10 great supernatural films from the Middle East and North Africa

Undead princesses, murderous mermaids and scarecrow-based folk horror. We place new supernatural drama A House in Jerusalem within the rich tapestry of horror and fantasy films from the Arab world.

A House in Jerusalem (2023)

In the context of Middle Eastern cinema, which has long been associated with social realism, Muayad Alayan’s third feature A House in Jerusalem may look like an anomaly. A ghost story, it charts the budding friendship between Rebecca (Miley Locke), a grieving 10-year-old British Jewish girl who has recently moved to her grandfather’s old Jerusalem house after losing her mother in a car accident, and Rasha (Sheherazade Farrell), a Palestinian girl who has clandestinely taken shelter in the premises after losing her family following an Israeli military attack.

Rasha is a ghost, but not your traditional spirit of a dead person. The Jerusalem she haunts is depicted as a purgatory of sorts: a segregated enclave partially populated by isolated Palestinians eternally confronted by a burning loss. The ghosts of the dead are indistinguishable from the ghosts of the living: the film shows them both bearing the brunt of a long history of disenfranchisement. In this way, it marks a move into fable from Alayan, one of the most distinctive voices in post-millennial Palestinian cinema, formerly known for his biting social critiques.

In fact, supernatural stories are not a novelty in the cinema of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Horror and fantasy have long proven a perfect fit for tackling themes centring on religion, folkloric heritage and the disjuncture between faith and science. Genre also provides a cover for subversive politics and diverse artistic temperaments. From feminist allegories to moralistic tall tales, found-footage horror to outlandish camp musicals, the best of the region’s supernatural pictures offer a heady mix of escapism, shrewd social commentary and unabashed titillation.

The supernatural is MENA cinema’s best-kept secret – a madcap roster of figurative scarecrows and clay monsters, campy vampires and feminist mermaids. Its breadth and scope offer the type of wild art with which few observers associate the region’s perpetually evolving cinema.

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The Bride of the Nile (1963) 

Director: Fatin Abdel Wahab

The Bride of the Nile (1963)

Egypt, which has the largest and oldest Arab film industry, is the pioneer of cinematic fantasy in the region. Early examples include the Arabian Nights-inspired comedies of Jewish filmmaker Togo Mizrahi, starring Nubian comedian Ali Al Kassar – 1001 Nights (1941) and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1942). 

This hybrid and massively popular genre peaked in the 1960s with The Bride of the Nile, an atypical romantic comedy directed by Fatin Abdel Wahab, the Billy Wilder of Arab cinema. Lobna Abdel Aziz is the Pharaonic princess who comes back from the dead to haunt a geologist (heartthrob Rushdy Abaza) when he ventures to excavate a Luxor tomb in search of oil.

The initial uproarious comedy of terror gradually gives way to a surprisingly tender romance of love lost and found, which is realised with Abdel Wahab’s signature fusion of lightness and pathos. Brilliantly acted by two of the era’s most handsome stars, The Bride of the Nile pits Egypt’s ancient heritage – a cornerstone of Nasser’s national identity building project – against the pressing need for modernity. Ultimately, it finds a meeting point between the two.

Mistress of Black Moons (1971)

Director: Samir A. Khouri 

Mistress of Black Moons (1971)

From 1960 to 1975, Lebanon was the most hedonistic province in the Arab world, offering the kind of unadulterated freedoms unavailable anywhere else in the region. Its cinema was no different, and over the course of those 15 years, Lebanon produced the most popular sexploitation pics in Arab film history, the most famous of which were helmed by Samir A. Khouri, the Arab equivalent of Radley Metzger.

Mistress of the Black Moons was the crowning achievement of this short-lived wave. It’s a quasi-fantasy about an unhappily married woman (Nahed Yousri, the poster girl of the movement) who seeks sexual release in an S&M-like bordello, but soon realises that the full moon turns her into a man-eating nymphomaniac. Belle de jour (1967) meets Cat People (1942) with a dash of Egyptian class-driven melodrama in this intoxicatingly sensationalistic exploration of the rift between the forcibly adopted middle-class veneer and repressed female sexuality. Eroticism has always been a fundamental component of Arab cinema, but few filmmakers have dared to go as far as Khouri did with his small but notorious oeuvre.

Ballad of Tara (1979)

Director: Bahram Beyzaie

Ballad of Tara (1979)

A founding member of Iran’s 1960s New Wave, Bahram Beyzaie is better known for post-Islamic Revolution output such as Bashu, the Little Stranger (1989) and Killing Mad Dogs (2001). His underseen pre-79 work is arguably more remarkable in its pronounced feminism and bold aesthetics. Ballad of Tara is the most arresting of the lot: a love story between a young widowed mother and a dead knight sent to the present to retrieve his lost sword.

A wistful ghost story derived from Iranian folklore and shot with striking naturalism, Ballad of Tara is, most potently, a treatise on male-dominated village life, where the eponymous heroine proves to be freer and more compelling than the insipid men. The forthright feminism of the film would land it in hot waters with Iran’s then new rulers, so although the film was lauded by European critics upon release (Olivier Assayas was one of its early champions) and screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, at San Sebastian and at the BFI London Film Festival, it was largely buried by the authorities for 40 years only to finally resurface in 2023.

Tall Shadows of the Wind (1979) 

Director: Bahman Farmanara 

Tall Shadows of the Wind (1979)

Released the same year as Ballad of Tara, Bahman Farmanara’s third feature was an even more contentious and far more corrosive enterprise: a political allegory about a group of villagers who are terrorised by the foreboding scarecrow they’ve erected. Realised in mostly still frames, Tall Shadows of the Wind is a slow-burning thriller seeping with dread and augmented by the ominous bareness of the village landscape.

Adapted from a short story by one of the most influential Iranian writers of the 20th century, Houshang Golshiri, Farmanara’s film never attempts to tone down the source material’s fierce insubordinate politics, crafting a timeless parable that culminates with a mass uprising. The symbolism behind the mute scarecrow – a stand-in for Iran’s outgoing monarch Mohammad Reza – led to the ban of the film during the Shah’s waning days. But Tall Shadows of the Wind did not fare better with the incoming Islamic guard, who deemed its climax a leftist call for rebellion and pulled it out of theatres three days after release.

Fangs (1981) 

Director: Mohammed Shebl 

Fangs (1981)

Musical fantasies have always been a staple of Egyptian cinema, dating back to the 1940s, with films including Little Miss Devil (1949), Ismail Yassin’s Genie (1954) and The Magic Lamp (1960) being built around mishaps between genies and the hapless humans they stumble upon. But nothing in this canon comes close to matching the sheer, self-aware wackiness of Fangs, an unhinged remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) starring Ahmed Adaweyah, Egypt’s biggest singing sensation of the time.

Mona Gabr and classical singer Ali El Haggar are the two idealistic, down-on-their-luck lovers who stumble upon the mansion of Count Dracula (Adaweyah) after their car breaks down. What ensues is a series of zany music numbers comprised of Adaweyah’s signature chaabi music and disco-infused tunes penned by 1980s pioneers Hussien and Modi El Emam. Wearing its kitsch proudly on its sleeve – a self-reflexive choice that subversively underlines the deterioration of Egyptian culture – Fangs is, most of all, a piquant critique of the neoliberal policies of Egypt’s president of the time, Anwar Sadat, which changed the face of the country.

Pegasus (2010) 

Director: Mohamed Mouftakir 

Pegasus (2010)

Modern MENA fantasies are far darker and grimmer than their ancestors, a collective expression of restlessness with the same autocratic forces, political and social, that have been governing the region with a hand of iron for the past century. Moroccan director Mohamed Mouftakir’s debut feature is a case in point: a psychological thriller about a young unmarried pregnant woman named Rihana who gets enlisted in a psychiatric hospital after she’s found abandoned in the back streets of a small village. Traumatised and delirious, Rihana claims to have been impregnated by The Lord of the Horse, a mythical warrior who, like her own father, ruled his realm without a male heir.

A growing bond between Rihana and her equally troubled female psychiatrist exposes similar wounded pasts shaped by pitiless patriarchs. Touching on themes including child abuse, incest and the struggle for emancipation in male-dominated societies, Pegasus is a pitch-black noir crammed with Lynchian dream sequences that accentuate the slipperiness of memory in the face of debilitating trauma.

Kindil El Bahr (2016)

Director: Damien Ounouri 

Kindil El Bahr (2016)

This slot is a toss up between two different mermaid films – Damien Ounouri’s Kindil El Bahr (2016) and Shahad Ameen’s Scales (2019) – which, while hailing from two different production countries, share the same unabashedly feminist discourse. Kindil El Bahr is an Algerian revenge fantasy about a young mother who comes back from the dead in the form of a murderous mermaid hellbent on eliminating the men who assaulted and killed her. Scales is a monochrome dystopian Saudi fairytale about a family who refuses to hand over their little daughter to the sea creature responsible for their village’s nourishment. The girl gradually turns into a mermaid who must prove her worth to her community.

Comparing the two, a porous narrative and tonal over-earnestness dilute Scales’ impact, while its familiar coming-of-age dramatic arc comes off as feminism 101. Nonetheless, otherworldly mood, gorgeous visuals and palpable ambition elevate Scales above the pack, while its overtly empowering message, as obvious as it is, remains impactful. 

Kindil El Bahr is more primal, both in its rudimentary aesthetics and its searing rage against the chauvinistic establishment. The complex relationship between violence, justice and retribution is a key theme in contemporary North African cinema, and Ounouri’s masterful original offers more food for thought than the likes of Promising Young Woman (2020).

Dachra (2018) 

Director: Abdelhamid Bouchnak

Dachra (2018)

Tunisia’s very first horror movie – one of the highest grossing films in the country’s history – represented a natural change of course for a national cinema grappling with the disappointments and failures of the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution. Three journalism students imprudently take on the mysterious 20-year-old case of Mongia, who was accused of witchcraft, punished by mutilation and consigned to an asylum.

Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s debut feature can be best described as The Blair Witch Project (1999) meets The Crucible: a found-footage splatter populated by hostile villagers, ominous-looking grandfathers and sinister children. Despite its excellent staging, Dachra is packed with countless genre tropes that initially may appear to be indistinguishable from its Hollywood and European counterparts. But under the surface lies a damning and daring denunciation of religion, which Bouchnak renders as sheer superstition. The handheld aesthetics are no mere gimmick; they’re the mirror of the moral bedlam of a nation which, Bouchnak suggests, continues to be held back by archaic but seldom challenged beliefs.

The Dam (2022)

Director: Ali Cherri 

The Dam (2022)

Lebanese visual artist Ali Cherri’s first foray into filmmaking is the most uncharacteristic Arab monster movie: a Sudanese political fable set against the backdrop of the country’s 2018 revolution. First time actor Maher El Khair plays a bricklayer who pours his confusion and anxiety into building an amorphous gigantic mud construction that unexpectedly comes to life.

With limited camera movement and a near-absence of dialogue, Cherri’s multilayered tapestry is rich with references: from pre-Islamic heritage and Nile Basin culture to Mary Shelley and Robert Bresson. Unlike Dr Frankenstein, Maher’s impulse for creating his monster doesn’t emanate from a colonial obsession with playing God but rather from a deep-seated desire to find a lost sense of meaning – an anti-colonial impulse for invention rather than control. Like the Sudanese revolution, Maher’s creation becomes a separate entity: autonomous, unfathomable and fitful. The pure act of creation grants him his freedom, even if it’s independent from his monster and from the revolution, the fate of which remains unknown.

Who Do I Belong To (2024)

Director: Meryam Joobeur 

Who Do I Belong To (2024)

The debut feature of Tunisian-American Meryam Joobeur is a radically different type of monster movie. Set in a small village in northern Tunisia, the film charts the emotional and moral disruption that engulf a family of farmers when their son, who joined Isis years prior, returns with an evasive, shadowy and mute pregnant wife draped in a long black burqa. The serene, bucolic Terrence Malick-like family drama of the first half is swiftly overtaken by a serial killer subplot which casts doubt over the ghoulish identity of the young wife. In Joobeur’s remarkable genre-bending picture, the real monster is the folly of youthful masculinity: a rash, destructive force that resorts to guilt to absolve itself from its grave sins.

Joobeur is not interested in psychology. Nor is she concerned in making a political commentary on the tired subject of Islamic terrorism. Her Tunisian village is analogous to Malick’s Eden, a wholesome, otherworldly matriarchal kingdom threatened by worldly vices: dogmatic religion, the lust for power, and selfish love.