I think this is the first horror film I have seen that has real depth. The setting is extraordinary, 1988 in Tehran in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, mainly in the home of a young middle-class family. Father Iraj, a doctor, is conscripted to the front line leaving Mother Shideh and daughter Dorsa to fend for themselves when an unexploded missile devastates the top floor of their apartment block. Shideh, played brilliantly by Narges Rashidi, has been cruelly prevented from continuing her medical studies due to her political involvement in the Iranian revolution, and is constantly reminded by the patriarchal religious society she lives in that, as a woman, she is weak and incapable, encapsulated by her landlord’s insistence that it is she who is not shutting the gate to the garage properly due to her weakness (as a woman). Her internal struggle is externalised as her daughter Dorsa begins complaining of ‘something’ in their flat, which she claims is a Djinn, according to the mysterious boy next door.
Avin Manshadi, the girl playing Dorsa, is incredibly believable, adding a chilling reality to the seemingly supernatural events that unfold, beginning with the disappearance of her doll. Too young to have experienced the Iran-Iraq war first hand, the severity of the conflict seems to have somehow entered this young actress’s consciousness as her reactions to both her parents, the explosions and the confusion of not fully understanding what is going on are absolutely spot on. She deserves a paragraph of her own!
There are two ways of watching this film, the first is as a pure horror, and with perfectly timed jump moments and quite disturbing imagery it ticks that box nicely. However, layers and insight are its real strength. Director Babak Anvari has bravely highlighted the lives and fears of people living through not only a bloody war, female oppression and religious law, but the daily troubles that vex the average family the world over (oh, and the presence of a supernatural being hiding stuff and generally being frightening). The overarching theme of this film is the struggle of a Jane Fonda-loving, liberal, intelligent and strong woman in an environment in which she has to hide her VHS player, not step out of her house without a chador, put up with not being allowed to study and cower in the basement for fear of bombs at the drop of a hat. It is left to the viewer to decide whether the Djinn are real, if they are a stress-induced psychosis, or whether the entire film is a clever metaphor, with the protagonist’s suffocating need for escape not so much being from the Ghoulies as from the grip of societal and religious pressure.
I feel this is an important film, and one I would suggest not only going to see, but going to see again, and learning from, because it has taught me more about the plight of women in a man’s world than any documentary I have seen, encouraged me to read more about one of the longest continuous wars in history and has given me an insight into a society and religion I knew very little about, including their folklore. It also made me jump out of my seat several times.