Toronto After Dark 2016 Begins with Two of the Year’s Best Horror Films

We take a look at Under the Shadow and Trash Fire.

Genre film festivals are often among my favorites because they focus on the kind of movies typically absent from theaters ‐ the odd, the disturbing, the foreign. Film lovers in Toronto know what I’m talking about as tonight marks the start of the 11th Annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival.

Nine nights of features and shorts celebrating the dark and the weird begins tonight, and while I’m not there physically I’m there in spirit. The two films playing tonight are Under the Shadow and Trash Fire, and my reviews of both are below.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2016 runs October 13–21, follow our coverage here.

Under the Shadow

It’s not uncommon for horror films to feature subtext amid the terror, but that commentary is typically a side note to the prevailing carnage and scares. Sometimes though that subtext moves beyond its constraints to become the true weight of the nightmare before us. Films like It Follows and The Babadook succeed as pure genre exercises complete with spooky thrills, but their power rests in the fear of an uncertain future or the devastating effect of grief ‐ thoughts that move off screen to follow audiences home into the real world.

Writer/director Babak Anvari’s feature debut, Under the Shadow, belongs in their company and in that conversation.

Shideh (Narges Rashidi) left medical school during Iran’s Cultural Revolution to protest and work for a better country, but five years later she’s still paying the price. The university tells her in no uncertain terms that she’ll never be allowed to continue her studies. Housewife and mother seem to be her only options, and it’s a frustrating existence marred further by the distant bombings that have been steadily inching closer to Tehran since the start of the Iran/Iraq war. When her husband Iraj, a successful doctor, is drafted into service closer to the fighting, Shideh is left to care for her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), but soon a new nightmare arrives with the wind.

A bomb pierces the roof of the apartment above them, and while it fails to detonate it succeeds in letting something else in. A neighbor warns Shideh that a Djinn has taken up residence and that the spirits mark their victims by stealing something of value, but as the building’s occupants evacuate over the next few days Shideh is forced to stay because Dorsa’s favorite doll has gone missing.

Under the Shadow’s supernatural element is executed with great restraint at first, only blossoming fully in the third act, and Anvari explores that terror in various ways. There are the typical jump scares here complete with loud noises, and some work better than others, but the far more effective sequences are terrifyingly revealing and beautifully composed. It’s easy to make viewers jump, but more than once this is a film that gives you serious chills.

What makes this more than “just a scary movie” though is its exploration of life in 1980’s Iran. It’s a frightening place for all ‐ they even have to hide their VCR and Jane Fonda workout tapes from neighbors so they don’t get reported ‐ but for women each day is something of a restrictive nightmare. The supernatural terror is one thing, but Shideh must also contend with a male-dominated religious state. One scene sees her fleeing the apartment with Dorsa in her arms but no hijab on her head, and she’s quickly arrested instead of helped. “A woman should be scared of exposing herself more than anything else,” she’s told, and it’s clear that Djinn or not, she’s slowly being forced into a corner by terror. The idea of a spirit that takes possession of your soul translates easily to a theocracy claiming ownership of your body and mind.

The evil spirits come on the wind, and as Shideh learns, where there’s fear and anxiety the winds blow. Her world is nothing but fear and anxiety ‐ stress, marital friction, and the image of a literal bomb hang over her head ‐ and Rashidi’s performance exudes a women constantly struggling between fight or flight. She’s already been punished for trying to change the system, and now her efforts to protect her daughter seem fruitless yet again. Rashidi shows us that conflict in what to believe and what to do, and you can’t help but fear for her and her daughter’s well-being. Manshadi proves to be a compelling and capable child actor too and challenges her mother without ever reaching the point of annoyance for viewers.

Under the Shadow gives us something to fear and something to think about, and that’s two more things than most horror films can claim.

[Note: My review of Under the Shadow originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.]

Trash Fire

Tone is as important an element in genre film as any other, and never more so than with horror/comedies. Even the good ones typically lean too heavy in one direction or the other making for a film that’s either funny without being scary or frightening without landing the laughs. The best example remains John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London as it delivers big with both the humor and the emotional thrills.

Richard Bates Jr.’s new film, his third, won’t find that same kind of mass appeal, but Trash Fire is easily one of the best and most tonally effective horror/comedies in recent years. It’s laugh out loud funny at times, but then it hits you like a goddamn sledgehammer.

Owen (Adrian Grenier) is in something of a rut. It’s a pattern mostly of his own design consisting of excessive drinking, daily bulimic bathroom visits, the occasional seizure, and an irredeemably rude attitude towards those around him. He’s in therapy for his issues, but it might be too little too late to save his three-year relationship with his girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur). He has baggage, like most people, but his involves the guilt of accidentally starting a fire as a teenager that killed both his parents and severely burned his younger sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord). He ran away from home and never looked back, but now in the hopes of making it work with Isabel he agrees that they should pay a visit to patch things up with Pearl and his grandmother, Violet (Fionnula Flanagan).

That synopsis has something of a “tragic indie dramedy” feel to it, but while those three descriptors apply here individually the whole is another beast all together. The film ‐ the first third in particular ‐ is a wickedly funny introduction to Owen’s life complete with biting, acerbic dialogue and brutal take-downs. Matthew Gray Gubler, as Isabel’s brother Caleb, is described as “a beige earthworm,” and I’m still laughing at the resulting facial expressions. It’s the kind of film where a sincere reconciliation begins with the line “I couldn’t sleep last night, so I wrote your obituary.”

So what makes it a horror film? There’s a darkly emotional undercurrent to the laughs, and the rude hilarity slowly gives way to raw truths, murderous reveals, and the realization that a desire to be a better person isn’t enough to guarantee happiness. We quickly grow to like these characters, and as our increased affection is paired with an increased concern the darkness bubbling beneath the relationships begins to seep out as guilt, rage, and madness push it all to the surface.

Bates finds visual and atmospheric terror in his drawn out introduction to Pearl as well. She hides her face from view, spies on Isabel, and reminds at times of Pet Sematary’s Zelda. She’s a tragic figure who terrifies in her pained reality. Humor still exists in the film’s back half, but it grows grimmer and less frequent as the desperation level increases among them all to the point where we know something has to give.

There’s a far from subtle disdain for religion here, mostly of the fundamentalist variety, in both the grandmother and Isabel’s brother, but while they’re slightly exaggerated the oppression they emit is not. There’s a truth to the issues and accusations here as sexuality, masculinity, choice, and intention all come under attack. The film treats them seriously despite moments of goofiness and terror, and it works to create characters with more depth and ambition than genre fare typically strives for.

Trash Fire entertains with laughs and thrills, but it also leaves you with an unexpected weight on your chest.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2016 runs October 13–21, follow our coverage here.