Babak Anvari’s debut has been compared to Jennifer Kent’s phenomenal The Babadook, and genre fans should be excited to hear it’s not just because both films feature a difficult relationship between a mother and her child and a metaphor-laden supernatural foe. It’s also because this one of the most terrifying supernatural horrors in recent years.
Tehran, 1988, and the Iran-Iraq war is raging. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is struggling with the fact that her political past means that she cannot resume medical school, a frustration that causes friction between her, her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). When Iraj is conscripted, he begs Shideh to take Dorsa and leave their apartment block and head to the hills but she refuses. As the missiles get closer, a strange presence begins to make its presence known…
Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone is clearly a strong influence, with its use of the spectre of conflict (and an unexploded bomb). However, Anvari’s film deserves much more than comparisons. This is an intelligent, sensitive and extremely scary film with psychological and sociological layers that will reward repeat viewings.
Shideh is a fascinating and complex character and Rashidi is superb. She’s sympathetic but not sugarcoated, a woman who’s been held back by the society she lives in, but never reduced to a statement. Her relationship with her daughter feels incredibly honest in its affection and difficulty, and it makes the terror all the more affecting.
During the opening scene, in which Shideh makes her case to a university official, we see a distant explosion through a window. This state of ever-present danger is expertly used, as Anvari never overplays it but keeps us constantly on edge. The tape on the windows, the power cuts, the sprints to the basement bomb shelter…The shadow of death is always there.
And then there’s the horror itself. Anvari keeps his spectres just out of sight, in the corner of the frame, so that we’re never sure if something’s there…until it moves. It’s incredibly tense stuff, and when the film wants to frighten you, it really does. This is superb horror with got modern classic written all over it.