The action takes place in Dubai, a place where many nationalities, races and religions meet. Ahmed (Saud Alzarooni) is aged just 12 and lives with his divorced mother in a large and sumptuous mansion, and they are Muslims. His behaviour has recently become very strange. The once confident and well-spoken boy now stutters and occasionally hears voices. He attacks a schoolmate with a syringe in the toilet, resulting in his suspension. And his toes begin to fuse, just like an amphibian. Family Doctor Mark Holly (Jefferson Hall) is a handsome Western whose looks win over the hearts of Ahmed’s mother Maryam (Faten Ahmed) and her inscrutable sister Noor (Noura Alabed). The same does not apply to his credentials: Noor is entirely skeptical of his medical practises. She is convinced that the child is possessed and only a Mullahs can rid him of the evil spirit inside.
The family’s uneventful life spirals out of control after Ahmed commits yet another attack at school (a teacher this time). Plus, he leaves a little girl of around his age shrunk in fear inside his bedroom shower. Both Mark and Noor believe that Maryam’s life is in profound danger, even if their proposed solutions couldn’t be more different. The traditional battle between science and faith unravels. The white man champions the former, while the Arab woman is convinced that the events are are triggered by djinns (spirits). And as in any good horror movie, the latter prevails, making the white-coated professional seem clueless and redundant.
Nevertheless, Mark remains determined to help poor Ahmed, who constantly slips in and out of the state of possession. He is adamant that only traditional medicine can save the boy, even after witnessing some truly disturbing and inexplicable developments with his very own eyes. The brain scans and blood tests reveal no anomaly. Mark prescribes tranquilisers and antipsychotic drugs to little avail. Noor becomes increasingly angry at the doctor’s reliance on science, and wants the Mullahs to treat the boy instead. Maryam is stuck somewhere in the middle, unsure of what to do in order to reclaim her old child. They eventually find a solution that satisfies both Mark and Noor. The outcome is full of surprises.
The second half of the film consists of a full-on exorcise, seemingly a nod to the late William Friedkin and his masterpiece The Exorcist (1972). Just replace the priest with a mullah, demons with evil djinns, and Bible verses with Quran scripture. Ahmed convulses as vigorously as Regan (Linda Blair’s character in Friedkin’s classic). The possessor is violent, lewd and foul-mouthed (does anyone remember “Let Jesus f**k you!!!”?). The evil entity refuses to reveal his name as he horrifically contorts his body of his victim. While the structure and the content of the Muslism exorcism is very similar to the Christian exorcisms scenes that we have seen a million time, Three does provide some very peculiar insight into the Arab customs: the ferocious prayers, the white tunic, the ablution, and much more.
The jump scares are sparse and effective. Genuinely terrifying. The performances are auspicious, in a film boasting both a concise script and excellent actor coaching. This is a movie that recycles familiar tropes to outstanding results. It wraps with Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria, an elegant final scene and a very unexpected little twist. Good horror has the power to startle, astound and terrify viewers whatever their faith (or lack thereof, as with this agnostic writer).
Three world premiered at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. Unmissable.
Nayla Al Khaja is the the first female screenwriter, director and producer in the United Arab Emirates.