Based on a 16th Century Moroccan legend, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s Kandisha follows the “ghost of a beautiful woman who destroys men.” The 2021 Shudder release takes place in modern-day Paris, specifically the banlieue stomping ground of three friends: Bintou (Suzy Bemba), Amélie (Mathilde Lamusse) and Morjana (Samarcande Saadi). The result is a smart, albeit imperfect, slice of modern horror, which also offers a surprisingly touching paean to the strength of female friendships.
During summer, the joined-at-the-hip teenage trio spend their time hanging out with friends, dancing to rap music and indulging their favorite pastime of covering their estate with graffiti tags and murals. Bustillo and Maury are keen to show off the working-class pals’ varied cultures — Bintou is Black, Amélie is white, Morjana is Arabic — and how at ease with each other’s differences they are, even making race the center of light-hearted banter in a way that certainly wouldn’t be acceptable outside of their group (“Hey Black girl,” “Hey Arab” is one of their milder exchanges). The only time an element of friction creeps in is when Bintou is called “petit bourgeois” because her family has moved a couple hundred yards off the banlieue into a house, rather than living in one of the high-rise apartment-blocks, as seen in a grand opening tracking shot.
More by Andy Winter: Review: Powell Robinson and Patrick Robert Young’s ‘Threshold’
It’s easy to warm to these quick-witted and gently rebellious young women. They’re so well essayed by a strong script and solid performances that a film just following their misadventures — a sort of Girlhood-lite – would, I suspect, have been great fun. Of course, in a horror film, their urban summer idyll cannot possibly last, and when a bitter old flame named Farid tries to rape Amélie, she remembers a tale Bintou had previously told her about Kandisha. Soon, Amélie draws a pentagram in her own blood on the bathroom wall and, in shades of Candyman, summons the titular spirit by repeating her name. Kandisha not only appears but chases Farid into the path of a speeding car, resulting in his death.
Aicha Kandisha (to give the character her full name) can’t be so easily put back. The ghost’s origin story has Kandisha resisting the Portuguese occupation of her country, only to be tortured to death by a group of male soldiers. As a result, her returned spirit kills only men. So, while the girls aren’t in any danger, half of their closest friends and family members most definitely are.
Kandisha features an intriguing twist, but it’s a shame that the filmmakers sidestep an opportunity to explore vulnerability from a different perspective. Audiences are used to women in horror films (and elsewhere) being the ones who are exposed and defenseless, but what happens when they are relatively safe and it’s the men who are stalked and slashed? The answer seems to be not much because none of the girls’ macho friends are prepared to believe in Kandisha, despite the rising body count, and are certain that they can defeat the ghost if necessary. The film poke funs at male bravado and seemingly leaves it at that.
Bustillo and Maury first came to prominence with their feature debut, the audacious and visceral pregnancy horror Inside (2007), following it up with Livid (2011), a bizarre vampire fairy tale. Of their five features to date, the pair’s only misstep has been 2017’s Leatherface, a pointless prequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. While Kandisha isn’t quite on the level of the duo’s best work, and perhaps lacks a few of the pair’s spikier edges, it certainly carries their imprint. The French filmmakers specialize in short, sharp, simple tales often set in one location and frequently below 90 minutes in length (Kandisha comes in at a sprightly 85). They are also clearly interested in the intensity and intricacies of female relationships, and as a result the bond that exists between Bintou, Amélie and Morjana (or “BAM” as they’re collectively known) is the film’s strongest suit.
More by Andy Winter: Review: Julia von Heinz’s ‘And Tomorrow the Entire World’
That said, in their desire to tell stories with pace and economy, Maury and Bustillo are prone to shortcuts, which means their work can suffer from the odd plot hole and a certain narrative clumsiness. The way in which Kandisha first appears in the story — her name written on a wall for no apparent reason — feels a little too random and, despite the ghost’s killing spree, the only real interaction the girls have with police comes early on when an officer catches Bintou tagging a wall. It isn’t just the cops that are conspicuous by their absence either. It’s the middle of summer on a banlieue that is presumably home to hundreds, if not thousands, of people and yet outside of the three girls, their friends and families, hardly anyone else shows up.
More positively, Bustillo and Maury are masters of the slow build, and so it goes in Kandisha, which becomes incrementally nastier and gorier with each new victim the vengeful spirit eliminates, with a couple of effective jump scares thrown in for good measure. Indeed, if Farid’s death by automobile feels underwhelming, it’s only an amuse-bouche for the madness the directors eventually unleash en route to the breathless finale. A tension-filled exorcism scene in which the girls — helped by a maverick imam — attempt to return Kandisha to Hell is particularly impressive, while the eventual reveal of the ghost’s true nature and jaw-dropping appearance is well worth the wait.
Andy Winter (@andywinter1) has worked in British magazines and newspapers for more than two decades. He has previously written about film for The Digital Fix and Film Inquiry. You’ll find more of his writing at the website andywinter.online.