Under the Shadow: A TADFF 2016 Review

It’s been said that the German film Nosferatu was created, at least in part, to exorcise the ghosts of World War I. If there is any truth in that, then Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow does something similar. Under the Shadow takes place during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. The Iranian Revolution that changed the country into a theocratic regime happened not even a few years ago and the people of Iran, particularly Tehran in Under the Shadow, suffer through constant missile attacks from Saddam Hussein.

Enter Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a former medical student and mother who can no longer continue her studies due to her involvement with “subversive political groups” before the Revolution. There is tension between her and her husband, a doctor named Iraj (Bobby Naderi): a combination of the usual couple arguments, combined with the anxiety of being bombed, and the strain of having a relationship and Shideh wanting a modicum of power and support under a patriarchal regime. In fact, there is tension throughout the entirety of the film: watching the fear of the family hiding in their apartment’s bomb shelter, waiting for the next bomb to drop, wondering if Iraj will die on the battlefront he’s stationed at, and even one heart-stopping moment when Shideh leaves with their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) in a panic and accidentally forgets her hajib: a moment where corporal punishment becomes a truly grim possibility.

And this doesn’t even cover the Jinn.

According to Middle-Eastern mythology Jinn are spirits made of air. In the Quran, they are like humans except while humans are, arguably, made of earth, jinn are made of air. They coexist alongside humanity in various ways, and they and angels were made with humanity. The Jinn in Under the Shadow are not kindly ones. They exist in, and feed off of fear and anxiety. They travel through the desert wind. They are creatures of air and as such affect oxygen, dreams, and the perceptions of the mind. If they gain an object special to a human being, they will haunt them until they possess and destroy them. However, in Under the Shadow possession has a whole other kind of connotation.

Under the Shadow in a lot of ways might as well be called Under the Veil. The Jinn are metaphorical for the gaslighting, insecurities perpetuated on women and the need for authority to control women and their bodies. They also represent the chaos of war and uncertainty of death. In the film they constantly prey on Shideh’s and Dorsa’s relationship made fraught by the patriarchy around them. It’s also no coincidence that one of the Jinn uses constant misogynist slurs against Shideh in the form and voice of her husband, and another takes on the form of an embroidered veil and shawl that threatens to consume both Shideh and Dorsa: symbolizing perhaps the internalized misogyny of a neighbour and a terrifying sense of superstition that institutionalized religion in Iran during this does nothing to alleviate, but only worsen. In fact, it becomes clear in a lot of ways that they are a part of it.

In addition patriarchy, oppressive regimes, and war have another thing in common with Anvari’s Jinn. They all take pieces of a person’s life away, meaningful objects like a medical text given by a wishful mother, or a child’s doll. They threaten to steal innocence and all the good in your life, tainting it with violence and trauma until nothing is left. The sudden, terrifying jump scares of the Jinn, the bomb alarms, and the bombings are somehow made a minor part of the horror that these Jinn represent in this film.

As a child of the 1980s myself, it is sobering to see the life that another family had in another place and culture at this time. The Jane Fonda exercise tapes that Shideh uses to lose herself on her illegal VCR really hits that home that a different life was happening in Iran than in other places. If Nosferatu was an attempt to exorcise the spirits of war from post-WWI Germany, then Under the Shadow is an attempt to reveal the supposedly invisible forces behind the Iran-Iraq War and life in Tehran at time, to give understanding to us instead of allowing the Jinn to take more away. This was an excellent international film and the Toronto After Dark chose it well.

Trash Fire: A TADFF 2016 Review

You know, sometimes before even walk into a horror movie you know it’s going to disembowel you. I don’t mean that in the gore sense of horror but mainly in the visceral part of you: right inside your very emotional core.

Writer and director Richard Bates Jr. punches you in the stomach with his horror comedy Trash Fire. His characters don’t pull their punches either. Owen (Adrian Grenier) and Isabelle (Angela Trimbur) are a paradox. They are clearly a dysfunctional couple that appear almost completely unsympathetic. At the same time there is an honesty to their characters that is compelling and for all their cruel words to each other a genuine love. It’s not romantic love but that kind of fierce imploding magnetic force that is just there. It can’t really be explained. It’s like their violent truths cancel or balance rach other out.

Initially the real horror intermixed with sharp and unforgiving witty one liners was watching Owen and Isabelle’s relationship. And then Violet (Fionnula Flannigan), Owen’s cruel and twisted religious fanatic grandmother and Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord), Owen’s reclusive younger sister are introduced in this dynamic.

Isabelle is pregnant and in order to convince her to keep the baby and continue their relationship Owen agrees to reunite with what is left of his estranged family. Owen has seizures based on a fire that killed his parents and covered eighty percent of his sister’s body with third degree burns. He also ran away and abandoned Pearl to their grandmother years ago.

It goes about as well as you can expect.

The characterization in Trash Fire is excellent. Richard Bates Jr. plays with your expectations. Violet is evil and creepy but she is refreshingly hilarious. Pearl is a complex character with her own desires, a sweetness tempered by a degree of creepiness, an incredible awareness, and an anger and sadness towards her scarring and her life rivaling that of the Phantom of the Opera. The slow reveal of just how badly she’s physically disfigured is also subverted. Pearl is actually one of the most compelling LGBTQ characters in a horror movie I’ve seen. The fact that she is shut in a room most of the time, and makes crafts out of the mirrors she breaks says a lot of things. You also learn that her scars don’t even begin to equal the ugliness in the human interactions we see throughout this entire film.

Even Owen and Isabelle, who I thought I’d enjoy seeing killed or maimed became more sympathetic as they spent time at Violet’s house. They seemed worse when surrounded by a flat, ubiquitous one-dimensional world often portrayed by the horror genre as “normal” than when dealing with the honest dysfunctionality and eventual evil of Owen’s family life.

There are some confusing bits of course. Sometimes the character developments are jarring: like they have been written after the fact. Owen’s differing recollections could be the result of PTSD and its screaming distorted segments of his family on fire, and maybe serial killing takes a while to warm up in Violet’s twilight years, but there is literally one character towards the end of the film that goes … nowhere. He comes into the scene and he is gone. It is a minor plot point that could have at least been a death but just does nothing.

All that said, Trash Fire‘s ending hits like a son of a bitch. Richard Bates Jr. couldn’t be at the After Dark screening and in his Director’s Words he said he almost wished he could be there to give the audience a hug. The movie ends as dysfunctionally as it began and I know that I will always remember Trash Fire for it.