Empire (UK) - - ON SCREEN - Kim new­man

direc­tor Babak An­vari cast narges Rashidi, Avin man­shadi, Bobby naderi

Plot Tehran, 1988. Shideh (Rashidi) looks af­ter her daugh­ter dorsa (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.

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.

ver­dict A qual­ity ghost story with an un­usual back­drop and great per­for­mances. it’s sub­tler than, say, the In­sid­i­ous movies, but also laces its grip­ping mother-daugh­ter drama with po­tent, old-fash­ioned scares.

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