Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Fangs: The Egyptian Rocky Horror (1981)

Gather round, my dear readers. Did you happen to know that there's an Egyptian remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show containing Dracula as the villain, and heavy satire on Egyptian economics of the 1980s?...Why are you staring at me like that?...

The young couple Ali and Mona are headed for a party when their car gets a flat tire. Stuck in the pouring rain and without a spare, the two lovers decide to trek through the bad weather to a house they passed by in hopes of using the telephone. Things are immediately off though, with this eerie house being filled with strange music, and bizarre people. Soon, the lord of the house awakens-Count Dracula! Whatever he could possibly want with Mona and Ali, one can be sure it's not good...

The 1981 film Anyab comes from director and writer Mohammed Shebl, and co-writers Hassn Abd-Raboo and Tarek Sharara, and is largely a remake of the famous cult musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For the first couple of acts, this is a really faithful remake, recreating several scenes, and using similar songs in similar places. The Criminologist is even present as the narrator. Differences and deviations start popping up soon enough though, and one of them is actually a lack of deviancy! A lot of what's in Rocky Horror probably wouldn't have gotten past the local censors of the time, and thus all of the transvestitism, homosexuality, incest, etc are gone, and replacing Frank-N-Furter is Count Dracula! Yes, really! Well, better than showing a watered down and tame version of Frankie, I guess, but it's a weird addition! On top of all that, it's about halfway through the movie when the really strange happens. But more on that later.

Delving further into the Rocky Horror connection, this is definitely a remake rather than a ripoff. A presumably unauthorised one, but a remake for sure. There's even a moment where there's a visual nod to the 1975 film. A little unsubtle, but at least it's showing its inspiration upfront. As for the context, the Egyptian populace of the time might not necessarily have been familiar with some of what Rocky Horror homaged, but they were familiar with other bits of Western pop culture, and Fangs showcases or lampoons them in similar ways to, say, Charles Atlas in RHPS. This is most prominent in a fight scene near the end that riffs on the 60s Batman Series. As for the use of Dracula, that actually makes sense in an odd sort of way. He is from Transylvania after all...

Some more omissions from the original are Rocky and that entire Frankenstein narrative, Eddie and Dr. Scott, as well as Magenta and Columbia. Really, Fangs almost stops being a remake as soon as Dracula first shows up. One the other end of the spectrum, Shebl may not have been able to actually recreate them with the censors breathing down his necks, but he does deliver a subtle but noticeable nod to the dual bedroom scenes.

Onto the story, it's not all that great. It starts off well, but it really starts to drag a bit after Dracula's first mention. There's a lot of music playing, and it is nice but it feels like it should lead up to something, like a big musical number, and it never does. We just see the partygoers dancing, and dancing, and dancing, and dancing, while every now and then we see Dracula sloooowly getting out of his coffin. Things briefly liven up, but only for Drac to sing a song, so still not story progression. Following that is a dinner scene, and it's not bad, but there's not a great deal of dialogue, and this bogs the proceedings down quite a bit. If we're nearly 40 minutes in, you need hurry up and tell the story already!

Then comes the second half, and boy do things take one hell of a downturn here! This is the point when the movie decides to be satirical, and shows random vignettes of everyday people being screwed over by real life vampires in the form of money grubbing salesmen, taxi drivers, tutors, doctors, etc. (all starring the leads in various different roles, with Dracula always being the victimiser). Firstly, these scenes are pretty clumsy, all coming right after the other in a barrage, only cutting back to the 'Criminologist' laughing hysterically for a few seconds before moving right on to the next one, etc. They get tiring very quickly, and they never end! This part of the movie lasts a painful 17 minutes! May not sound like much, but when there's a new vignette every 2 minutes, it feels way longer. It's hard to overstate how much this move completely kills the tone of the movie, as well as any connection to Rocky Horror. What had come before was so faithful, which makes the diversions that much more bizarre!

Once that's over and done with, the movie FINALLY gets back to the plot, and at this stage I was pissed off, all my good will for the film having been burnt out. To pull me back in, it'd have to work extra hard! Thankfully, it does! The last half hour of the movie is by far the best, with the story coming together, some neat character progression, and a great finale! Not only is the climax really well-handled in the visual and effects departments, but the ending is a pretty sweet one too, spending time wrapping the movie up at its own pace, with beautiful visuals, like when the young lovers are happily running together in a sparse landscape, and as the camera pulls back, we see pyramids in the distance.

I bet you're eagerly wondering what the music is like in Fangs, and how it compares to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. At first it's as abundant in musical numbers as the original, as it speeds along with the opening track right into a Dammit Janet analogue, and a There's a Light one a short time afterwards. There's a bit of a lull following this, and any Rocky fan will be expecting a Time Warp style rendition, but it never comes, and the next song takes nearly 20 minutes to arrive. The interlude really takes the wind from the movie's musical sails, but it's able to get back on its feet with three further tracks in the final act.

The songs themselves are quite good! Some of them I liked plenty, while others not as much. The biggest issue pretty much all of them face is the repetition of lyrics to pad the tunes out. This isn't so much a problem in some songs like Where's the Light, or Everything Looks Like Everything, not because it's not present, but because those songs flow better with the lyrics in that style. Meanwhile, the repetition is at its worst in the I Can Be So Ruthless number. It does have some good lyrics, and it doesn't sound bad, but there's just a little too much filler.

The remainder of the score is positively groovy! I applaud the composers of this movie.

While most of the soundtrack is original, there's some lifted music present, but for parody purposes, such as using the James Bond theme when a plumber arrives to fix a problem during the satire interlude. That works. The Clockwork Orange theme when we're back to the actual somewhat serious movie though? Not so much! At least that fits better than the William Tell Overture that plays a bit later! At least I think that's in the public domain.

It's hard to describe this movie's genre in a way. It's of course mainly a horror and a musical, but no normal horror flicks get interrupted by economic lecturing on financial instability for half an hour. Is it a comedy? Maybe, but the satire scenes aren't funny-They're more matter-of-fact. There are a couple of amusing lines in the rest of the film, but any levity comes about more from the somewhat deliberately goofy nature of the setting and genre trappings. Certain scenes are actually aided by the movie being more of a horror. The made-up vampire extras actually succeed in being legitimately a bit spooky due to their blank stares and lack of dialogue. The dinner scene has a sense of unease, though it doesn't end with quite as much punch as Rocky Horror.

The effects are for the most part really quite good, especially in the finale! I don't want to spoil too much, but it gets full on 'climax of Evil Dead' there! The fangs look pretty good too, which is always an import part about vampire movies. If they look unconvincing, the movie as a whole can suffer. I'm particularly impressed they managed to craft fangs that would both look convincing, and not impede the singers! The costuming and make-up all looks great (and suitably glam rock-ish), as does the set design for most of the movie. The spooky house looks convincingly spooky, if a little too well-lit in a couple of rooms, like Dracula's tomb. One amusing effect is for the red lips at the beginning. Either the filmmakers were unable to accomplish that image from Rocky Horror, or just didn't know how, so they painted the rest of the actor's face black to try and manage it DIY style!

The actors in Fangs do a decent enough job, with some better than others, and they can all sing well. Ali El-Haggar and Mounna Gbbr (how on earth do you pronounce that surname?!) are fine as the happy all-American (or should I say all-Egyptian) couple. By the way, El-Haggar has quite a unique and odd face! Ahmed Adawiyya didn't really impress me as Dracula. His performance as the Count seemed a bit...I don't know, petulant?

Onto the 'prominent black guy' as I knew him for the movie, since he's never named, played by Tal'tt Zean. From the moment I saw him I hoped he was playing Dracula, as he's much more visually interesting, and a fine actor. Thankfully he does still play a pretty sizeable role in the movie, even if it takes a while before the story gets around to that. And finally, the guy playing the criminologist, Hassan Al Imam, is ok, until he has to laugh! He's pretty terrible and annoying then, like he's really overdoing it! Haddey Saddekk is decent as the beleaguered hunchback servant Shalash, seeming like more set dressing at first but getting time to shine in the final act.

While I've gone over all the Rocky Horror similarities, there's one very interesting and no doubt completely coincidental parallel to Shock Treatment! There are a few moments where we hear the spooky gust of wind. That same kind of ambient noise was a subtle but recurring motif of Shock Treatment, and potentially one of its more fascinating aspects, depending on how much you like reading into things. Like I said, this is probably just happenstance. I imagine that even if Shock Treatment had been released before this was (it came out in the same year), there's no way the Egyptians would've seen it. After all, the Americans didn't see the dang film, due to its awful mismarketing!

One last thing to discuss is the man behind this oddity-Mohammed Shebl. He was a director passionate about the horror genre, and sought to make his own, but they were frowned upon in Egypt at the time, and had trouble when it came to censorship. Sheble managed to overcome all these hurdles and deliver a horror film that passed all scrutiny, and was released just fine. Sadly it wasn't a success, and Shebl wasn't able to make a great deal of movies before his untimely death in 1996 at the age of 47, but he at least gave/gifted the world with four. Fangs (Anyab), The Talisman (Al-Ta'weeza), The Nightmare (Kaboos), and Love and Revenge...With a Meat Cleaver (Gharam Wa-Intiqam... Bis-Satur). I hope to watch them all soon, and I hope the genre is flourishing in Egyptian cinema now.

All in all, Fangs is an extremely promising Egyptian horror film, but it very nearly falls apart halfway through. I highly recommend watching the movie, at the least as a bizarre artifact, but I also recommend skipping the satire section. Watch it some time afterwards if you like, but don't let it break up the movie for you and ruin the experience!