Whoever said horror was a genre gone South clearly hasn’t been paying attention. I mean let’s face it, for every Annabelle or Paranormal/Last Exorcism rehash that (allegedly) attempts to scare the living daylights out of you and succeeds only in either a) putting you to sleep, b) screaming a the television to characters too stupid to live or c) actually contemplating throwing your smart TV out the window in a fit of rage and rushing out into the night to commit some act of mayhem (inside your head, never in the flesh, we are all Walter Mittys at heart, heh-heh), there often comes one or two smaller ventures either straight out of Sundance, SXSW or other film festivals and sneaks into select art-house theaters. There these movies, dripping atmospheric dread to spare and leaving any CGI or green screen effect to a bare minimum (a throwback to Lewton and even J-Horror), singlehandedly manage to creep right under the skin and stay with you as if they were a cinematic version of Morgellen’s disease.
And that’s a good thing. No one wants to see a movie, no matter how good it is, and barely even recall it days later. If and when you see a horror movie that vanishes into thin air moments after the credits roll, call it a night and watch some creepy pastas on YouTube.
From Iran and currently showing at the Montclair Film Festival after having debuted at Sundance, SXSW and New Directors/New Films in March comes is Babak Anvari’s debut feature film Under the Shadow, a truly eerie story of an oppressed woman dealing with a mysterious force from outside in wartime Tehran. Shideh is an unconventional Iranian woman: she won’t use the chador in the house, she exercises to Jane Fonda VCRs (the story takes place in the late 80s), and she’s given support to a liberal cause. It’s the cause that has landed her in hot water when reapplying for medical school. Because of this, the doors to a higher education close on her. Her husband fares better, being called off to war to work as a doctor and leaves Shideh alone with her daughter Dorsa.
Once alone, whatever was out of kilter starts to manifest itself: Dorsa’s doll goes missing. Outside, missiles fall upon the city, leaving terrorized residents to seek protection from fallout in basement shelters. A missile actually manages to fall into Shideh’s apartment building, landing on the floor above, but ominously does not go off. It does, however, leave a crack in her ceiling . . . and with it, something invisible and ominous starts to manifest inside Shideh’s apartment, with unknown intent.
When it becomes clear that the must leave the apartment, Dorsa’s doll goes missing and Dorsa herself starts talking to an unseen person. It’s here when Babak Anvari ratches up the tension with some truly frightening jump-scares along the way, all the while keeping the story’s location grounded in Iranian reality (for example, an attempt by Shideh to leave the house with Dorsa from the unexplained presence which seems to be getting stronger within the minute lands her in the wrong hands of the law because she did not have her chador on. In many ways, Under the Shadow could very well, like The Babadook, be a horror allegory encompassing female oppression at the hands of forces outside her control. While the heroine in Babadook was fighting a metaphysical manifestation of her own grief, Shideh seems to be fighting against her country and it’s anti-woman laws itself. under the guise of a disembodied thing seeking to come in and wreck havoc.
Under the Shadow is a strong debut and a well-composed visual piece. Even at its brief run — a mere 80 minutes not counting end credits — and treading over familiar horror tropes, it doesn’t feel stale or go for cheap shocks, and takes its own time to get the wheels rolling. It’s amazing what lighting can do to a place: Anvari slowly turns Shideh’s apartment from a relatively safe haven into dark corridors, pools of shadows, and I on more than one occasion kept myself at the edge of my seat waiting for something. I didn’t know what — I just knew something could appear, anywhere. That to me makes a horror movie memorable, and this picture is dread in the flesh.
[Under the Shadow as of this writing doesn’t have a release date.]
Imagine you’re invited to go to a gathering with friends. Once you get there, you get a sense that despite how nice, pleasant, and polite everyone seems, something is not right. Imagine that your hostess also seems to be playing up the “everything is perfect” role — almost to a shrill fault — even when you can clearly see that it’s an act from a mile away.
Will and Kira (Logan Marshall-Green and Emayatzy Corinealdi) are en route to the Hollywood Hills to meet up for a dinner party thrown by his former wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michael Huisman). We get some backstory that Eden and Will lost their son and Will hasn’t seen Eden since, and even before he and Kira arrive he seems on edge. Almost as if summoned, they strike a coyote with their vehicle and Will has no choice but to beat it to death with a blunt object.
Once at the party, things proceed smoothly, but Will continues to be something of an odd-man out. It is understandable since this was his former home and memories linger rather vividly, but there’s an odd giddiness to it all that seems off kilter. A party guest unwittingly becomes the receiver of Eden’s out of nowhere violence early on, but she continues to behave almost in a state of a high. And then, David brings out a video that seems to be selling a concept of a cult and suicide. What’s going on here? Some are intrigued, and one guest who leaves early, upon seeing how intent David and Eden are into presenting this alternative belief to their guests, expresses her discomfort into what seems to be a cult belief. And there is a guest no one knows from, a man who charmingly tells everyone about his wife’s death. And a girl who continuously tries to throw herself onto Will and looks . . . a little loopy.
Director Karyn Kusama keeps everything very much under control for a long stretch of her story but the sense of dread reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby permeates the entire mise-en-scene. As the party changes gears ever so subtly from simple to sinister and even we question if Will is all there or perhaps about to suffer some mental breakdown, Kusama suddenly yanks the rug from under you and the gloves are off. The Invitation’s slow escalation takes a hard turn left and as all the pieces fall into place, the real reason for them all being there explodes in everyone’s faces. This is a very good horror film that points the finger at the dangers of drinking the Kool Aid; it’s tense, moody, and equal parts terrifying because it presents a situation that could and has happened before.