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Under the Shadow

by Hope Madden

A few years back, Aussie filmmaker Jennifer Kent unleashed the brilliant and devastating single parent nightmare, The Babadook. As much subtext as text, the film vibrated with the anxiety of a parent torn between resentment and the powerful fear that something demonic might harm her only child.

Fast forward two years, and first-time feature filmmaker, Iranian Babak Anvari, treads familiar ground yet manages to shift focus entirely and create the profound and unsettling Under the Shadow.

Here the social commentary sits even closer to the surface. The tale is set in Tehran circa 1988, at the height of the Iran/Iraq war and just a few years into the “Cultural Revolution” that enforced fundamentalist ideologies.

Shideh (a fearless Narges Rashidi) has been banned from returning to medical school because of her pre-war political leanings. Her husband, a practicing physician, is serving his yearly medical duty with the troops. This leaves Shideh and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in their apartment as missiles rain on Tehran.

What begins as a domestic drama suitable for fellow Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) turns slowly into something else entirely as Anvari dips into the horror trope toolbox to shake up our expectations with familiar devices.

When a dud missile plants itself in the roof of the building (shades of del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone), Dora starts talking to a secret friend. Maybe the friend would be a better mommy.

Frazzled, impatient, judged and constrained from all sides, Shideh’s nerve is hit with this threat. And as external and internal anxieties build, she’s no longer sure what she’s seeing, what she’s thinking, or what the hell to do about it.

The fact that this menacing presence – a djinn, or wind spirit – takes the shape of a flapping, floating burka is no random choice. Shideh’s failure in this moment will determine her daughter’s entire future.

Anvari casts the political climate meticulously, as forces beyond Shideh’s control – some supernatural, some cultural, all dangerous – surround her.

Though the strength of the cultural context sometimes undercuts the spookiness of the ghost story being told, Under the Shadow builds a strong case for itself as a horror film. Bursts of creepy imagery punctuate the increasingly tense atmosphere. It’s here that Anvari’s film is most effective, as you realize Shideh is better off dealing with ghouls than turning to neighbors or authorities for help.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

Fright Club: Best Middle Eastern Horror

There are countless reasons the Middle East has not been a hotspot of horror film output. Chief among them may be censorship, but the truth is that many of the countries in the area have a lot more to deal with right now than making movies.

Still, horror cinema has become a blossoming industry. Film as art has always been a renegade’s opportunity to make a political statement and horror can be an inexpensive way to speak your mind. Films like Omar Khan’s 2007 Pakistani horror mash-up Devil’s Ground, though highly flawed, worked as both an homage to Western horror tropes and a comment on Pakistani life. And the 2015 film Jeruzalem filmed its first-person found-footage right in the holy city.

Here we count down the five very best of the genre coming from the region in a podcast recorded live at Gateway Film Center.

5. Rabies (2010)

(Israel)
So, weirdly enough this film has literally nothing to do with rabies. Like, at all. But, it does have a relentless nature and seriously weird attitude, mashing together serial killer, slasher and wooded horror to nice effect.

Filmmakers Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales started their journey in film and in horror here, with a genre mishmash that mostly works.

We open in a pit. A pitiful woman is calling out from the darkness. We soon realize that she and her brother 1) have run away from something, and 2) share a dark, unseemly secret. But that’s almost beside the point.

This story introduces the serial killer who haunts the film but hardly does the most damage. When a group of lost tennis players wanders into the woods—first to help the brother, then to escape a morally questionable cop—and a good guy of a forest ranger gets mixed up in all of it, well, things take weird turns. Bloody turns.

There’s an unsettling comic element to everything and performances are uniformly excellent. It’s an ambitious effort that does not entirely satisfy, but you find yourself really pulling for some of these guys and completely forgetting about that landmine.

4. Baskin (2015)

(Turkey)
Welcome to hell! Turkish filmmaker Can Evrenol invites you to follow a 5-man police squad into the netherworld, where eye patches are all the rage, pregnancy lasts well under the traditional 40 weeks, and you don’t want to displease Daddy.

The serpentine sequencing of events evokes a dream logic that gives the film an inescapable atmosphere of dread, creepily underscored by its urgent synth score. Evrenol’s imagery is morbidly amazing. Much of it only glimpsed, most of it left unarticulated, but all of it becomes that much more disturbing for its lack of clarity.
The further along the squad gets, the more often you’ll look in horror at something off in a corner, that sneaking WTF? query developing along with your upset stomach.

The central figures in this nightmare are one eye-patch wearing helper who enjoys tossing his or her hair over one shoulder, and the breathtaking father figure played by Mehmet Cerrahoglu. There is no one quite like him.

Cerrahoglu’s remarkable presence authenticates the hellscape. Evrenol’s imaginative set design and wise lighting choices envelope Cerrahoglu, his writhing followers, and his victims in a bloody horror like little else in cinema.

3. Big Bad Wolves (2013)

(Israel)
A mixture of disturbing fairy tale and ugly reality, Israel’s Big Bad Wolves takes you places you really don’t want to go, but damn if it doesn’t keep you mesmerized every minute.

The particularly vulgar slaughter of several little girls sets events in motion. One teacher is suspected. One cop is driven. One father suffers from grief-stricken mania. It’s going to get really ugly.

Filmmakers Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado (Rabies) implicate everyone, audience included. They create intentional parallels among the three men, pointing to the hypocrisy of the chase and making accusations all around of a taste for the intoxicating bloodlust that comes from dominating a weaker person.

Their taut and twisty script keeps surprises coming, but it’s the humor that’s most unexpected. Handled with dark, dry grace by Lior Ashkenazi (the cop) and Tzahi Grad (the father) – not to mention Doval’e Glickman (the grandfather) – this script elicits shamefaced but magnetic interest. You cannot look away, even when the blowtorch comes out. And God help you, it’s hard not to laugh now and again.

2. Under the Shadow (2016)</h2 (Iran)
Our tale is set in Tehran circa 1988, at the height of the Iran/Iraq war and just a few years into the “Cultural Revolution” that enforced fundamentalist ideologies.

Shideh (a fearless Narges Rashidi) has been banned from returning to medical school because of her pre-war political leanings. Her husband, a practicing physician, is serving his yearly medical duty with the troops. This leaves Shideh and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in their apartment as missiles rain on Tehran.

When a dud missile plants itself in the roof of the building (shades of del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone), Dora starts talking to a secret friend. Maybe the friend would be a better mommy.

The fact that this menacing presence – a djinn, or wind spirit – takes the shape of a flapping, floating burka is no random choice. Shideh’s failure in this moment will determine her daughter’s entire future.

Anvari casts the political climate meticulously, as forces beyond Shideh’s control – some supernatural, some cultural, all dangerous – surround her.

Frazzled, impatient, judged and constrained from all sides, Shideh’s nerve is hit with this threat. And as external and internal anxieties build, she’s no longer sure what she’s seeing, what she’s thinking, or what the hell to do about it.

1. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

(Iran/US)
Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour has made the world’s first Iranian vampire movie, and though she borrows liberally and lovingly from a wide array of inspirations, the film she’s crafted is undeniably, peculiarly her own.

Amirpour is blessed with a cinematographer in Lyle Vincent capable of translating her theme of loneliness in a dead end town, as well as the cultural influences and Eighties pop references, into a seamless, hypnotic, mesmerizingly lovely vision. The film is simply, hauntingly gorgeous.

Amirpour develops a deliberate pace that makes the film feel longer, slower than is probably necessary. The time is spent with singular individuals – a prostitute (a world-wearied and magnificent Mozhan Marno), a drug-addicted father (Marshall Manesh), a street urchin (Milad Eghbali), a pimp (Dominic Rains), and a rich girl (Rome Shadanloo). Two people weave in among these players – the handsome Arash (Arash Marandi), and a lonesome vampire (Sheila Vand).

Though these are character types more than characters outright, Amirpour and her actors don’t abandon them. Each has breath and dimensionality, their fate a question that piques sympathy.

Vand’s Girl is the constant question mark, and that – along with the eerie, sometimes playful beauty of Vincent’s camerawork – is what makes the film unshakably memorable. I promise the image of a vampire on a skateboard will stay with you.

Fright Club: Best Horror of 2016

So much great horror in 2016! We may not have had that much to be happy about last year – besides the Cavs national championship (hooray!!) – but at least we can celebrate one outstanding 365 days of horror.

Joined by Killumbus Horror’s fearless leader Bridget, we argue about what is and is not horror – and whether Neon Demon thrills or disappoints – plus a few words on scissoring.

10. Demon

Like the mournful soul that clings to poor bridegroom Piotr (Itay Tiran), Demon sticks to you. Director/co-writer Marcin Wrona’s final feature (he ended his life at a recent festival where the film was playing) offers a spooky, atmospheric rumination on cultural loss.

Wrona sets the Hebrew folktale of the dybbuk – a ghost that possesses the living – inside a Catholic wedding, accomplishing two things in the process. On the surface, he tells an affecting ghost story. More deeply, though, he laments cultural amnesia and reminds us that our collective past continues to haunt us.

With just a hint of Kubrick – never a bad place to go for ghost story inspiration – Wrona combines the familiar with the surprising. His film echoes with a deeply felt pain -a sense of anguish, often depicted as scenes of celebration clash with unexplained images of abject grief.

9. The Love Witch

Wes Anderson with a Black Mass fetish and a feminist point of view, Anna Biller wrote/directed/produced/edited/set-designed/costume-designed/music-supervised the seductive sorcery headtrip The Love Witch.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson – demented perfection) needs a change of scenery. Driving her red convertible up the seacoast highway toward a new life in northern California, her troubles – and her mysteriously dead ex-husband – are behind her. Surely, with her smart eyeshades and magic potions, she’ll find true love.

Expect a loose confection of a plot, as Elaine molds herself into the ideal sex toy, winning and then tiring of her trophies. This allows Biller to simultaneously reaffirm and reverse gender roles with appropriately wicked humor.

8. 10 Cloverfield Lane

Less a sequel than a tangentially related piece, 10 Cloverfield Lane amplifies tensions with genuine filmmaking craftsmanship, unveiling more than one kind of monster.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes from a car crash handcuffed to a pipe in a bunker. Howard (John Goodman, top-notch as usual), may simply be saving her from herself and the apocalypse outside. Good natured Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) certainly thinks so.

Goodman is phenomenal, but Winstead and Gallagher prove, once again, to be among the strongest young actors working in independent film today.

Talented newcomer Dan Trachtenberg toys with tensions as well as claustrophobia in a film that finds often terrifying relevance in the most mundane moments, each leading through a mystery to a hell of a climax.

7. The Wailing

“Why are you troubled,” Jesus asked, “and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see — for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

Though the true meaning of this quote won’t take hold until the final act, it presents many questions. Is this film supernatural? Demonic? Or, given the corporeal nature of the quote, is it rooted in the human flesh?

Yes.

That’s what makes the quote so perfect. Na meshes everything together in this bucolic horror where superstition and religion blend. The film echoes with misery, as the title suggests. The filmmaker throws every grisly thing at you – zombies, pustules, demonic possession, police procedural, multiple homicides – and yet keeps it all slippery with overt comedy.

6. The Greasy Strangler

Like the by-product of a high cholesterol diet, The Greasy Strangler will lodge itself into your brain and do a lot of damage.

A touching father/son story about romance, car washes and disco, this movie is like little else ever set to film. Both men fall for one particular “rootie tootie disco cutie,” and if that wasn’t enough, there’s a marauder on the loose – an inhuman beast covered head to toe in cooking grease.

The brilliantly awkward comedy leaves you scratching your head. Every absurd character begs for more screen time, and yet, each gag (and you will gag) goes on for an almost unendurable length of time.

The result is ingenious. Or repellant. Or maybe hilarious – it just depends on your tolerance for WTF horror and sick, sick shit. Whatever else it may be, though, The Greasy Strangler is – I promise you – hard to forget.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPl1vcb4hao

5. Don’t Breathe

For his sophomore effort Don’t Breathe, director Fede Alvarez dials down the blood and gore in favor of almost unbearable tension generated through masterful deployment of set design, sound design, cinematography and one sparse but effective premise.

Young thugs systematically robbing the few remaining upscale Detroit homeowners follow their alpha to a surefire hit: a blind man (Stephen Lang) sitting on $300k.

This is a scrappy film that gives you very little in the way of character development, backstory or scope. Instead, Alvarez focuses so intently on what’s in front of you that you cannot escape – a tension particularly well suited to this claustrophobic nightmare.

4. Under the Shadow

Our tale is set in Tehran circa 1988, at the height of the Iran/Iraq war and just a few years into the “Cultural Revolution” that enforced fundamentalist ideologies.

Shideh (a fearless Narges Rashidi) has been banned from returning to medical school because of her pre-war political leanings. Her husband, a practicing physician, is serving his yearly medical duty with the troops. This leaves Shideh and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in their apartment as missiles rain on Tehran.

When a dud missile plants itself in the roof of the building (shades of del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone), Dora starts talking to a secret friend. Maybe the friend would be a better mommy.

The fact that this menacing presence – a djinn, or wind spirit – takes the shape of a flapping, floating burka is no random choice. Shideh’s failure in this moment will determine her daughter’s entire future.

3. Green Room

The tragic loss of 27-year-old talent Anton Yelchin makes this one bittersweet. Young punk band the Ain’t Rights is in desperate need of a paying gig, even if it is at a rough private club for the “boots and braces” crowd (i.e. white power skinheads). Bass guitarist Pat (Yelchin) eschews social media promotion for the “time and aggression” of live shows, and when he accidentally witnesses a murder in the club’s makeshift green room, Pat and his band find plenty of both.

Along with concertgoer Amber (a terrific Imogen Poots), they’re held at gunpoint while the club manager (Macon Blair from Blue Ruin) fetches the mysterious Darcy (Patrick Stewart, gloriously grim) to sort things out. Though Darcy is full of calm reassurances, it quickly becomes clear the captives will have to fight for their lives.

As he did with Blue Ruin, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier plunges unprepared characters into a world of casual savagery, finding out just what they have to offer in a nasty backwoods standoff.

It’s lean, mean, loud and grisly, and a ton of bloody fun.

2. The Eyes of My Mother

First time feature writer/director Nicolas Pesce, with a hell of an assist from cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, casts an eerie spell of lonesome bucolic horror.

There is much power in dropping an audience into a lived-in world – the less we know, the better. Pesce understands this in the same way Tobe Hooper did with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and though The Eyes of My Mother lacks the cynicism, satire and power tools of Hooper’s farmhouse classic, it treads some similar ground.

Where Eyes differs most dramatically from other films is in its restraint. The action is mostly off-screen, leaving us with the sounds of horror and the quiet clean-up of its aftermath to tell us more than we really want to know.

1. The Witch

In set design, dialog, tension-building and performances this film creates an unseemly familial intimacy that you feel guilty for stumbling into. There is an authenticity here – and an opportunity to feel real empathy for this Puritan family – that may never have been reached in a “burn the witch” horror film before.

On the surface The Witch is an “into the woods” horror film that manages to be one part The Crucible, one part The Shining. Below that, though, is a peek into radicalization as relevant today as it would have been in the 1600s.

Beautiful, authentic and boasting spooky lines and images that are equally beautiful and haunting, it is a film – painstakingly crafted by writer/director Robert Eggers – that marks a true new visionary for the genre.

Fright Club: Single Parent Horror

All the single ladies, all the single ladies – unfortunately, life does not always turn out as well for us as it does for Beyonce. Today we celebrate and fear the horror that can befall the single parent. Your kids may be monsters. Monsters may be after your kids. You may be the monster. Maybe it’s all three at once. Whatever the case, horror filmmakers have found a way to hit some very effective buttons when exploring the horror potential in a single parent home.

5. The Ring (2002)

Let’s be honest, Rachel (Naomi Watts) is not much of a mother. Were it not for her sloppy parenting, her precocious son Aidan (adorable and creepy David Dorfman) might not even be in this mess. But she left her VHS tape laying around, paid no attention to what he was up to, and now Samara is coming for him.

Gore Verbinski one-upped Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Japanese original Ringu with this deeply creepy, well-executed nightmare, much of it centering on questionable parenting. Both Watts and Dorfman are excellent, each creating a character that is somehow rigid and distant, but you long for tenderness between them. Dorfman’s wise-beyond-his-years performance feels both chilly and vulnerable, and the relationship here creates an off-kilter foundation for the horrific mystery unfolding.

Everything about this film is done well – the images on the video tape, the looks on the faces of the victims, that horse bit on the boat, Brian Cox in the bathtub, Samara climbing out of the well! Verbinski strings together one nightmare image after another, but the tension of whether or not Rachel has the wherewithal to save the son she hasn’t paid enough attention to in the first place is what holds these together.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PkgRhzq_BQ

4. Goodnight Mommy (2014)

There is something eerily beautiful about Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s rural Austrian horror Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, Ich seh).

During one languid summer, twin brothers Lukas and Elias await their mother’s return from the hospital. But when their mom comes home, bandaged from the cosmetic surgery she underwent, the brothers fear more has changed than just her face.

Inside this elegantly filmed environment, where sun dappled fields lead to leafy forests, the filmmakers mine a kind of primal childhood fear. There’s a subtle lack of compassion that works the nerves beautifully, because it’s hard to feel too badly for the boys or for their mother. You don’t wish harm on any of them, but at the same time, their flaws make all three a bit terrifying.

Performances by young brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz compel interest, while Susanne Wuest’s cagey turn as the boys’ mother propels the mystery. It’s a hypnotic, bucolic adventure as visually arresting as it is utterly creepy.

3. Under the Shadow (2016)

The tale is set in Tehran circa 1988, at the height of the Iran/Iraq war and just a few years into the “Cultural Revolution” that enforced fundamentalist ideologies.

Shideh (a fearless Narges Rashidi) has been banned from returning to medical school because of her pre-war political leanings. Her husband, a practicing physician, is serving his yearly medical duty with the troops. This leaves Shideh and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in their apartment as missiles rain on Tehran.

When a dud missile plants itself in the roof of the building (shades of del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone), Dora starts talking to a secret friend. Maybe the friend would be a better mommy.

Frazzled, impatient, judged and constrained from all sides, Shideh’s nerve is hit with this threat. And as external and internal anxieties build, she’s no longer sure what she’s seeing, what she’s thinking, or what the hell to do about it.

The fact that this menacing presence – a djinn, or wind spirit – takes the shape of a flapping, floating burka is no random choice. Shideh’s failure in this moment will determine her daughter’s entire future.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fhejr94P14

2. Psycho (1960)

Was Norman Bates psychotic from the start? Or was he smothered into madness by his mother?

Hard to say – Mrs. Bates can’t speak for herself, can she? Although Norman’s mother is not a character in Hitchcock’s classic, her presence is everywhere. But to be fair, we don’t get to see her as she was, we only get to see her as Norman sees her.

Whatever the case, Norman has an unhealthy attachment to his late mother, a single parent whose relationship with her son may have driven him to some very bad deeds. Part of Hitchcock’s skill in this film is to play with our expectations of the characters.

The heroine has done some questionable things. The villain is the most sympathetic character onscreen. The most relevant character in the story isn’t even in the film. Was Mrs. Bates really a bad mom, or does she just seem like that to us because we see her through Norman’s eyes, and he’s a psycho?

1. Babadook (2014)

You’re exhausted – just bone-deep tired – and for the umpteenth night in a row your son refuses to sleep. You let him choose a book to read, and he hands you a pop-up you don’t recognize: The Babadook. Pretty soon, your son isn’t the only one afraid of what’s in the shadows.

Filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s film is expertly written and beautifully acted, boasting unnerving performances from not only a stellar lead in Essie Davis, but also the alarmingly spot-on young Noah Wiseman. Davis’s lovely, loving Amelia is so recognizably wearied by her only child’s erratic, sometimes violent behavior that you cannot help but pity her, and sometimes fear for her, and other times fear her.

Likewise, Wiseman delivers as a tender, confused, dear little boy you sometimes just want to throttle. Their naturalistic performances genuinely showcase the baggage that can exist between a parent and a child.

Much of what catapults The Babadook beyond similar “presence in my house” flicks is the allegorical nature of the story. There’s an almost subversive relevance to the familial tensions because of their naked honesty, and the fight with the shadowy monster as well as the film’s unusual resolution heighten tensions.

The film’s subtext sits so close to the surface that it threatens to burst through. Though that does at times weaken the fantasy, it gives the film a terrifying urgency. In the subtext there is a primal horror, a taboo rarely visited in film and certainly never examined with such sympathy. Indeed, the compassion in the film may be the element that makes it so very unsettling.