The best Halloween film fright: the Iranian-set chiller “Under the Shadow”

A supernatural menace loose in war-torn 1980s Tehran might be the scariest thing on theater screens this weekend

When they’re good, horror movies can be, pardon the phrase, scary good. The problem is sorting out the wheat from the chaff. They’re easy to make—just set a gaggle of hapless, horny teens loose in a spooky forest or abandoned house and you’re pretty much set. But they’re extremely hard to make well, and, to be honest, horror audiences sometimes aren’t the most discriminating of fans.

That’s why it’s helpful each year when Halloween comes around and cinema screens are awash in bloody (or just merely creepy) revivals. These titles are time-tested and fright-fan approved, and almost always more fun when seen with an appreciative crowd. Before we get to those, though, I want to spotlight what might be the best horror movie of 2016 (and, no, it’s not “Oujia: Origin of Evil,” although to be honest I haven’t seen “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and can’t imagine I will, so who knows…)

Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi in "Under the Shadow"

Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi in “Under the Shadow”

It’s called “Under the Shadow,” which, granted, is a pretty generic horror movie title. But nothing else about director Babak Anvari’s debut feature, which opens Friday at the Living Room Theaters, conforms to expectations. The movie is set in Tehran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. In an early scene, a woman named Shideh (Narges Rashidi) learns that, because of left-wing political activity during the Iranian Revolution, she will never be allowed to finish medical school. Back home, a frustrated Shideh spars with her husband and demonstrates impatience with her young daughter Dorsa.

When Shideh’s husband, a doctor, is called up for military service, he orders her to take Dorsa and flee the city, which is under frequent Iraqi missile attack. Fed up with being told what to do by men, she stays in their apartment, which is soon struck by a rocket and damaged.

That’s when things get interesting. Dorsa’s beloved doll goes missing, as does Shideh’s samizdat Jane Fonda workout videotape. The child blames invisible creatures she calls ‘djinn,’ and from here on out the movie shares some DNA with the 2014 Australian film “The Babadook.” Mom tries to figure out whether the kid is making stuff up, hallucinating, or actually engaging with some sort of supernatural badness. Things get creepier and more claustrophobic—the stultifying apartment block and perpetually cracked ceiling recall Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.”

By combining horror movie tropes with an explicit criticism of the repressive regime, Anvari makes you wonder exactly what the titular shadow is that Shideh must live under. (The film is actually a British-led multinational co-production, and was filmed in Jordan, since there’s no way the Iranian government would allow it to be shot in Tehran.) Anvari also makes excellent use of minimal special effects, imbuing duct tape and even a seemingly ordinary bed sheet with auras of real menace.

But back to those revivals. Tops on the list would be “Eraserhead,” David Lynch’s nightmarish ode to impending fatherhood and radiators. One wonders what his daughter Jennifer thinks of it. It’s screening in 35mm at the Northwest Film Center on Friday, October 28th. If one wanted to make a full weekend of frightful flicks, one might then return to the Whitsell Auditorium the following night for the classic 1962 ghost story “The Innocents,” which stars Deborah Kerr in an adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turning of the Screw.” On Sunday (and Saturday, in fact), the Hollywood Theatre has “Rosemary’s Baby” in 35mm, which makes a nice parental-anxiety bookend with “Eraserhead” if you think about it.

The most intriguing Halloween booking, though, comes on the night itself, as the Hollywood shows the 1981 Canadian B-movie “The Pit.” Having only seen the trailer for this one, I can say that it’s about a 12-year-old boy whose teddy bear commands him commit murders by tossing innocent people (including an old lady) into a monster-filled hole in the middle of the forest. It’s been accurately described as being shot like an after-school special, and appears to allow its juvenile protagonist to indulge in some pretty distasteful behavior, like trying to seduce his attractive babysitter.

If those choices aren’t sufficient, there’s always John Carpenter’s “Halloween” at the Academy Theater, the Swedish kid-vampire classic “Let the Right One In” at the Laurelhurst Theater, the 1982 version of “Cat People” with Malcolm McDowell and Natassja Kinski at PSU’s 5th Avenue Cinema, or the silent Lon Chaney version of “The Phantom of the Opera,” with live organ accompaniment, on Saturday afternoon at the Hollywood.

And if all that isn’t enough to send chills up your spine, next week is the election!

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