Djinn and Tonic
Time to once again part company from common sense and write about a film which most people will likely be completely unaware of: it's just finished an art-house run in my neck of the woods, and likely never got close to a prope multiplex release, despite being... well, let's just say that the standard advice for anyone wanting to make a profit on a movie is that they should do a horror film, for these films have a rock-solid track record of making comfortable returns on very low budgets.
Perhaps this explains why the BFI, sometime financier in its current and previous incarnations of almost unwatchable garbage like Sex Lives of the Potato Men and The Future, has decided to invest heavily in horror films of late – the BFI put substantial funds behind The Girl with All the Gifts, and also helped with the budget of Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow. However, perhaps a little of the BFI's old magic still lingers, for Under the Shadow is in some ways a rather uncommercial horror film, for all its refreshing accomplishment.
Is this film in fact, as it appears, the world's first Iranian horror movie? Well, it's set in Tehran, entirely performed in Farsi, and made by artistes of Iranian descent. On the other hand, you can make a film entirely in Klingon without actually being from Qo'NoS, and Under the Shadow is technically a co-production between film companies in the UK, Jordan and Qatar, rather than actually being Iranian. (If that makes a difference.)
As mentioned, the setting is Tehran in the mid 80s, towards the end of the Iran-Iraq War. The city is under regular attack from Iraqi missiles and bombs, but Shideh (Narges Rashidi) has more personal problems to contend with: an unwise flirtation with counter-revolutionary politics has left her banned from pursuing her medical studies, leaving her looking for a purpose in life – simply being a housewife and mother to her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) is just not enough. Her husband (Bobby Naderi) is not overwhelmingly understanding, and is soon conscripted into the army and sent to the front line anyway.
But things get worse. In the aftermath of a missile strike on the tower block where they live, an elderly resident seemingly dies of fear, and Dorsa reports disquieting stories told to her by a troubled young boy living in the same building: 'they' are coming. Dorsa's beloved doll disappears, Shideh starts to have alarmingly vivid nightmares, and slowly she comes to realise that they are no longer alone in their home – dark spirits, or djinn, have attached themselves to the family...
Strip away the oddities of its setting and language and Under the Shadow is essentially a fairly straightforward scary story about a woman and her daughter who find themselves trapped in a haunted tower block. There is something undeniably universal going here – if you remade this film in English you could certainly imagine it turning up on the Horror Channel – and in some ways the film seems to be tapping into the deeper traditions of the genre. When the malevolent presence at the centre of the story eventually manifests itself, it is as the most primal kind of ghost, essentially an animated sheet, perhaps recalling Jonathan Miller's celebrated adaptation of M.R. James' Whistle and I'll Come to You.
Talk of ill-intentioned linen should not give you the impression that Under the Shadow is anything but a properly scary film with some genuinely alarming moments, and this is because the director gives every sign of knowing what they are doing: there is a long, long build-up before he starts wheeling on the jump scares and CGI horrors. There is a lot of disturbing, incidental detail woven into the story, supported by a unsettling, atonal soundtrack – at one point the sheer atmosphere the sound design wound me up to the point where I was jumping simply at a toaster popping up.
I mentioned to a friend of, to simplify matters somewhat, Iranian extraction that I was off to see a horror movie set in Tehran thirty years ago, and his initial reaction was 'So, it's a documentary, then?' Certainly the real-world background to the story does inform it somewhat: at one point Shideh flees her home in the middle of the night, driven out by supernatural forces, and is promptly arrested and nearly flogged for being out in public without her head covered. But there's less of this kind of real-world horror than you might expect.
To be honest I kind of wish I'd taken my friend along with me, partly because he doesn't get out very much, but mainly because it would have been nice to have someone along more familiar with the traditions and situation concerned, because as things stand I'm not sure if there's a deeper level to this story that completely passed me by. All ghost stories are ultimately metaphorical, but here it's a bit unclear what that metaphor is. It's implied there's some connection between the coming of the djinn and the effects of the war, but then again there's perhaps the merest suggestion that Shideh's relationship with her recently-departed mother may also be relevant.
This lack of a deeper story – at least, one that I could identify – is the only fault I can really find with Under the Shadow. It's not the biggest or most groundbreaking film of the year, but it certainly has novelty value on its side, as well as all the traditional storytelling virtues. If you only go and see one ghost story set in a Tehran tower block during the Iran-Iraq war this year, then... no, that's not quite giving the right impression. If you like a proper old-fashioned scary movie, this is definitely worth checking out.