An Iranian take on The Exorcist might not sound like the most obvious idea for yet another '80s period horror feature, but somehow it all comes together in Babak Anvari's story of both man made and otherworldly disturbances. While the setting and some of the mythology take some getting used to, there is something slightly familiar about a potentially supernatural problem surrounding a young child as her parents have domestic problems which, at first, seem to be the real cause of the problem. This joint venture between UK-Qatar-Jordan production companies to make a Persian language chiller is a solid mixture of established ideas and intriguing new ones which adds a few added layers of war time subtext to make it complete.
Shideh (Narges Rashidi) faces a lot of real world problems before the eerie goings on start to make things worse. Besides frequent air raids on Tehran and her partner being drafted to work as a doctor on the front lines, her own medical career faces a major road block after the university she is trying to finish her qualifications at refuses to take her studies any further. As her home life falls apart, so does the apartment building they live in and the tenants begin to move away. It's this slow burning story which keeps things engaging in the first couple of acts, the mundane aspects provide plenty of characterisation while allowing reasons for her daughter's behavioural problems to develop. Themes of grief, parenthood and oppression are all included to make it interesting beyond the spooky apartment.
In terms of methodical mood building the pace is hardly racing, but it allows for plenty of atmosphere. The cracks in the roof of the building and those in Shideh's relationship provide a lot of sympathetic moments, while others are surprisingly sinister despite the everyday setting. The windows are taped up to prevent broken glass and the family lives in constant threat of both falling bombs and paramilitary suspicion. Illegal foreign exercise videos are hidden from repair men while more conservative families spread rumours about the supernatural. It's this kind of detailed storytelling that allows me to forgive my count of two modern jump scare inclusions that might have been avoided. Things ramp up slowly, whether it's the sighting of evil spirits in the bedroom at night or the news that neighbouring Iraq has acquired new missiles that make the city warning sirens useless.
The apparitions themselves aren't too removed from the usual haunting figures from every other ghost story, but their descriptions as Djinn or 'spirits of the air' is interesting enough to allow some fresh ideas. Their appearances range from suddenly creepy to overtly fantastical but they're used sparingly during the running time. The vision of a floating, suffocating chādor cloak adds a certain element of subtext to the post Iranian revolution setting which is an interesting choice, and is brief enough to avoid being too blunt for the most part. Thankfully the third act doesn't resort to calling the local religious believer who warns them about the problem earlier on, generally it never does anything so hokey even if there are some effects sequences in the finale.
The last few minutes are complete with all the running and torch lit chases you'd anticipate. They aren't quite unusual enough for it to deliver fully, but there are enough weird moments that make in stand out from some of the more basic horror tales out there. The rest of the film is slow and full of moments of characterisation that make it an engaging piece of work. The title alludes to the central metaphor but it's never directly addressed allowing for interpretation and casual enjoyment. This isn't quite as sinister and claustrophobic as The VVitch but these two certainly make for a good 2016 horror double act. It's worth a look for anyone interesting in a foray into this genre which brings more food for thought than you might suspect.
SING STREET (2016)
There's never really anything new under the sun, but a well executed story goes a long way to solving the problem. This sort of sums up John Carney's school drama about the domestic problems of youngsters being alleviated by their aspirations for musical fame. Any number of stories about underdog characters pushing against authority figures while events events run of their control could be cited here, but the ingredients are measured well enough for it to come together.
Bullying antagonists who aren't all that they seem, troubled love interests with bigger issues under the surface, parents on the edge of splitting up - it's all familiar stuff. The choice of Dublin during the 1980s adds a layer of economic grime to it all while the music itself is enjoyable enough as the young band members try to ape Duran Duran and Hall & Oates while figuring out how to actually play instruments and create music videos. The human drama and the message about the power of imagination might feel a little trite, but it's got a lot of heart and plenty of character.