Quick. Name your favorite Iranian horror film. Ok. That question might not be fair. So just name your favorite Iranian film in of any genre. Still not fair. And that’s ok. There is a reason Iran is not codenamed: Hollywood Middle East. But the lack of film production in the land also known as Persia only makes Under the Shadow an even more intriguing film experience.
Under the Shadow opened tonight’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival and it’s a curious and bold pick to say the least. The film takes place in the war-torn city of Tehran in the 1980’s. Tehran, and the entire country of Iran, is under tremendous change. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is not finding the change to her benefit. During the revolution, Shideh was tagged as one of the young activists against the establishment. As a result of her youthful political stances, Shideh is finding it difficult to find new work as a doctor. It’s frustrating, but it does allow Shideh more time to spend with her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) and more time to exercise to workout VHS tapes on their illegal VCR. The home life for the family gets even more complicated when Shideh’s husband gets drafted and is forced to leave their home to join the front lines.
War continues as a backdrop to the domestic and career problems suffering the family. Word is that the enemy is now firing missiles into rural areas and it is all too common for Shideh, Dorsa and other members of the small apartment complex are forced into the make-shift bomb shelter of the complex’s basement in efforts to wait out the explosions heard all around them.
It is during one of the attacks that Dorsa begins to believe in a Djinn haunting the house. Dorsa informs her mother that one of the neighbor boys in the shelter has talked to her about the evil entity, but when Shideh inquires further she finds that the boy who Dorsa is communicating with is in fact a mute.
Although this strikes Shideh as odd, she dismisses any suggestion of a haunting and quickly chalks it up to childish nightmares. That is until things begin to become so irregular and downright frightening that the notion of an evil presence in the home can no longer be ignored.
By the time the film enters its final chapters (I miss writing ‘reels’), things become a lot more overt with their occurrence. Writer/director Babak Anvari uses the setting – both the country and the building – to set the tone and compliments the backdrop with special effects that are effective in purpose yet simplistic in execution.
Under the Sheets is an interesting film. It has been making the festival rounds and has been compared to 2014’s The Babadook. And rightfully so. It’s a slow moving horror that develops its main character before suggesting anything that might go ‘bump’. It makes audiences care about our characters before it unleashes the horror goods and the film is better because of its purposeful pace. That’s not to say that there aren’t scares in Under the Shadow. One in particular had our full house audience jump, scream and laugh all within the same second of storytelling. But it’s the journey more than the payoff that makes Under the Shadow a film that skyrockets on our recommendations list.
As an opening night film for the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, I couldn’t help but think of how the Festival has matured and how the programmers have grown in confidence. Gone are the days of trying to blast audiences with mainstreamish opening night films such as Monster Brawl. Instead, after a decade plus of running the festival in Canada’s largest city, the TADFF organizers know that quality outplays outlandish. And Under the Shadow is indeed quality.
Note: Programmers at the Festival informed the audience that Under the Shadow will be submitted for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award consideration for 2017.