Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Feb 29, 2016 6:50 pm 
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Netflix's Iranian horror movie

Genre mashups are the rage now and so we get - what? A domestic drama-cum-political thriller-cum-horror movie, from Iran, set in Teheran in the middle of the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980's. Repression is full-on, so doctor's wife Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is told in the opening scene (reminiscent of other Iranian film openings like A Separation) where a university bureaucrat tells her no, she can't belatedly come back to medical school, and her political activity during the revolution is the reason. So she's back to caring for her insecure daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), still wetting her bed and morbidly attached to her doll, Kiria. Slowly, very slowly, djinns (which Shideh doesn't believe in) take over, when daddy Iraj (Bobby Naderi) has been called to the front.

It's an unusual mix, and Under the Shadow qualifies as a novelty item. It may function better and be less morbidly pleased with itself than the Iranian vampire movie Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (ND/NF 2014). But as can happen with contempo, "realistic" horror, it gives rise to the suspicion that the real life around these characters would be more horrible by itself. In fact, the bangs and clangs of the djinns -- and a spectral woman, clothes with nothing inside, who begins stealing away Dorsa's affections -- have a hard time competing with the missiles and bombs going off all around. What seems really horrible, and also stupid, is that Shideh refuses to leave Teheran and stay with Iraj's parents in the country, safe from bombardments, and goes on living in an apartment building ever other resident has left, which is full of bomb holes, which people inexplicably mend with what looks like extra-wide Scotch tape. And when Iraj is really nasty to Shideh on the phone -- that's horrible.

This film has been compared to the routine, maybe, but much much better horror movie The Babadook (ND/NF 2014) because this too has mother and child relationship that goes south due to a possession of sorts. The way Iraj and Shideh quarrel in the early scenes has a nice realism that sets off the creepier events that follow, though they also have the feel of scenes from a telenovela. Nice details include a new neighbor boy who has gone must since his parents got killed, but suddenly talks to Dorsa; and a pious woman neighbor who, as Justin Chang says in his Variety] review, helpfully points out the "mythology" of the film, that Dorsa's (or her doll's!) troubles are most likely due to a djinn's possessing them, which makes the disappearance of Kiria, the doll, and the medical book Shideh received from her late mother, the more ominious.

Is the ending, when Shideh and Dorsa finally leave in their little car with the lost doll finally found and repaired, hauntingly ambiguous, or deeply ironic? I'm afraid that it felt merely lame and anticlimactic. Under the Shadow obviously has many unique features qualifying it as one in a series of offbeat festival horror films, but if you want to be scared out of your wits, go elsewhere.

Under the Shadow, 84 mins., in Farsi, debuted at Sundance 22 Jan. 2016 and was acquired by Netflix. Screened as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center/Museum of Modern Art series New Directors/New Films and scheduled as the opening night film.

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