Review: The Witch / Under the Shadow

The problem with horror films is that there are not enough horror films. Let me rephrase, the problem with horror films is that there are not enough good ones. Great ones. That might not be an issue for you, but I love a good scare. A high level of intrigue. Being startled, wondering whats behind that door, those trees. Strange, unexplainable behavior. The danger to humanity, the innocent. Oh I could go on and on. When we talk about really good horror films now it is a rare occurrence for a reason. In 2016 we talked about the return of the Blair Witch, there was yet more occult with The Conjuring 2 and Ouija: Origin of Evil, and there were some genuinely impressive creepy moments in Don’t Breathe. As far as unadulterated, quality horror films goes, there were to almighty gems that stand in the top tier. Terrific motion pictures from breakout filmmakers, dwelling the endangered children and their somewhat helpless guardians, engulfing our attention with well thought-out conventions of horror execution.

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The Witch (or The VVitch) is a New England folktale by admittance, taking us back to the 17th century to witness a cast-out family become the victims of an unknown evil deriving from the large forest beside their newly-resided farm. Their tormentors come in the form of a rabbit, a goat, but also through the possession of the children, ruffing up the already shaky dynamics of the family. Eldest daughter Thomasin (the excellent Anya Taylor-Joy) appears to take the brunt of the blame here, several times named as a witch by her own kin, all the while the origin of such horrors is not too far away.

Making his debut, Robert Eggers delivers a classic genre fit, writing a screenplay rife with local, olde dialect and ways of life. The Witch brings the danger from the woods formula back to life following a whole host of wannabes and duds. Eggers is totally at home here, crafting some really eerie inner-family conflict and unseen potential perils, as told with such a steady, reliant pace. Without giving too much away for those that have not yet seen this, there are some genuinely frightful moments too, including a crazed animal attack and a boy not in control of his own body and mind. The final moments, when blood is shed and the true revelation comes to light, is an extraordinary climax.

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Under the Shadow is an authentic, atmospheric film showing us horror in its abstract demons (the Djinn), and through the social turmoil of the war between Iraq and Iran in the late 1980s. Produced in the UK, the film is written and directed with masterful technique by Iranian-born Babak Anvari (also his first feature), and was the rare UK submission for this year’s Foreign Language Film – sinfully not selected in the end. The tried and tested tale of a mother attempting to protect her child is portrayed in Under the Shadow with such a unique, natural flavor and poise, it is scene-for-scene unmissable. Set in war-torn Tehran, Shideh and her young daughter Dorsa experience some spooky goings-on, not least when an undetonated missile crashes through the apartment building.

Amidst the horrors, the suspense, surrounded by war, Under the Shadow is also about a woman restricted by her own culture, unable to continue her studies because of her political views, struggling to be on the same page as her husband, and finding unease with Dorsa’s current behavior. Actress Narges Rashidi plays Shideh with such commanding conviction, and she is aided and abetted by sprightly youngster Avin Manshadi as Dorsa. Anvari’s writing and directing are both superb, an assured debut, Under the Shadow is carefully constructed in story-telling and technique, while featuring some fine inner-apartment photography, sound design, and efficient editing. One of the year’s very finest.

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