Tehran, 1988. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) looks after her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) while her husband Iraj (Naderi) does military service. As Iraqi missiles fall on the city, Dorsa insists they are being haunted by a supernatural creature called a djinn.
Relocating a familiar story to an unfamiliar setting often pays off, especially in horror and suspense. Here, circumstances unique to Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War mean heroine Shideh (Rashidi) has to deal with troubles above and beyond being targeted by an evil spirit. If this were Poltergeist, JoBeth Williams could flee a haunted house in the middle of the night without being arrested by religious police who think a woman on the streets without a hijab is a more serious violation of the natural order of things than child-snatching ghosts. “The penalty is lashes,” warns an old authority figure, who is plainly congratulating himself for showing mercy to someone who doesn’t deserve it. Then the frightened woman is forced to go back to the flat where a djinn has designs on her daughter.
Babak Anvari delivers an outstanding slow-burn horror film with potent jump scares.
Iranian-born, British-raised writer-director Babak Anvari — who shot this in Jordan and Qatar — takes a few cues from The Babadook and Mama as the heroine is repeatedly tormented by accusations she’s an unfit mother. The first reel or so is uneasy character drama, carried by Rashidi’s strong work in a complicated role — we’re hardwired to admire Shideh for her feminist ambition, but she isn’t always easy to like. Almost everything in her life is calculated to nag her to madness — a petty landlord who disapproves of her driving a car, periodic air raids and spells huddled in the basement, a prized VCR (plus Jane Fonda workout tape) which has to be hidden from the authorities. The supernatural — and, unambiguously, there really is a haunting here — creeps in slowly, as things go wrong or go missing. Figures are glimpsed, Dorsa says she’s been told about the djinn by a refugee boy whose carers claim never speaks and Shideh has bad dreams cruelly directed at her feelings of maternal inadequacy.
As missiles fall on the city — one lodging unexploded in the roof of an upstairs flat — other tenants find ways of getting away, until Shideh and Dorsa are left alone in the building. Or not quite alone, since even the rational heroine comes to believe an evil spirit is in the house, luring Dorsa away by promising to be a better mother. The reason Shideh can’t leave to stay with her in-laws in an unbombed area of the country is banal, sinister and unnervingly convincing — Dorsa’s favourite doll has gone missing and the child has hysterics if it’s even suggested they evacuate without finding it first. Djinn, apparently, are given to latching on to their victims by taking prized objects. Shideh is driven to desperation by her child’s impossible demands, which don’t let up even after the doll is found — in unsatisfactory condition.
It’s a serious movie about pressure on an independent-minded woman living under Sharia law, but Anvari also delivers an outstanding slow-burn horror film with potent jump scares — one jolt is as well-timed and effective as anything since the hand-from-the-grave in Carrie or the shattered window in Halloween — and a sparingly used but startling toothy apparition. As if mocking the cartoon notion of a spook being a bed sheet with eyeholes, the demon occasionally takes the form of a giant sheet — taunting Shideh as a gargantuan form of the hijab she keeps struggling with — and a cruel deception involving a changeling delivers several great last-reel shocks.
A quality ghost story with an unusual backdrop and great performances.