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Blu-ray Review

Limited Edition Blu-ray Review: Under the Shadow (Dir. Babak Anvari, 2016)

In Two & Two (2011) – Babak Anvari’s BAFTA-nominated short allegorical film – a teacher (Bijan Daneshmand) attempts to re-educate his male pupils with some basic arithmetic, claiming that what they have always been taught is no longer true. The writer-director packs quite the punch with very little exposition and a whole lot of nuance when depicting the absurdity of an authoritarian regime/dictatorship. Which all bodes well when your next film – and first feature – is an effective little horror (and would become BAFTA award-winning in its own right). It is also a lovely touch to have that same actor play the University Dean who is responsible for shattering Shideh’s dreams of becoming a Doctor.

Under the Shadow is set in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and Shideh (Narges Rashidi) can no longer study medicine having been removed for her political beliefs. We are never party to what exactly her transgression is but suffice to say with the mention of ‘radical left groups’ she was – and probably still is – against the war that is currently waging in her country.

Once her chador is removed, we can ‘see’ some of her transgressions. Her hair cut (in a bob style), dress (westernised), and her autonomy around her home; the partnership with her husband, exercising to Jane Fonda. she’s also the only woman in the building who drives. This is a ‘modern’ woman, oppressed by external tradition and reduced to the confines of her four walls, and even those are not so secure with the shelling, daily explosions and air raids which can send residents into a panic at any given moment.

When her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) receives his draft notice, Shideh is left with her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) as, one by one, all her neighbours pack up and move onto safety. The exacerbating factor a shell crashing through the roof of their building, killing the elderly resident within and leaving a gaping hole. The hole is covered with a sheet which appears to undulate in the wind like a bodily organ, flapping in and out like a heartbeat. A visual metaphor of a damaged culture, while the cracks in the ceiling – it can be argued – relate to Shideh’s psyche. Ever increasingly isolated, Shideh and Dorsa begin to experience things which may be the product of a child’s imagination or something altogether more supernatural.

Djinn is a malevolent spirit which has its history in Early Arabia and then later in Islamic mythology and theology. An entity that travels on the wind until it finds somebody to possess. Often dismissed as a superstitious belief, the spirit is reported to enjoy the souls of children (much like Krampus in European culture, or el Cuco in Latin America). It may explain Dorsa’s fever or not, after all Shideh was also once a child. Evil wants to hurt them alleges one neighbour while another, Mrs. Fakur (Soussan Farrokhnia), attempts to allay her friend’s fear: “people can convince themselves of anything if they want to”.

Tight framing adds to the oppressive atmosphere as mother and daughter’s fear and anxiety builds. Tension is slow-burning, and jump scares are few and far between yet effective when they do occur. There’s no score (music is only played during opening and closing credits) so is reliant upon diegetic noise and whistling winds. We’re never sure of the time of day given the constantly closed curtains and disturbed sleep patterns.

What appears to be mere moments gives the impression of hours. As people leave we can assume the passing of days and weeks yet the costumes of the leads mostly remain the same. Natural and artificial also play havoc with this, along with the production design: one location, open doors, hallways, and reflections in the television mean the constantly moving camera plays tricks with the eyes – was that something moving or not? Shideh’s lip is bruised from the constant biting, insecurity, anxiety, stress. Like all amazing genre films – nothing is ever quite how they appear and this film is all the better for it building beautifully the general sense of unease.

It seems apt that when she is preparing to fight, Shideh’s weapon of choice is a pair of scissors – as if tethered to a more domesticated past, her own mother’s apron strings or the chador in this instance. While the malevolent being appears to be set on persecution – even referring to the character as a ‘whore’ and ‘bad parent’ – it’s important to remember that Djinn is not inherently evil or good, and this entity could, at some point, be Shideh’s mother from beyond the grave.

A matriarch disappointed that her daughter will no longer practice medicine but needs to save her by forcing her to leave the building. Think back to the picture frame which houses Shideh’s mother’s portrait, the fractured glass obscuring the image within, it now laying down on the shelf hidden from view – but before that, the draped material serving as a backdrop in the photo is identical to the chador the entity embodies itself within. This reading further strengthens the mother-daughter links throughout, and the expectations a patriarchy levels at women, generally, but more so during the kind of regime in Tehran of the 80s.

As a first feature, Under the Shadow wears its influences well: Polanski’s apartment trilogy (Repulsion [1965], Rosemary’s Baby [1969], The Tenant [1976]) with a sprinkling of Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water via a domestic social realist drama in the ilk of Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi. It’s a rich and visually arresting film which checks all of the above as well as featuring, at its heart, a really affecting horror fable. A 1980s Tehran-set horror film filmed entirely in Farsi – the first of its kind.

Finally, it has been given the kind of release it deserves courtesy of Second Sight that includes plenty of extra features, including five new interviews with the filmmaker, cast and crew, as well as a lively commentary between Director Anvari and film critic Jamie Graham, in which every aspect of the film’s genesis, production and release is covered.

Extras

Two & Two (8:48) – Babak Anvari’s BAFTA-nominated short film shown in its entirety. It’s the one extra which can be watched before the main feature.

Escaping the Shadow (23:53) – A long interview with Anvari who begins with his own childhood nightmares growing up in 80s Iran before his move to Britain. He talks at length about the filmmaking process, his cast, shooting in Jordan and expands upon things mentioned in the commentary. He’s a delightful interviewee, and while it is not the most imaginatively filmed featurette, Anvari’s charisma shines through.

Within the Shadow (12:52) – Star of Under the Shadow, Narges Rashidi discusses her own childhood in Iran and Germany and career now she is LA based. She describes the film as a ‘beautiful gift’, and again, static camera and a by-the-book interview reveals an excitable and rather lovely person.

Forming the Shadow (16:11) – Lucan Toh and Oliver Roskill talk all things ‘producer’, how they met Babak, the script, the film’s potential and their brief disappointment at not having to sell the film when it premiered at Sundance. A lot of their anecdotes are repeated in the commentary track.

Shaping the Shadow (13:29) – Anvari’s close collaborator and DoP Kit Fraser talks about his involvement from before the script was even written.

Limited Edition Contents – This set is limited to just 2000 copies, comes in a rigid slipcase featuring new artwork by Christopher Shy and with a soft cover book with new essays by Jon Tovison and Daniel Bird (unavailable at time of review). Plus behind-the-scenes photos, concept illustrations, and a poster with new artwork.

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Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: Grey Gardens (Dir. Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, 1976)

The mother/daughter relationship is a profound one and not often placed under the microscope. In 1976, two filmmaker brothers Albert and David Maysles (co-directed by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer) chose to do just that with their documentary, Grey Gardens, which the Criterion Collection restored a few years back, and released on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK.

The Grey Gardens of the title is a 14-room house in the Georgica Pond neighbourhood of East Hampton, owned by Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her then-husband Phelan. Upon divorce, Phelan provided his wife, Big Edie and their daughter Little Edie with living costs. Once those funds had dried up, the house fell into disrepair and in ’72 the Suffolk County attempted to evict the two women and demolish the property. The press’ interest lay in whom the Beale’s were related to, one-time First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

Like with all documentaries, there is a level of manipulation, almost certainly, voyeurism and a vested interest in the subjects viewed. This is one of the few that appears to have no ulterior motive other than depicting Big Edie and Little Edie just as they are/were. It is a wonderfully weird piece of work; a character study of almost morbid fascination about privilege, crumbling Patriotism, and those two extraordinary women who thrived amongst reclusive squalor and the crumbling detritus of their lives.

There is a home-video quality to Grey Gardens which although beautifully restored still contains a graininess which adds to its authenticity and intimacy. Often filmed outside, the natural lighting means that colours within the frame are stunning as Little Edie takes centre stage in her colourful ensembles and jewellery adorned headscarves. At times, it is hard to avert one’s eyes from what is onscreen, their eccentricities are, initially, hard to comprehend but both women have such warmth and veracity that the audience is soon taken in. One of the most beautiful aspects of the film is the lack of narrative time – the only indication is the dilapidated wall within the large expanse of foyer in the house and the noticeable hole in the wall gets bigger as the raccoon they share the house with (along with some 52 feral cats) makes itself a home.

Observing these two amazing women are the Maysles brothers who strike up such a seemingly genuine rapport with our main ‘characters’ that it is truly a joy to experience. In one of the disc extras, within the confines of the
scrapbook, it is stated that: “A few years ago, two brothers fell in love with a mother and her daughter.” Thanks to Criterion’s 4K restoration of the original negative we get to experience this visually beautiful love story first hand, sound quality is sublime and the mono track reproduces Little Edie and her mater’s dulcet singing voice to perfection.

Grey Gardens shows us a tender, loving and, at times argumentative, mother-daughter relationship; full of ups and downs and yet their commitment to each other and their way of life never faltered. Both are unapologetically wonderful and weird in equal measure. We should all embrace a Little Edie.

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Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: Kill, Baby… Kill! (Dir. Mario Bava, 1966)

Dr Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart, papa of Kim) arrives somewhere in Eastern Europe at the behest of Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli) to perform the autopsy of Irene Hollander (Mirella Pamphili) whose death is burnt on our retinas during the opening credits. She is the latest in a long line of residents who die, all seemingly at their own hand, and yet something is nagging at the Inspector. The villagers themselves are suspicious of the medical outsider and do everything in their power to prevent a postmortem even enlisting the help of local witch Ruth (Fabienne Dali) to make the reparations for a peaceful afterlife and to counteract “the curse” inflicted by the creepy blonde child in white who likes to peer into windows. For the stoic and steadfast Doctor who is so initiated in the world of science, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to reconcile the rational amidst the supernatural, old superstitions, and his own eyes. He, along with Nurse Monica Schuftan (Erika Blanc) work together to unlock the secrets of the village, the eerie goings-on in the crumbling Villa Graps, and the history behind the reclusive Baroness (Giovanna Galletti) and her little girl Melissa (Valerio Valeri).

Mario Bava was a genius when it came to horror and the Gothic. He was a master of avoiding blood and gore, when needed, and often instead concentrated on building mood and atmosphere, through music, cinematography, special effects, and diegetic sound: echoing footsteps, squealing cats, and creaking doors were among his specialities, as well as the sublime use of lighting and coloured gels. He depicted fear and the emotional experience of it through an artistic subtlety few have been able to replicate. Bava transgressed the medium which left him unappreciated in his time, and his body of work often overlooked. Operazione paura or the US-monikered Kill, Baby… Kill! is a beautiful and enchanting piece of supernatural horror, atmospheric and credible in its Gothic tropes. Under the threat of death or no, Villa Graps is well worth the visit.

The Arrow Video label of Arrow Films has put together a great package celebrating this Gothic gem, one of a slew of Bava’s oeuvre which have been restored and made available to own including Black Sunday, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Black Sabbath, and Blood and Black Lace. Aside from the 2K restoration HD digital transfer, there is, as one has come to expect a whole host of additional treats besides.

The Devil’s Daughter: Bava and the Gothic Child (21 mins) – This in-depth audio essay written and narrated by Kat Ellinger is brilliant. She discusses Bava’s influence on contemporary filmmakers, specifically citing Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. In addition, she works her way through examples of Gothic literature and cinema, paying particular attention to the Gothic family, monstrous mother, and demonic child in relation to KBK as well as other films which followed and those which are indebted to Mario Bava and the character of Melissa Graps. A 2007 interview with Bava’s AD and son, Lamberto is the subject of Kill Baby Kill (25 mins) during which Bava Jr talks about working with his father and grandfather (Eugenio was also a special effects technician and cinematographer) and their collective interest and pursuit of the supernatural.

The whole documentary-style interview takes place in Calcata, Italy as Bava takes us on a tour of the village which was used as the location for KBK, through Villa Frascati which doubled for Villa Graps and discusses the fun they had recreating the cemetery (amongst other interiors and exteriors) on a sound stage. Erika in Fear (10 mins) – After introducing the main feature, Erika Blanc gives this lighthearted interview during which she describes her experiences on set and what it was like working with her director. Affectionate reminisces are abound as Blanc denounces cinema of today as being flat which is one of the reasons why audiences are only discovering Bava’s technically precise and professionally perfect films now; they’re not used to such vibrant colour.

Yellow (2006) (6 mins) – Semih Tareen’s short film and beautifully-hued love letter to the cinema of Mario Bava.

German Opening Titles (3:25) – in which orange text declares the title of the film Die toten Augen des Dr. Dracula – odd, given Dracula’s nowhere to be found.

International Trailer (2:32)

Photocomic – 68 slides break down the vintage photocomic book, in which every frame is depicted in comic book cells. This was originally published in Film Horreur in 1976 and provided by Uwe Huber.

Image Gallery – 28 slides show the German posters and lobby cards – which Erika Blanc works her way through in her interview – again provided by Uwe Huber.

New audio commentary – provided by Tim Lucas, author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark.

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys.

First pressing only: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by critic Travis Crawford.

Region: B/2|Rating 15|Language: Italian/English|Subtitles: English/English SDH|Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1|Audio: Mono|Colour|Discs: 2