Fourteen years after Inside, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury might have another classic on their hands. Kandisha, the pair’s most recent film, is as full of ideas about class, race, and the lingering effects of colonialism as it is of spooky sequences and gore.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that the pitch for the film was “Candyman meets La Haine” but the simplicity of that connection belies its potential. The film opens at the start of summer break for three friends: white Amélie (Mathilde La Musse), black Bintou (Suzy Bemba), and Arab Morjana (Samarcande Saadi). The trio regularly graffiti an abandoned building in their neighborhood and one night, as they tear away some peeling wallpaper, they discover “Kandisha” written on a wall. Morjana tells her friends the story of Aicha Kandisha, a legendary Moroccan woman who seduced and murdered Portuguese invaders before becoming a jinn who can be summoned to seek revenge on men.
Shortly thereafter Amélie is attacked by her abusive ex on a late night walk home and after escaping, she uses her blood to draw the requisite pentagram to call forth the demon, who makes quick work of the ex.
In theory this could be the beginning of a supernatural rape-revenge style film where Amélie harnesses Kandisha’s powers to kill other abusers, but sadly the demon has plans of her own. She begins to kill other men in the girls’ lives. After some (standard for a folklore/urban legend based horror movie) debate about whether these deaths are coincidental or the effect of summoning a real supernatural being, the trio resolve to revoke Kandisha’s invitation into their lives.
This plot isn’t brilliantly original, but the setting in a lower class neighborhood with three friends of different races and the fact that it is the white girl who calls forth the Moroccan legend with little understanding of her (the demon’s) power makes Kandisha a fascinating watch. It doesn’t skimp on the genre fare either. While it’s nowhere near as brutally violent as Inside or its New French Extremity siblings High Tension and Martyrs, Kandisha offers some horrifyingly gory deaths and a painfully slow animal sacrifice scene that is sure to rattle even the most hardened horror fans. These scenes of violence may in fact be more impactful given their relative infrequency, though they also feel a bit odd in what is very much a supernatural and not a visceral story. And yet they work, because the film manages to meld the extreme violence with the spectral through a number of sequences that tread well-worn haunting figure ground with grace before emphasizing the more monstrous aspects of the demon. It also helps that all of the actors keep every aspect of the film emotionally grounded through their performances. There’s nothing particularly showy, but you never doubt for a second that these girls have been friends all their lives and that they desperately want to save the men who they love.
Kandisha is also remarkable for offering a non-Catholic exorcism sequence in a western film. The sequence isn’t particularly original beyond its basis in Islam rather than Catholicism, but it lends the film’s themes some heft as Amélie must turn to a tradition that is not hers for help.
The third act of the film loses momentum and stumbles a bit in some unnecessary repetitions, and some of the effects work is less than perfect, but overall Kandisha is one of the most thematically rich and genuinely haunting horror movies to come out of France in recent years.
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