KVIFF 2022: Iranian Horror 'Zalava' is a Thrilling Supernatural Fable
by Alex Billington
July 3, 2022
Everyone is familiar with the concept of Schrödinger's cat, right? Is there a cat in the box, or not? Here's the formal definition: "In quantum mechanics, Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment that illustrates a paradox of quantum superposition… a hypothetical cat may be considered simultaneously both alive and dead as a result of its fate being linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur." How can this apply to a horror script? Well, you have to watch and find out. Zalava is a horror film from Iran that completely rocked me at a midnight screening at the 2022 Karlovy Vary Film Festival. I am just catching up with it now after it first premiered at the 2021 Venice & Toronto Film Festivals last fall. Holy hell I'm glad I didn't read anything about this before, because it's a thrilling experience to discover exactly how they have crafted a brilliant Schrödinger's cat horror about a demonic force threatening a remote village in Kurdistan.
All I really want to do is rave about this film and talk about it (once you've seen it!) and get everyone else I know that loves horror to watch it, too. It don't want to get into any details, but I have to because how else can I write this review. Zalava is the feature directorial debut of this Iranian filmmaker named Arsalan Amiri, who also co-wrote the script with Tahmineh Bahramalian and Ida Panahandeh. This happens often with film festival premieres, but I am in awe that this is a feature debut. This filmmaker has the talent to pull off some incredible cinematic ideas, and the tension and chills in every scene impressed the hell out of me. The biggest complaint I have is that the sound design and sound mix is awful. There's a horse noise for a donkey at one point, and footsteps and even breathing are annoyingly exaggerated and sometimes out of sync. But strangely this gives it a vintage 70s / 80s genre film vibe that doesn't ruin it at all, it's part of the experience. Not every film can be perfect, and some of your all-time favorites probably have flaws like this.
The main character in Zalava is also interestingly the antagonist, a stern local policeman named Masoud Ahmadi, played by Navid Pourfaraj. His foe is actually the protagonist, a local exorcist / demon catcher named Amardan, played perfectly by Pouria Rahimi Sam. All the locals love Amardan, because he helps them get rid of a demon (or demons?) that come back every year and haunt this tiny town that was built by gypsies centuries ago. But the police don't like him, and Masoud thinks he's a scam, some charlatan trying to make money off of the locals and the local government, by "pretending" to get rid of this demon. But is there really a demon? Is he really pretending? Who is the scammer in this story? That's part of the mystery and intrigue of Zalava, and I love how they build up the concept and let it play out with a certain object that becomes the center of attention within the film. Sometimes simplicity rules, and here the filmmakers handle that simplicity perfectly giving it a life of its own with the most basic of props. Cinematic magic at its best.
The whole time I was watching this it reminded me of The Thing, and I kept thinking this entire movie is John Carpenter level good. Not only with how raw the story is presented, how authentic the characters are, but with how the tension builds within the scenes through dialogue and conversations. Once it got going with this special prop I was hooked, completely, and in for the crazy ride ahead. Non-stop tension and every scene as clever as the last. I am sure this kind of film will piss of some viewers, but I loved watching this, I was all with it. Even when I thought I knew what was about to happen next, I was excited to keep watching and find out, caught up in the filmmaking and the thrill of this story. I hope with more time, more will find and enjoy this fantastic Iranian horror film and discover how remarkably clever it is with its Schrödinger's cat concept. It might end up a cult classic. It definitely deserves the acclaim, that's for sure. Amardan rules!!