge hit. So was Mohamed Abdel-Aziz’s Hanafi Al-Obaha (His Highness Hanafi, 1988), co-starring Farouk Al-Fishawi, Hoda Ramzi and Ragaa Al-Geddawi. Imam’s major landmark Al-Irhab wal Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab, 1992), co-starring then rising comedians Alaa Walieddine and Ashraf Abdel-Baki alongside Youssra, Ahmed Rateb and Youssef Dawoud, was an unprecedented success. A lesser if no less interesting take on terrorism was Nader Galal’s Al-Erhaby (The Terrorist, 1994), co-starring Madiha Youssry, Salah Zulfakar, Sherine and Hanan Shawki. But Imam changed tack in Bekheit wi Adila (Bekheit and Adila), opposite Sherine, and the film grossed unexpected revenues. Once again it featured Walieddine alongside then rising comedians Mohamed Henedi and Suliman Eid. Such films relied on the Eid season as much as Imam’s popularity. Sadly, the current film industry would not support such success.
Since 2010 the quality of Eid films has dropped consistently, and of the seven films available this season perhaps Wael Abdallah’s 3D supernatural horror-stroke-murder mystery-stroke psychological thriller Youm 13 (The 13th), starring Ahmed Dawoud and Dina Al-Sherbiny, is the most revealing. Aside from bad 3D glasses at the theatre, which ruined the experience for many viewers besides myself, the film not only disappoints. It also demonstrates just how little of the cache of the traditional Eid season remains today.
After an announcement that it is based on a true story, the film opens with Ezzeddine (Ahmed Dawoud) drowning in the bath, an enormous chandelier dropping over his head. This turns out to be a dream he is having on the plane, on his way back to his homeland from Canada. After a late-night trip from the airport in the company of a humorous taxi driver (Mohamed Tharwat), he reaches his family mansion which, as the doorman tells him, is haunted and cannot be entered at night. He sleeps at a hotel, returning the next day to oversee the space being cleaned by the doorman and his wife, who experiences a frightening incident that leaves her bedridden. Ezzeddine also meets with his lawyer (Magdi Kamel), who was also his father’s best friend, and his wife (Dina Al-Sherbiny). As it gradually – and predictably – turns out that Ezzeddine’s mother was killed in her room – on her birthday, which happens to be the 13th of the month – the bad luck brought about by that is the only element that holds Abdalla’s screenplay together.
All the tired tropes of the haunted house thriller are included, but they don’t amount to a coherent story or deliver a gripping experience. The cinematography and score do not help, neither does the fact that the characters have no depth whatsoever. A spiritual healer (Sherif Mounir) agrees to spend the night at the house, after which he prescribes a reenactment of that birthday night with the aim of identifying the killer who – spoiler alert! – turns out to be Ezzeddine himself. This is an awkward and absurd ending that is not properly developed in dramatic terms and ends up making no sense. After a film that has failed to move the viewer in any way despite employing all the trappings of the genre – at one point the lawyer’s wife is glued to the ceiling – it is a truly exasperating denouement.
Few Egyptian horror movies have been any good. Two older ones at least had a coherent story and compelling acting: Al-Ins wel Jin (Humans and Djin, 1985), starring Adel Imam and Youssra and directed by Mohamed Radi; and Al-Taawiza (The Talisman, 1987), starring Youssra and Mahmoud Yassin and directed by Mohamed Shebl. Ahmed Khaled’s Abwab Al-Khouf (Fear Doors, 2011) starring Amr Waked, was disappointing but not as much as Yom 13, which has neither vision nor skill, and ends up feeling like a waste of time.
A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.