Under the Shadow (2016) sees a mother struggle to maintain a normal family life in war-torn 1980s Tehran amidst Iraqi bombs and a mysterious evil presence.
BAFTA award-winning, foreign language, original setting, social commentary, Mark Kermode-approved: everything a latte-supping cosmopolitan liberal like myself loves. Yet this Iranian The Babadook doesn’t quite work.
Where Babadook was a nerve-shredding slowburn, Under the Shadow was just a patience-shredding slow. Babbadook‘s is-it-isn’t-it-real psychological terror has been replaced with going-nowhere social commentary on feminism in post-revolutionary Iran. A truly scary “monster” and creepy apartment building can’t hide the lack of focus or peril. Disappointing.
Under the Shadow (2016) depicts a mother and daughter struggling to maintain a normal life in war-torn 1980s Tehran. After their father and husband is conscripted, Iraqi bombs start raining down. In a visually striking moment, one bomb lodges in the building’s roof: it doesn’t explode, but it seems to bring a mysterious evil with it that begins to tear the family apart.
This BAFTA award-winning horror has long been on my “must watch” list. Sadly, I’m no longer a freeloading undergraduate with cash and time to spare, so I couldn’t catch it at the cinema. Luckily, Netflix bought it — a surefire sign that the film was gold — and I got to watch it this weekend.
Called an “Iranian Babadook” due to its slow build and psychological horror element, this film holds a 7.0 on IMDB and 98% fresh on RottenTomatoes — rarely heard of scores for a horror. Foreign language? Check. Original setting? Check. Social commentary? Check. Mark Kermode approved? Check. It’s everything that a latte-supping cosmopolitan liberal like myself should love. And how I wanted to love it. But this was the single-handed most disappointing film experience I have had in years.
Where The Babadook was a nerve-shredding slowburn, Under the Shadow was just a patience-shredding slow. 82 minutes never felt so long. The film wasn’t awful: jaunts to the basement bomb shelter were creepy, the sound design was at times deeply unsettling, and the evil presence was original and truly scary. But unlike The Babadook which nigh-on perfectly balanced psychological terror, monster scares, and possible mental breakdown in a is-it-isn’t-it-real stylee, Under the Shadow just felt like a going-nowhere social commentary on the state of women in post-revolutionary Iran with a bit of bump-in-the-night thrown in. Tension wasn’t maintained, the film didn’t feel like it was headed anywhere, and our mother and daughter, strangely, never truly seem imperilled by the menacing presence. The picture juggles several themes, yet never delivers on any of them. Smaller productions often suffer from fewer rewrites, Under the Shadow is no exception: this is a screenplay crying out for another round or two of redrafting. It never fulfils the ample potential it hints at.
However, the acting, direction, clever construction, and originality save the film somewhat. Memorable, note-worthy, but sadly Under the Shadow just doesn’t hang together.
The Hole In The Ground is the remarkably well-accomplished debut feature from Irish writer-director Lee Cronin. Single mother Sarah (Seána Kerslake) has upped sticks to the remote Irish countryside with her eight year old son Chris (James Quin Markey). After Chris goes for a mysterious midnight stroll in the nearby forest, Sarah begins to notice disturbing changes in his character. Is this even her son at all? Cleverly, rather than Cronin have Chris’s behaviour deteriorate, the opposite occurs; where once he was sullen, withdrawn, and shy, he becomes calmly positive, controlled, and popular at school. But there’s just something off about this change of character, something that only a mother would notice, and I have to say wonderfully sold by young actor James Quin Markey. Seána Kerslake also convinces.
A gut-churning slowburn, this horror-thriller reminds me distinctly of 2014’s equally nerve-shredding The Honeymoon. It also shares DNA strands with The Babadook; has her son really been replaced, or is it all in her own mind? Just as in The Babadook, we start to fear for what this tormented mother might do to her own child, whilst also fearing that she is right.
The dank forest is beautifully shot and feels ancient, like nefarious creatures from Celtic myths might indeed dwell there, every tree seeming to have its own personality. The sinkhole in the centre of the wood projects an eerie and malevolent presence.
We are kept guessing until the very end: has Chris been replaced, or is his mother losing her mind? Credit again to Lee Cronin for eschewing any of the tempting and obvious potential twist-endings that the film could suggest. Rather, I found the ending befitting and equally horrifying. Without giving the game away, I can say that this family will never be quite the same again.
Genuinely disturbing, the psychological horror builds slowly but powerfully. How does it compare to other “forest horror” films? Fans of The Honeymoon should definitely watch this, fans of The Blair WitchProject might like it, and fans of CabinFever could probably give this movie a miss.
The Hole In The Ground is the remarkably well-accomplished debut feature from Irish writer-director Lee Cronin. Single mother Sarah (Seána Kerslake) has upped sticks to the countryside with her eight year old son Chris (James Quin Markey). After Chris goes for a mysterious midnight stroll in the nearby forest, Sarah begins to notice disturbing changes in his character. Is this even her son at all?
A gut-churning slowburn, this horror-thriller recalls 2014’s equally nerve-shredding The Honeymoon and shares DNA with The Babadook. Convincing central performances and potent sound design and cinematography.
We are kept guessing until the very end: has her son really been replaced, or is it all in her own mind? A true delight.
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