Ahead of this week’s special screenings of Under The Shadow in our Discover Tuesdays programme Paul Ridd, London Cinemas and Acquisitions Coordinator and Discover Tuesdays programmer, spoke to BIFA-winning director Babak Anvari about his influences and the film’s resonances with our A Warning To The Curious strand this Christmas.
PR: Watching Under The Shadow, it struck us that the motif of the malevolent bed sheet that featured prominently felt like a direct homage to Whistle And I’ll Come To You, was this a self-conscious reference?
BA: Yes it was for sure. I am a big fan of the story and I think the 1968 TV adaptation is genuinely very creepy. I read the short story and found it genuinely eerie.
PR: And Dickens, are you a reader of his work, his ghost stories? The Signalman and A Christmas Carol are pretty dark stories full of ghostly apparitions and the return of a repressed past – were you thinking about these kind of Western references when you were putting Under The Shadow together?
BA: I haven’t read The Signalman but A Christmas Carol is a very dark tale. It’s almost too dark for Christmas. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about Dickens for Under The Shadow but I certainly had many Western references like M. R. James, Henry James and Shirley Jackson.
PR: There are long-haired girls, cyclical curses, troubled parent-child relationships and ancient demons in James’s work which are seen everywhere in J-Horror. Dark Water (screening in the season) feels like a big influence on Under The Shadow – was that film and J-Horror something you thought about when making the film?
BA: J-Horror was a huge inspiration! I love how Japanese filmmakers use the popular myths in their country to create outstanding and terrifying modern horror films. So I thought maybe I could do that with my motherland, Iran. The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water were certainly some of my references.
PR: There’s a specificity of course about Under the Shadow, where your characters are in time and space and the scenario faced by the two female leads. But it feels like so many of the tropes are diverse, so many of the filmic and literary influences come from so many different places – it’s an uncanny effect. Was this self-conscious, do you think of the film as kind of universal in that sense in the way that Gothic horror is so often about specific places but universal ideas?
BA: That’s exactly it. To be honest I think Under The Shadow is a very gothic tale but in a different and new setting. We’re in 1980s Tehran rather than, for example, Victorian England. That’s what really excited me about this story.
PR: What are your other key influences from a horror writing and filmmaking perspective?
BA: I’d say other influences for Under The Shadow were early Polanski films like Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion and The Tenant. Also Del Toro films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Robert Wise’s The Haunting (based on a novel by Shirley Jackson) and ultimately many urban Iranian myths about djinn.