Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Three’ is Haunting Spiritual Horror


Director: Nayla Al Khaja
Writers: Nayla Al Khaja, Ben Williams, John Collee
Stars: Jefferson Hall, Faten Ahmed, Saud Alzarooni

Synopsis: A boy is going through a mental health crisis, prompting his mother to seek help from an unlikely man. This man must set aside his Western thinking to save her son through an intense ritual.


Often we only think of religious horror, especially possession and exorcism, through the lens of Christianity. In Three, we get a glimpse into the practice of Islamic exorcism. In many ways, the rites are similar. Both use holy men as bulwarks against evil and use the scripture of their holy text to drive out the evil within the possessed.

In this way Three falls into an easy rhythm. It follows the pattern of the exorcism film. The parent is distraught, she seeks help from doctors and when the doctors fail, she goes to the spiritual leader, the ultimate bastion against the unknown. That makes most of Three a bit formulaic. There’s little to set it apart from other films of the genre.

What does differentiate Three from other films like it isn’t only the difference in religion, but the way science interacts with faith. Typically in a film like this, the medical doctor or psychologist would be made irrelevant by the second act. Though, in this film, Dr. Mark Holly (Jefferson Hall) is around for the duration, even being present at and interfering with the exorcism. This integration of science and faith is a way to introduce skepticism into the proceedings. It almost feels like a metaphor for the city of Dubai in which the film takes place. Dubai is a city that straddles the traditions of its indigenous people with the heavy western influence that came with the country’s vast wealth.

There are a few other things that set Three apart from other films in the genre. There is that the djinn possessing Ahmed (Saud Alzarooni) was let in by malevolent human trickery, not by the act of the spirit itself. Alternatively to other films, the family here seeks the help of several mullahs before they find one who will be strong enough to combat the djinn and complete a successful exorcism. It is also of note that the horror of the film isn’t based on simple jump scares.

Director Nayla Al Khaja builds the terror of her film from tension. There is a particularly good scene when Ahmed’s friend Yasmeen (Amna Rehman) comes to visit after Ahmed has been expelled for assaulting his teacher. Ahmed and Yasmeen seem to be having a nice time until Ahmed’s face goes slack and Yasmeen slowly backs away. Ahmed is able to trap Yasmeen in the shower where he repeats words over and over as he smacks the wall, eventually cracking it and also cracking Yasmeen, alerting the adults to what is going on upstairs.

There are several tense scenes like this one that make your heart pound. Though, the tension is often deflated too soon. It builds to a nice peak, but the drop is sudden. The exorcism itself feels anticlimactic because of this. This makes the film less scary rather than just plain unnerving, which isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re looking to be terrified, not a satisfying thing either.

All in all, Three is a solid thriller. It’s derivative of other films in its subgenre. It never fulfills all the aspects of the body horror of exorcism films or the gore of Ahmed’s violence when under possession. See it for the unique take on the genre, not only in the aspect that it is an Islamic exorcism, but that modern science plays a much larger role than in other films of its ilk.

Grade: C

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