Genre: Horror, Thriller
Directed by: Babak Anvari
Starring: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi
Haunted apartment buildings, eerie bedtime apparitions, ghostly goings-on – these are all the makings of a cliché-ridden horror film. However, Under the Shadow avoids becoming stuck in the standard plot scares and predictable ‘twists’ so common in modern horror, and writer/director Babak Anvari injects fresh energy into the genre’s stale trappings.
Narges Rashidi plays Shideh, a mother living in Tehran with her husband, a doctor, and young daughter, Dorsa. Beneath the seeming safety and security of their loving and respectable home life lies barely buried regrets and anxieties, most notably with Shideh, who we first see being rejected from reapplying to medical school – a rejection owing to her past political activism – in the wake of her mother’s recent death. However, these characters’ personal troubles almost pale in comparison to the unease and fear pervading Tehran. In the midst of the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s, the city is not only under near constant threat of aerial bombardment from Iraqi forces, but is still caught up in the aftermath of the revolution from less than a decade before. These circumstances, enough to strain physical as well as mental well-being, are fuel for Under the Shadow’s terrorising, and terrifying, foes: the djinn.These sinister creatures, neither spectral apparitions nor flesh-and-blood beings, latch onto their victims and weaken them by taking something they hold dear. Anvari delves deep into this mythology, and creates a unique, well-executed story that twists the typical horror tale into something more profound – focusing on the fear of the unknown, and how anxieties about the past continue to impact the present.
Under the Shadow may be about a haunted building first and foremost, but it is also a film about women’s roles, and the suppression of women’s freedoms, in the patriarchal society of post-Revolution Iran. Rashidi carries this film spectacularly as Shideh, the weary yet resilient hero, who in one striking scene must flee her home with daughter in tow, only to be stopped and hauled away by police for failing to wear her chador. The men, who under other circumstances might protect her from danger, serve to reinforce the claustrophobic and oppressive state Shideh finds herself in.
Blending ancient folk stories and tales of supernatural terror with family dysfunction, struggle and contemporary warfare, Under the Shadow is an absorbing, unnerving film. Its scenes are pervaded by quiet and stillness rather than flashy jump scares or CGI madness (although these are still present – fair warning, after watching this you may not want to sleep alone in your bed for a while). It may be a small, contained story, in essence, but it feels like a vastly important one.