A new Emirati horror flick, Until Midnight, wants to entertain audiences on a fraction of the typical feature film budget.
The bilingual thriller (Arabic and English), releasing in cinemas on June 21, follows the life of newly married Salem (Ahmad Khamis Ali), who returns home from a long trip only to find a masked intruder in his house (Chuka Ekweogwu).
When he begins to find playing cards scattered about, he realises that the numbers are counting down to something sinister. He has to find a way to save his life — and his wife’s (Heba Al Hamwi) — before the clocks strike 12.
In developing the premise, Emirati director and writer Tariq Al Kazim asked himself a simple question: “What could happen if I was alone in the house and there was an intruder?”
This spurred on six to nine months of writing, filming and post-production.
Al Kazim filmed in one of his family’s villas in Al Barsha, with a stunningly low budget of Dh450,000, including marketing costs. To put that into perspective, recent Emirati film budgets have ranged between $1-5 million (Dh3.67-18.36 million). Hereditary, Hollywood’s latest horror offering, filmed on a budget of $10 million (Dh367 million).
But quality horror films have been born out of tight finances before. Supernatural horror flick Paranormal Activity successfully raked in $193.4 million (Dh710 million) in 2007, off a meagre budget of $15,000 (Dh55,087).
As for Until Midnight, lead actor Ali has high hopes for what the film could accomplish.
“It’s breathtaking and it’s fun to watch; an hour and eighteen minutes will change [your perception], and you’ll think, oh, OK, now we have a chance that horror movies in the UAE will be great,” said Ali.
LOST ART OF THE SCARE
The Emirati actor, who won over audiences in the 2005 season of Arab Casting, was able to easily connect with 20-something newly-wed protagonist Salem. Much like his character, Ali married the love of his life, tying the knot with TV anchor Mashael Al Shehi in May.
“I just recently [got] married, so it’s like, ‘How can I save my wife from not dying?’ I’m not focusing on my life, I’m focusing on my wife, because I love her so much. That’s how I connect with the character,” he said.
Ali, who became an orphan as an infant and grew up in Dar Zayed for Family Care, began acting at the age of nine, but only recently began starring in features. Until Midnight marks his second full-length film since Shghaltna Agjentinia (Argentinian Maid).
To prepare for the role, he called upon some of his own memories.
“[My character] has a lot of emotions, and sometimes I have a lot of emotions, related to my stories. I put those stories, you could say the stories that make me cry, in the character of Salem so that I can play him perfectly,” he explained.
A self-professed horror lover himself, Ali hasn’t been impressed with recent attempts at the genre in the region. He credited Emirati director Maher Al Khaja, behind titles such as The Fifth Chamber Ouija and The Curse of the Evil, as one of the only filmmakers who have captured it well.
“I’m a fan of horror movies, I watch a lot of horror movies. Nothing they directed here has been really good. Nothing at all,” said Ali.
“The reason people will enjoy [Until Midnight] is because it’s way, way different than the other Khaleej movies. The director focused on the story, he focused on how to change the movies in the UAE. He tried to make it as much as possible [close to a] Hollywood picture,” he said.
IN OUR BACKYARD
Being attacked in the safety of one’s home is a universal fear, but Syrian actress Al Hamwi, who plays Salem’s wife, Sarah, believes that setting the film in the UAE helps to elevate those fears.
“In Emirati society, everyone is used to feeling safe all the time, because it’s a very safe country, thankfully. We were trying to bring a different image that wasn’t really there before,” she said.
Al Hamwi related to her character’s independence, as well as her care for her husband and her house. When Sarah’s life is threatened, however, being selfless doesn’t come so easy.
“It’s just that struggle of being selfish and selfless at the same time, is the main point,” she said.
Nigerian actor Ekweogwu last year starred in Al Kazim’s previous thriller, A Tale of Shadows, where he played a gardener terrorised by strange occurrences.
This time, Ekweogwu steps into the role of the antagonist, Ronin.
“He’s like a street dude. He’s got the gang, and whatever he makes, he makes from the street. He doesn’t keep to the rules, but he’s a very principled guy,” said Ekweogwu.
“He’s a contractor, like a freelancer. Just call [him] up, [he’ll] get things done for you. He doesn’t ask questions. Just pay, time, location and that’s it.”
Ekweogwu, who has made appearances in global films such as War Machine, Star Trek Beyond and Happy New Year, was excited for the challenge of playing a more ominous role.
“I was happy, because I wanted to try something different, something new, something very, very challenging,” he said.
The actor has previously worked with Al Kazim, most recently as the protagonist in A Tale of Shadows. And though there have been criticisms in the horror genre around who gets cast as the villain, Al Kazim wasn’t concerned about casting the only non-Arab in the role of Ronin.
“Not at all. Normally, I try to not even mention what country they’re from. I always do that, because I want to focus on just the story going on,” said Al Kazim.
“I don’t know whether [critics are] going to critique it, but I’d love to hear them out. If they’re criticising, then they don’t know the history between myself and the director. This is my passion,” chipped in Ekweogwu.
“The region where we are, it’s going to take a while to dissect what is reality, what is fiction, what is acting. It’s going to be a process, it’s going to take a while,” he added.
According to producer Jenny Han, those who have seen A Tale of Shadows will notice a marked difference in the quality of Until Midnight.
“We’re improving in the perspective of the story being told, how things are being shot, the performance, the direction. The production value of things is increasing. It might not be the best film ever, but we’re definitely going to give more,” said Han.
Despite working on a low budget, both Han and Al Kazim believe it to be a good stepping stone toward bigger projects.
“In the beginning, we didn’t think, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to make a Hollywood film with cranes and drones and people flying in the sky.’ It’s a simple story, because we’re at the start of our career,” said Han.
“We want to ensure that we’re going to keep our audiences happy before we decide to go crazy with the budget,” Al Kazim agreed.
For Ekweogwu, a budding method actor in the region, he hoped more filmmakers would take their visions seriously.
“What we hope is to see more filmmakers come out, believe in themselves, create more ideas. [More] art, in general. Most of us went through acting training, so if we don’t get ourselves out there, if we don’t showcase our talent and skills, you’re going to start losing the passion,” he said.
Don’t miss it
Until Midnight releases in the UAE on June 21.