In a move to increase Middle East/North Africa region programming Netflix has released its very first Egyptian original series. This is Paranormal, a six part horror series based on the novels of best selling author Ahmed Khaled Tawfik. The show is set in the 60s and follows the adventures of Dr. Refaat Ismail (Ahmed Amin), a haematologist who is confronted by various supernatural occurrences he finds it increasingly difficult to explain with science.
It’s an anthology show of sort (in the same way Lovercraft Country was), with each ep focusing on a different paranormal phenomenon, with an overarching story relating to Refaat and his family, his fiancee who is also his cousin, and his former love, his Scottish former class mate Maggie Mckillop (Razane Jammal).
The two have a kind of Mulder and Skully vibe if Mulder was a balding middle aged sad sack who smokes a lot of fags and Skully was wearing the worst ‘I’m definitely Scottish look at my curly red hair’ wig ever.
Paranormal is weird. But it’s also addictive and somewhat adorable.
Though the show is obviously very tropey – ep one is a haunted house story with a toothless little girl ghost who lures children to their doom (also wearing a terrible wig), ep two is a curse of the mummy romp etc – Refaat makes an unusual and appealing protagonist.
A smart man who is obsessed with Murphy’s Law – anything that can possibly go wrong, will go wrong – Refaat invents his own laws in an attempt to make sense of the unexplainable things going on around him. He’s a strange mix of grumpy old Eeyore and Indiana Jones but as the show progresses it’s hard not to feel affectionate towards him.
In the background there’s Refaat’s bullish sister who is constantly nagging him to be nicer to his fiancee or end up alone, his gentle brother-in-law who tries to offer him comfort and advice and Refaat’s little nephew who he ill advisedly sends out to buy cigarettes during a raid, and nearly ends up losing to the same gap-toothed ghost girl that seduced him as a kid. Then there’s Refaat’s long suffering brother Reda who made numerous sacrifices so that Refaat could succeed, and their silent and estranged mother. There’s relationship drama at the heart of each episode and it’s almost as if the family is cursed – Refaat’s is a journey of the soul and the past as much as a struggle between intellectual and supernatural elements.
Given the myriad ghosts and ghouls these people encounter, Refaat’s ongoing incredulity does get a bit much at points, though his need to rely on science over superstition, and gradual acceptance that somethings can’t be easily explained is a key part of the tension of the show – as the series progresses Refaat learns to embrace his demons – but will it be too late?
Paranormal is slightly hokey at points but there’s something sincere at its core. The love story between Maggie and Refaat has a genuine sweetness to it if you can get past that terrible wig and while Refaat may make an unlikely lead he’s a loveable one, mainly thanks to Amin’s excellent performance. Refaat is repressed, frustrated, laden with guilt, but he’s also sardonic, smart and brave – his internal monologue adds dark humour as well as existential angst to the show and he’s never less than completely watchable.
Netflix is the home of many great horror series, from the glossy gloom of the ‘Haunting Of’ series, the 80s kitsch of Stranger Things to the starry sagas of the American Horror Story run – despite the incredibly generic title, Paranormal offers something quite different both in tone and style.
The backdrops of course are different – Cairo, Mansoura, the Libyan desert – and the gender politics are too, and while some of the individual stories are sometimes a bit naff and others nothing new the flavour of the show as a whole is. Its directors are Majid Al Ansari (Rattle The Cage) and Amr Salama (Sheikh Jackson) both exciting new Arab voices getting critical acclaim and with Netflix’s ever expanding catalogue difficult to navigate it’s a treat to find something a bit different to binge.
Well worth a look in lockdown for horror fans, lovers of mythology and anyone craving a badly be-wigged period Egyptian X-Files riff.